Not much in musical theatre is totally foolproof, even the stuff you remember as foolproof. I remember, as a young songwriter having just written a genuine showstopper of a number that was soon to be performed, popping off to one of my mentors that people would "have to try very hard to screw it up." His response was to caution me against such hubris. "I have," he said, "seen everything from `Summertime' to the Carousel `Soliloquy' come to naught..." And in the ensuing years since that sobering warning, so have I. The flawed concept of a director, an inappropriately cast performer, an inept choreographer, bad lighting...any number of things can mitigate against a moment working, let alone a show. That's only one of the reasons why the business of making musicals is so hard.
Yet there are two shows that seem to persist in being impervious to damage. The first, and most indestructible, is "Guys and Dolls", revived on Broadway in 1992. Coming up a close second is "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", currently in revival at the St. James Theatre. Interestingly, both revivals were directed by Jerry Zaksand as if to illustrate the point, his "Guys and Dolls" was wildly misconceived, while his "Forum" is, for the most part right on target. And both revivals are/were stunning successes.
Probably the reason Zaks' "Forum" works so well is precisely the reason his "Guys and Dolls" was so infuriating. The latter is a warm show, and Zaks had leeched the heart out of it, rendering it cold and comic book-y. Meanwhile, "Forum" is a piece for vaudevillians, based on the plays of Plautus. It isn't about heart, it's about belly-laughs. It's just fine on its own, and yet it welcomes almost anything you can do to embellish it. Subsequently, Zaks can throw the kitchen sink at itwhich occasionally he doesand it cheerily cooperates with the excess.
Another reason "Forum" is so notable is the fact that it is the only musical farce ever produced that genuinely works. Indeed, librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and then-young composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim (for whom "Forum" was his first produced outing as composer/lyricist and not just lyricist) spent eight years getting it right prior to its 1962 Broadway premiere. Why should musical farce be so difficult, and why should "Forum" be singular?
For one thing, farce is plot driven, musicals are character driven. Plot depends upon the machinations of events, dry information that is rarely (in and of itself) the stuff of songs. Characters, though, sing about feelings, ambitions, needs. Furthermore, even if you stop a farce plot to let the characters sing about themselves (as "Forum" does), you have to do it in such a way that you don't incur audience impatience when you bring the show to a halt. More still...the stakes have to be high enough to care about and be worthy of song. Your average Feydeau door-slammer is too light a confection to bear the weight of musicalization.
But "Forum", despite its surface silliness, manages to be about something too. Taking place 200 years before the Christian era, on a street in ancient Rome, its hero is a slave, Pseudolous (Nathan Lane), desperate to buy his freedom (and the desire to be free is of course primal and singable). His master, young Hero (Jim Stanek) will give Pseudolous his freedom, if the slave can get him the one special girl he is in love with (you can sing about love too). Alas, this girl, a virgin named Philia (Jessica Boevers), resides within the house of Marcus Lycus (Ernie Sabella), a buyer and seller of courtesans. (Can Lycus sing about the virtues of his merchandise? But of course: and they can dance illustratively. Again, don't forget, this is not just a song about the pleasures of the flesh. This is a song about the pleasures of the flesh sung to a slave who can only purchase one girl for a boy who is in love so that the boy will give the slave his freedom. The brilliance of the show's structure is that it's all cumulative. But wait: it gets better.)
Philia is not for sale, though, having been promised to another buyer. Which means Pseudolous must trick Lycus into releasing Philia, must blackmail his fellow slave, the groveling Hysterium (Mark Linn-Baker) into using Hero's home to house the virgin while his parentshenpecked, lecherous Senex (Lewis J. Stadlen) and domineering Domina (Mary Testa)are away. Which also means Pseudolous must eventually outwit the aforementioned buyer, the notoriously hotheaded warrior, Miles Gloriosus (Cris Groenendaal). Because if he fails, Miles Gloriosus will kill him.
That's the secret. Right there. Aside from wit, taste and artistry, that arc illustrates the structural reason why "Forum" manages the hat trick no one else has ever pulled off. Because Pseudolous has a noble character driven objectiveand because events get so tangled that the only alternative to getting what he wants...is death. Not only are the stakes high enough for the audience to care about...but the nobility of the hero keeps the farce from ever being mean-spirited.
An additional hallmark of this particular production is the mileage Zaks and company get out of knowing how familiar many of us are with the show; so there is some brilliant schtick right at the top, in the opening number "Comedy Tonight" which takes us totally by surprise, and throws off our expectations just enough to let us know that while we may be going to the same place we went last time, the ride itself will indeed, as the lyric says, be "something familiar, something peculiar."
Another interesting aspect of this production is howby accident or designthe casting and playing styles acknowledge the passage of time.
Originally, as I say, "Forum" was a piece for vaudevillians, schtickmeisters from the Borscht Belt and comedy clubs, and extreme character types. Its original players included Mostel, Gilford, John Carradine, David Burns; an early 70s revival included Phil Silvers (the authors' original choice for the role), Nancy Walker, Mort Marshall and Carl Ballentine.
The above is an interesting list of players to contemplate for the following reason: Ballentine aside, they're all dead. That particular generation of comedy is almost entirely gone from the face of the earth, along with their particular sensibility and personality, preserved now only on record, on film...and in memory.
So Zaks (and, I assume, Sondheim and Gelbart had a hand too) has cast a mostly younger groupyounger in spirit anyway. They don't reflect the music hall and Burlesque sensibility because that isn't their heritage...so they bring a more contemporary energy to it. The energy of the well-made, low-comedy sitcom. The performances are streamlined and sleeker, the touch a bit lighter and a tad more cerebral. (As Hysteriumcompare the image of craggy, smoky voiced old timer Jack Gilford with that of the current Hysterium: round-cheeked, baby-faced Mark-Linn Baker, aka "cousin" Larry Appleton on TV's "Perfect Strangers". The 1962 performance was one of ineradicable persona; the current one a brilliant character actor's turnand one of the best things in the show.)
This is especially true of Nathan Lane's Pseudolous. Though he does bridge the generation gap with the most sublime mugging, pratfalls and double-whammy takes, he's also a naughtier, more contemporary Pseudolous than Mostel or Silvers, reflecting his era in nuance. (E.g. In the opening number, he throws a doll, representing a baby, into the wings. At the performance I saw, he miscalculated: the doll bounced off the proscenium arch and back onto the stage. The audience reacted both to the symbolisma doll-child hitting a wall still makes you think of a real child hitting a walland to the gaffe. What would Lane do? He picked up the doll, looked out into the house and said, "No babies were harmed in tonight's performance." Huge applause, he flung the doll offstage and continued. What's notable here is that the ad liba recognizable variation of "No animals were harmed in the filming of tonight's episode"is a teevee ad lib, and a nod to political correctness, reflecting our culture and the way we live now.)
The casting falls a bit short at times. Mary Testa doesn't have a handle on Domina, so she works it too hard and the laboring makes the role less funny. Also, Cris Groenendaal, though physically right for the warrior Miles, is miscast. The role seems to want a true baritone, while Mr. Groenendaal is more of a tenor, and thus his songs, such as "Bring Me My Bride" sound too light of timbre to be fully effective. But the real reason he's miscast is that he's not particularly funny. He has a sweetness and a sense of humor that has served him in other rolesbut a flair for comedy, for timing, for making a joke land: that, alas, no.
All the others, though, even the ingenues, have a no-nonsense sense of nonsense. Set and costume designer Tony Walton has contributed numerous delightful sight gags, Rob Marshall sillyand for the courtesans sexychoreography; and there are new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Often, Mr. Tunick takes his lead from the originals, by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, which used no high strings, a subtle homage to the hard, low comedy of the evening. But Mr. Tunick occasionally departs from their template, doing something more elegant, and indeed bringing violins into the mix. The sound is not a radical departurehe hasn't rearranged Mr. Sondheim's music, merely re-orchestratedand might not be right for every production; but it fits the sensibility of this production quite nicely.
The Sondheim score is as indestructible as the show itself; in its last Broadway revival, it picked up two songs ("Echo Song" and "Farewell") and dropped two ("Pretty Little Picture" and "That'll Show Him"). This version goes back to the original 1962 song roster, though "Pretty Little Picture" is eliminated. (It's my favorite song in the score, but I must admit that somehow, in the Zaks staging, it would seem superfluous and slow down the antics.)
The Gelbart-Shevelove libretto is also mind-bogglingly fresh. I thought I heard interpolated lines in this revival, went back to the original script and...lo and behold, there they were, so vital as to seem anachronistic thirty years later.
All of us who write musicals want to write a hit...Imagine, though, what it must be like to write a warhorse.
In any event, get yourself down to the St. James Theatre. Where for two and a half hours you can at least ride one. A foolproof one. With the fools to prove it...
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