BY CARY GINELL
When Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is unveiled this Friday evening at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Scherr Forum, audiences will be treated to one of the most outrageously funny farces ever to hit the Broadway stage. The show made Zero Mostel a star, but over the years, it has also been a vehicle for other over-the-top talents like Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane. With a book written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, the score was the first that was solely written by Stephen Sondheim. In his book, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim explained how difficult to write, yet ultimately satisfying the show was for him.
As a student of Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim ascribed to the notion that a song in a Broadway musical should be treated like a sonata, consisting of a statement, development, and recapitulation. Songs were meant to propel the action forward and, in Hammerstein’s immortal musicals with Richard Rodgers, used to intensify a moment or advance the story. Sondheim had faced a dilemma, however, because Forum was a farce, which, by definition, meant that its characters were not meant to be fleshed out, they were deliberately one-dimensional. Forum‘s broadly defined characters could be described as one-adjective/one-noun personalities: the conniving slave, the lecherous husband, the braggart warrior, etc. As a result, the songs performed by these cartoon characters had no reason to have any depth, nor any subtext or resonance.
In addition, since the book is so rife with jokes, puns, and comical uses of ancient Roman idioms, Sondheim reasoned that audiences needed spaces to catch their collective breaths from all the unrestrained hilarity. Thus, he constructed his songs as respites from the comedy, a throwback to the one-idea songs that occurred in musicals before the Rodgers & Hammerstein revolution. “I don’t think that farces can be transformed into musicals without damage,” Sondheim explained. “The tighter the plotting the better the farce, but the better the farce, the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains; musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going.” This is why you will hear most of the songs in Act I of Forum, while, as the action hurtles toward the end of Act II, you will find fewer and fewer songs interrupting the comic mayhem.
Hammerstein taught Sondheim that opening numbers can make or break a musical. Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” is one of the most brilliantly inventive, hilariously staged opening numbers in the history of musical comedy. The song is a telephone directory, a rhymed laundry list describing the upcoming anarchy that would make Cole Porter proud. When the show opened in New Haven, Connecticut, the opening number was a song called “Love Is in the Air,” which adequately described the show, but was received with indifference from audiences. After consulting with director/producer Jerome Robbins, Sondheim realized that “Love Is in the Air” telegraphed a light rather than a low comedy. “Tell the audience what the show is about,” Sondheim remembered Hammerstein telling him, and he proceeded to write a brand new song, still hummable, as “Love Is in the Air” was, but now delivering the potent, blatant, and straightforward message that Forum was not a gracefully filigreed show, but elegantly vulgar. “Love Is in the Air” was dropped and “Comedy Tonight” became the show’s hit opening number. The result changed what was headed toward an unmitigated disaster in the making into a three-year-long hit on Broadway.
So when you watch A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, listen to how Sondheim ingeniously wove his songs into the fabric of the action, in direct opposition to the lessons he had learned from Hammerstein about character development and forwarding the action. The songs in Forum are one-dimensional, single-joke laundry lists that perfectly reflect the broadly drawn characters. They would be, as Sondheim as admitted, the most difficult songs he ever wrote, but among the most satisfying.
Cabrillo Music Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays for three weekends, beginning Friday, January 29. See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes.