The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

October 16, 1966   UA   98 minutes

A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century musical comedy. Somewhere down the road conviction got lost. In its place sprung irony and apology. Musical Comedy was no longer a serious business, it was self-deprecating. It was so uncool that to enjoy it one had to parody it, to disguise one's affection for the real thing. The most surprising thing upon watching A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum now, is how free it is of anachronism. It doesn't need that crutch. No left turns into Mel Brooks-like absurdity. No dips into Monty Python lunacy. This isn't Spamalot (a show built entirely on non-sequiters and anachronisms) but a true and honest farce with universal situations and archetypical characters propelling the action. Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's libretto is put together like a Swiss watch. There are jokes in the characters names: Pseudolus (for the perrenial faker), Erronious, (forever lost) Hysterium, Hero; Domina (the battle-ax wife); Philia (the virgin), down to the courtesans: Vibrata, Panacea, Tintinabula, Gymnasia. The gags and the rhythms might be straight from the borscht belt, but they ring just as true in ancient Rome, which may be their point of origin--as the tuner is based on plays and themes from Plautus, a playwright born two centuries before Christ. His influence is said to be strong on Shakespeare. Even farce can have a pedigree. It's Plautus in the Park.

A successful Hlwd writing team for over 20 years, Melvin Frank & Norman Panama made but one foray onto Bway: the hit, Li'l Abner, which they transferred to screen themselves. Somewhere in the mid-'60s they split, at which point Frank produced and wrote the Forum film alone for United Artists. (On his own he would find further success, peaking with his 1973 Oscar Best Pic nom for the inexplicable rom-com, A Touch of Class, which even more inexplicably won Glenda Jackson a second Oscar in 4 years. Panama didn't do as well.) As Forum's producer, Frank made some good decisions. Tho a frequent director as well, he stepped aside here and hired Brit wunderkind, Richard Lester, whose two Beatles film musicals were, aside from huge hits, fresh and original. Frank's other smart move was casting. The musical's lead is a foolproof role for a comic actor. In all three Bway mountings, a Psuedolus won the Tony. (A fourth Tony went to Jason Alexander, for Jerome Robbins' Broadway--in which he played one scene as Pseudolus). Mel Frank could've gone an easy route and chosen his longtime stock faves, Danny Kaye, or Bob Hope--with whom he made 8 films, including both Frank's first and most recent. Or God forbid, Mickey Rooney or Jerry Lewis. It was first written with Phil Silvers in mind, who felt the burlesque schtick "old-hat." His pass was Zero Mostel's gain. On the rise after a dark decade in the shade of McCarthy witch hunts, Mostel had made some noise in Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but this is where he stepped into the  Star Spot.  A most unlikely star at that; 
Also recruited from Bway was Jack Gilford--another blacklist victim, personally named to HUAC by none other than Jerome Robbins. You can imagine the emotional struggle he and Mostel must've faced when Robbins stepped in to assist director George Abbott. Cool professionalism held, and as a result Gilford turned Hysterium into his first Tony nom performance, yet his solo, "I'm Calm," didn't make it onto celluloid. The lesser known British stage actor, Michael Hordern stepped into David Burns' Tony-winning role--perhaps a Lester choice, as was surely Michael Crawford, with whom he just made The Knack, and How to Get It. Hordern is fine; unfamiliar but funny. But how do you explain Michael Crawford? He's skinny and pasty, has a high-pitched voice, zero sex appeal and does nothing for a tunic. And yet he's had a career exponentially more successful than most, and on much lesser talent. Even here, still in his youth (Phantom was twenty years ahead) he was already a veteran of British television, and was being seriously courted by Hlwd. As the lovestruck youth, Hero, he's neither as comely as he should be, nor funny enuf if he isn't. As his love interest, Philia, Annette Andre is another veteran of the BBC of no particular distinction. I find myself as bored whenever they're on, as I'm entertained with the major players. By and large the secondary roles are blandly staffed; a Roman populace straight from Central Casting, not the eye of Fellini. But where it counts, the clowns are impeccable. And then there's the coup de grace: Buster Keaton. In perfect closure for a career nearly   as  old  as   Hlwd,   and  set  in an   ancient  time--

While widely considered one of the funniest musicals ever written, Forum succeeds more in spite of, than because of, its score. As even Stephen Sondheim admits, his achievment here was, in tone and aspiration, often at odds with the play. It was his debut as a composer on Bway, and he was young and cocky, and eager to flex his burgeoning musical muscle. Hence, a song like "Free": an exercise in showing-off, but never fun to listen to. Yes, he got some things right; "Comedy Tonight" was a third attempt at an opening number, written at the insistence of Jerome Robbins--who was called in to rescue the show, then floundering in its DC tryout. (Straight off of being fired from West Side Story in Hlwd--how refreshing it must've been to test his comic mastery again, after so much drama.) Of course Robbins was right, and Steve pulled out an insistent toe-tapper of the sort that almost embarrasses him. But the tune is catchy and just what the show needs right at the top. In a similar burlesque vein, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" is an easy showstopper. "Bring Me My Bride," a hilarious declaration of ego, and tuneful to boot. And "Lovely" is a ballad that earns its name; a blithe, deceptively simple melody, free of melancholic notes or glum harmonics that Sondheim often traffics in. (It's best heard, unsung, in the overture on the OCR--transported to divinity on a bongo beat and briskly-strummed guitars). With maybe half a score that works so well, it makes you ache the other half doesn't. But "Free," "I'm Calm" "Pretty Little Picture," "That Dirty Old Man," are bumpy songs--character pieces, choking on cleverness; seldom funny. The beauty of a lyric like "Today I woke too weak to walk," isn't matched by the languid song, "Love, I Hear." Sondheim worshippers have reclaimed the work as underrated and advanced for its time; now classic. It really isn't. It's his biggest learning curve, with more misses than hits. Such opinion was reflected most glaringly in the 1963 Tony selections, which nominated and gave prizes to everyone connected with the show, except for Sondheim--who was not only denied a nomination, but passed over for the likes of a long closed--and now long forgotten--flop from the previous summer, Bravo, Giovanni!  It was no surprise that Hlwd would cut half the score--the problematic half--for a mass-appeal movie. Sondheim wrote a special "screenplay" lyric for "Free," in which he imagined a number of fantasy tableaux behind Mostel's soliloquy. Better they had used a song like "Impossible," which is not only funny but has a friendlier bounce; more in line with the vaudeville feel of the piece. Why would they drop it? The play is so tightly structured there's no way to move songs about; only cut them--sometimes leaving a momentary gap (such as where "Free" obviously begins), sometimes not.

Given the musical's single-set farcial antics--spaced with artsy musical comedy numbers --you can see how Melvin Frank reconceived the show more along the lines of his own Hope/Crosby Road to Utopia formula; less a musical, more a comedy with songs. And one by a trendy young director, doing for a class of clowns what he did for the Fab Four. This wasn't Roadshow material, not another Bway blockbuster pushing three hours. It zips by in 98 minutes, and feels not a second too short. On its own terms the picture is a lightweight romp--and feels a bit fresh for its untypical setting (you don't find a lot of comedies set in ancient Rome) A few things feel tedious, but not for long; and tho it all culminates in a superfluous chariot chase, it feels somehow right--at least for a Richard Lester movie. And most of the musical numbers retained are effectively filmed. The best, by far, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," is put together like something out of Help!--middle-aged vaudevillians in place of the Beatles, now here, now there, all around the house. "Lovely" has some slo-mo cavorting thru the woods (funnier in the drag reprise); and "Bring Me My Bride" is a parade thru the exapansive Spanish-built Roman set. The "Funeral Sequence" can't be faulted, either. (The "song" has a maddening tendency to stick in my brain.) For "The House of Marcus Lycus" they dispensed with the vocal, and went straight for the dance: Playboy babes in solo spots--on Bway in Jack Cole's nativist T&A choreography; recreated on film by his assistants, George & Ethel Martin. It's the usual array of gyrations--You Gotta Have a Gimmick with a sword and sandal theme--entertaining enuf. But "Comedy Tonight" feels rather half-hearted. On stage, Robbins turned the number into a showpiece (It went into his great catalog revue: Jerome Robbins' Bway)  Lester goes for a more grab bag approach, starting with what seem like random shots of Roman street life, some with visual gags, others seemingly an afterthought; concluding with snips from scenes thruout the film--the kind of montage standard in coming attraction trailers. If "Comedy Tonight" disappoints, the animated credit sequence at the film's end is an unexpected perk. It seems to set the film's mood better than the film itself. Richard Williams' drawings joined with Ken Thorne's Oscar-winning musical scoring (with so little competition that year, Stop the World was even nominated) demonstrate Saul Bass's influence, but also the potential of illustrative art in movie credit  sequences


United Artists made the unique choice of opening the film in twin boutique art houses on New York's East Side, on October 16, 1966. By then, Jack Gilford was starring in Cabaret; then in tryout in Boston--as was I Do!, I Do!  In Philly, Walking Happy was struggling, but Breakfast at Tiffany's played a misleadingly encouraging week at capacity. On Bway, Mame, Sweet Charity, Man of La Mancha, and Fiddler were running SRO. Bock & Harnick's follow up to the latter, The Apple Tree, opened two nights later. On screens, Georgy Girl, The Fortune Cookie and Hawaii were newly released. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? played the Criterion for 5 months. John Huston's The Bible (at once bloated and abridged) was the latest Roadshow, joining the still-going-strong Sound of Music, and Doctor Zhivago. For those seeking nightlife, offerings that week were as diverse as Joan Rivers and Maurice Chevalier; Lily St. Cyr, Tony Martin, Nancy Dussault, and Petula Clark at the Copa. To say nothing of what was happening in youth culture; the wave of change that was about to wash over everything.
It was five months before Forum found its way into my vicinity--the Fallbrook theater in Canoga Park--where I ran to it immediately on March 11, 1967, the first pic of a two-day double-bill (that included The Wrong Box, The Russians Are Coming and Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie.) for a not-as-rare-as-you'd-think rainy weekend in Southern California. It was the 14th film on my newly established, neverending movie list. It was a rare weekend spent entirely at the movies, but I was 14 then and ravenous for all that Bway and Hlwd could send my way. With no pretense of being an "important" film, United Artists went for the old-style wide release after the first platform engagements, and took in $3,390,000 in film rentals--considerably short of nearly all filmed Bway musicals so far in the '60s. By most measure the film is often dismissed, particulalry as Sondheim's reputation grew thru the coming decades. But whatever the film's faults, the truncated score cannot be blamed. The missing songs wouldn't have improved the final result. They are lauded and exalted now--as everything this Bway savant ever wrote is these days--but I can't help thinking the musical would've been a bigger hit--and more of a piece if an Adler & Ross or a Jule Styne had written the score. It's somewhat ironic that while it remains the longest running show he ever had on Bway, few have contributed more--albeit unwittingly-- to the demise of musical comedy than Stephen Sondheim.

Next Up: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Report Card:  A Funny Thing Happened
                              On the Way to the Forum,
Overall Film:   B
Bway Fidelity:   B- 
Songs from Bway:  6
Songs cut from Bway:  7
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: “Bring Me My Bride”
               “Everbody Ought to Have a Maid”
Worst Omission: “Impossible”
Casting:  Brilliant for principals,
               Dull for secondary roles
Standout Cast: Mostel, Silvers, Keaton
Sorethumb Cast:  Michael Crawford
Cast from Bway:  Mostel, Jack Gilford
Direction:  Freewheeling, good & bad
Choreography:   Bada bing
Ballet:  C   "House of Marcus Lycus"
               --Playmate gyrations
Scenic Design: Convincing, crumbling, Roman
Costumes:  Tunics and sandals
Titles: Lively animated end credits
Standout Sets: Roman streets, marbled rooms
Oscar Nominations & Wins: 1 for scoring

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