Monday, November 05, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 35: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1962) (Stephen Sondheim)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life: 


First performed: 1962, Alvin Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1999, Open Air Regents Park, London
Productions seen: two

Score: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart
Plot:  Pseudolus, a slave in Ancient Rome, agrees to help his master's son get the girl of his dreams in exchange for his freedom - but the road to liberty never runs smooth...   

Five memorable numbers: COMEDY TONIGHT, EVERYBODY OUGHT TO HAVE A MAID, PRETTY LITTLE PICTURE, THAT'LL SHOW HIM, FREE

The original 1962 FORUM won an impressive six Tony Awards, but one contributor got nothing... composer Stephen Sondheim.  Yes, it won Best Musical but that is for the overall production: Shevelove and Gelbart won for their riotous book, George Abbott won for his direction, Zero Mostel and David Burns won for their performances, Harold Prince won Best Musical producer... but the score? Nothing.  It can be argued that it was a crowded field that year: nominations went to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh for LITTLE ME, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for STOP THE WORLD - I WANT TO GET OFF and, the eventual winner, Lionel Bart for OLIVER! - but a nomination for BRAVO GIOVANNI, a vehicle for opera singer Cesare Siepi?  You would think that Sondheim could comfort himself with his Best Score awards for WEST SIDE STORY or GYPSY - wrong!  The Score Award was discontinued from 1952 to 1962.  He would finally be nominated for Best Score with his next show DO I HEAR A WALTZ?, small comfort for what had been a difficult process writing with Richard Rodgers.  Not that FORUM was a breeze either; rewrites, recasting and the baffling out-of-town lukewarm response.  But Sondheim concentrated on the form of the piece and ditched most of his generic musical comedy songs and, in particular, changed the opening song from the whimsical LOVE IS IN THE AIR to the barnstorming COMEDY TONIGHT and hey presto, a hit was born.  The adage that you can't have a good musical without a good book is proved by Gelbart and Shevelove's excellent writing - based on plays by Plautus - which provides a solid base for the capering, light-hearted songs and the farcical characters.  The role of 'Pseudolus' is a Tony Award magnet on Broadway: Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane have all played it and have all won Best Actor in a Musical.  No such luck for London productions but the two revivals I have seen have had barnstorming performances from Roy Hudd at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 1999 and Desmond Barrit at the Olivier Theatre in 2004   About time for another revival I reckon...

I was going to choose a clip from Richard Lester's 1966 film version but it is woefully dated despite the involvement of original stars Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, so instead here is a glorious version of EVERYBODY OUGHT TO HAVE A MAID from the 2010 Proms tribute to Sondheim with a perfect imaginary revival cast of Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans, Julian Ovendon and Bryn Terfel - I love this!

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