April 21, 1996
A Funny Thing is Happening on Broadway Again
A. Ridley, Inquirer Theater Critic
NEW YORK - Can it really be 34 years since
Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim cobbled together some
2,000-year-old plots by Plautus, decked them out in the world views of burlesque
and the Marx Brothers, and gave the world A Funny Thing Happened on the Way
to the Forum?
It scarcely seems that long, perhaps
because there was something out of time about the madcap musical farce that
starred Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, the Roman slave who wins his freedom by
uniting two empty-headed young lovers. Although they continue to speak to
us today, such musicals as Showboat, Carousel and Company
nonetheless resonate in historical contexts; each is a recognizable product of
its age. But Forum was sui generis; it had no predecessors and
spawned no imitations. It didn't have to be created in 1962; it
And in Zero Mostel, it had a star of such
overwhelming presence that he remains remarkably fresh in memory. This may
account for the fact that while Forum is often reprised by amateur and
semipro companies, its only Broadway revival was a 1972 production starring Phil
Silvers; for whom the Pseudolus role was originally written -- and who,
unwisely, turned it down.
As musical comedy gave way to musical theater,
with its emphasis on ensemble and concept, the form developed few stars who
could stand up to the recollection of Mostel chewing up a part that allowed him
to do just about anything -- which, to the dismay of the creators, he often did.
But now there is Nathan Lane, who stars in
the revival that opened Thursday at the St. James Theater. And there is
director Jerry Zaks, ou age's closest equivalent to the man who staged the
original (with some crucial help from Jerome Robbins), George Abbott.
Abetted by such dab hands as designer Tony Walton, choreographer Rob Marshall,
and a splendid supporting cast headed by Mark Linn-Baker and Lewis J. Stadlen,
Lane and Zaks have brought forth a sunny, airy Forum, a bawdy romp
through an old Roman courtyard peopled with lovers and lechers, courtesans and
warriors, each more addled than the next.
The plot? Don't ask. Devised
by Shevelove and Gelbart, it twists and turns in a series of scenes that, under
Zak's direction, succeed one another with dizzying speed. At its climax,
no fewer than three damsels in white chiffon (one of whom is Linn-Baker in drag)
chase and are chased through and around the three slightly askew houses on
Walton's witty set. (And when was the last time you saw a single-set
musical?) It's all perfectly worked out, and in fact Forum is less
a musical than a play with music, one that probably could get by just fine had
composer-lyricist Sondheim never joined the project.
But mayhem can use a break now and then,
and Sondheim has obliged the score that includes the witty opener "Comedy
Tonight" (which Zaks has punctuated with the most elaborate sight gag I've
ever seen), the breezy "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," and the
sublimely dopey ballad "Lovely." All in all, to be frank, it's
not one of Sondheim's more memorable efforts -- especially after the
intermission, when the show as a whole seems in rather unseemly haste to wrap
things up. But any score that includes the lyric "I pine, I blush, I
squeak, I squawk; / Today I woke too weak to walk" is not to be taken
As for Nathan Lane, he's as engaging as
Pseudolus as you doubtless imagine. He hasn't Mostel's performing-elephant
physicality, but he has the buoyant elasticity of the classic clowns (watch his
extended pratfall in the second act, when he collapses under the weight of a
soldier's enormous headdress) as well as a persona that revels in personal
humiliation and plain old silliness. When he disguises himself as a
soothsayer, you may not know why he proceeds to affect a lisp. But if you
can restrain yourself with he declares, "I am about to thay the thooth,"
you have more self-control than I.
He is, in short, quite irresistible.
So is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.