Tuesday, May 08, 2012
Puttering all around the house
It occurs to me that I haven't bothered to even attempt to summarize the plot of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Partly, that's because Stephen Sondheim's song "Comedy Tonight" spells out most of the characters pretty well, but mainly it's because the shenanigans that Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove cooked up out of surviving Plautus works contain so many complications that it would prove damn difficult to synopsize. However, I do feel that one character in particular — Erronius — deserves separate mention since he didn't get a song of his own. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim provides the lyrics for a cut song that had been intended for the character called "A Gaggle of Geese," which referred to his family's crest that appears on rings worn by his long-lost children, kidnapped decades earlier by pirates. He, however, persists in searching for his son and daughter. In the original Broadway production, Raymond Walburn, who made his Broadway debut in 1914 and his film debut in 1916, played the role. He played the butler Walter in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In the 1972 revival, the part went to Reginald Owen, who first appeared on Broadway in 1925, though he started making movies in 1911 where his most famous role probably remains Scrooge in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. In the 1966 film version, the Erronius role found a masterful custodian in the great Buster Keaton, making his final film appearance. The reason I chose the photo above from the 1996 revival wasn't based solely on availability but because it shows its Erronius, William Duell, who just passed away in December. A very recognizable character actor of stage and screen, Duell appeared in both the original production, revival and film of 1776 as well as one of the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. For many though, he'll always remain Johnny the shoeshine boy from TV's Police Squad!
After all the excised songs and subplots, the restoration of said subplots, tensions causing everyone to blame each other for the problems (such as when Shevelove yelled at Sondheim, pointing to his songs as the main reason for the show's failings) and strained relations leftover from the blacklist, the audiences loved it and most reviews praised it. Looking back at those 1962 New York reviews, thanks to a friend with access to them since The New York Times alone provides easy online access to its archives, not only do the critics provide interesting insight into the show's reception but it's amazing to see how many newspapers that city supported in 1962. Few of the critics, while acknowledging A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum entertained them immensely, wrote much — if anything — about Sondheim's score. The morning after it premiered, Howard Taubman, chief drama critic for The Times since Brooks Atkinson's retirement in 1960, wrote, "Know what they found on the way to the forum? Burlesque, vaudeville and a cornucopia of mad, comic hokum. The phrase for the title of the new musical comedy that arrived at the Alvin last night might be, caveat emptor. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum indeed! No one gets to the forum; no one even starts for it. And nothing really happens that isn't older than the forum, more ancient than the agora in Athens. But somehow, you keep laughing as if the old sight and sound gags were as good as new. As for the score, Taubman said, "Mr. Sondheim's songs are accessories to the pre-meditated offense. With the Messrs. Mostel, Gilford, Burns and Carradine as a coy foursome, 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid' recalls the days when delirious farceurs like the Marx Brothers could devastate a number. When Mr. Mostel, the slave with a nimble mind and a desire to be free, persuades Mr. Gilford, the nervous straw boss of the slaves, to don virgin's white, the two convert the show's romantic and pretty 'Lovely' into irresistible nonsense." Taubman penned one of the kinder notices to Sondheim's songs though he appears to have missed the point that even the first version of "Lovely" sung by the story's virginal courtesan Philia comes steeped in satire as the beauty sings an ode to superficiality and her own bubbleheadedness. (The first link takes you to Preshy Marker's version from 1962, the second to Jessica Boevers' from the 1996 revival; since I used the 1962 recording of "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" at the beginning of the first half, this link goes to the BBC Proms rendition by Daniel Evans, Julian Ovendon, Simon Russell Beale and Bryn Terfel.) The score's assessment changes over the years and as of today, Sondheim may remain the toughest critic. In his book, he again wrote, "I made the subtle, though thankfully not fatal, error of being witty instead of funny." Below, watch a quite different take on "Lovely" from Putting It Together as performed by Carol Burnett and Ruthie Henshall.
Let's skip quickly through some excerpts from the other opening night reviews. Remember: Each of these came from New York newspapers and many no longer exist. Still, today, when some major cities fail to support one daily newspaper to think that this many could thrive in a single city, albeit one as large as New York, makes an old ex-journalist such as myself fill with both wonder and sadness. Walter Kerr for The New York Herald Tribune: "The funny thing about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is that it's funny. I'm not going to tell you it's anything more than that, but maybe I don't have to. For all I know, you like funny musicals. You may even like classical funny musicals, and this one is very classic.…Composer Stephen Sondheim begins by giving his lightfooted fools some rather odd recitative as substitute for melody and same vaguely Oriental wood-block effects as substitute for lively accompaniment. You wonder. Then, with a foursome in which Mr. Mostel, Mr. Burns, Mr. Gilford and a borrowed scarecrow named John Carradine, take off to a tune called 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,' the odd figurations Mr. Sondheim is attracted to begin to pay off. There's a faint edge of musical sarcasm to be dealt with here, and it crops up again — most effectively — in 'I'm Calm,' 'Impossible,' 'That Dirty Old Man,' and in Mr, Mostel's swooning reprise of a number that was mocking in the first place, "Lovely." The score is in and out, but wins out. The lyrics are fine. Is it me or does it seem as if Kerr keeps changing his mind as he's writing? Though a Broadway theater remains named after the critic today, I've always been leery of Kerr since he actively participated in the industry as a writer, director and lyricist at the same time he worked regularly as a critic. At least he recognized the humor in the first version of "Lovely" though, I'll give him that. (Isn't it fascinating to imagine that Broadway theater owners sometimes honor critics this way? A theater bears Brooks Atkinson's name as well and they even awarded him a special Tony after he retired. When will we see The Frank Rich Theater? Can you imagine and honorary Oscar to a film critic?) The links: "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from 1966 film; "Impossible" from the 1996 revival recording; "I'm Calm" and "That Dirty Old Man" both from the 1962 original cast recording. Below we have the clip from the poorly shot bootleg of the "Lovely" (reprise) from the 1996 revival performed by Nathan Lane and Mark Linn-Baker.
Others who opined about opening night. Unless they took contrarian views on the show itself, I'm limiting the comments to the score.: Except for calling Forum a musical comedy in his lead, the only other reference to the score Richard Watts Jr. made in The New York Post comes as part of the review's penultimate sentence. "…and Stephen Sondheim’s score is modest but pleasant." John McClain wrote in The Journal American, "Zero Mostel, a very animated blimp, will personally defy you not to like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…The clients laughed and seemed to enjoy themselves, but there was always the suggestion that had they not, Mr. Mostel would have passed among them and belabored them with a baseball bat. He is quite largely the whole show… The book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (claiming some debt to Plautus) is a wispy affair, and Stephen Sondheim's score is less than inspired, but under George Abbott's slick direction the show moves and the audience roars. I should think it would succeed." At The New York Daily News, John Chapman chimed in, "(The performers) are grand muggers, leerers and slapstickers, and any old vaudeville fan will be happy to see them in operation.…The songwriter, Stephen Sondheim, comes up with an occasional bright and funny number, such as the four burlesquers song 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,' and Miss Kobart’s venomous hymn to Burns, 'That Dirty Old Man of Mine.'" Did he not look at his Playbill? How did he get the song title wrong? Links: "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" performed by Carol Burnett and Bronson Pinchot in Putting It Together; "That Dirty Old Man" from 1996 revival cast recording. Another critic who didn't find it important to check song titles was Norman Nadel in The New York World Telegram, who delivered the harshest review I read. "But too high a price must be paid for entertaining moments in A Funny Thing… Much of the comedy repeats itself. Some of the players work so hard to exploit their thin materials that they generate more sympathy than laughter. The show is slow starting and sometimes heavy-footed. Stephen Sondheim’s music would have been a second-rate score even in 1940, but he has come up with some catchy lyrics. One is “All I Know is Lovely,” sung by Ms. Marker and Mr. Davies. Another is 'Bring Me My Bride,' in which Miles proclaims his own glory; this is done resonantly by baritone Holgate.…There are indications at the Alvin that A Funny Thing might have been an earthy, boisterous delight. From time to time, it is. For the most part, however, it strains too hard to achieve too little." Link: "Bring Me My Bride" from original 1962 cast recording; I've run out of versions of "Lovely." Finally, we get to Robert Colman reviewing at The New York Mirror with the nicest words for Sondheim's score. "Stephen Sondheim has supplied a score that falls pleasantly on the ears. Jack Cole has choreographed dances that would have delighted Billy Minsky’s. We suspect that A Funny Thing will prove the most controversial song-and-dancer of the season. You’ll either love it or loathe it. In our book, it looms as a hot ticket. A riotous and rowdy hit." The retired Brooks Atkinson filed a "critic at large" piece for The New York Times in July where he barely mentions that Forum contains music and Sondheim's name never appears, though the "low comedy" delights him to no end. Since "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" comes up so often, I've reserved two video clips for you to watch. The first comes from the 1996 revival.
Before I get to the final clip of "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," I thought it would be interesting to point out how quickly critics began to re-evaluate Sondheim's score for Forum. Granted, in these reviews I was limited to The New York Times and most come after the one-two punch of Company and Follies supersized his reputation, but the reconsideration started as early as the 1966 film version. Vincent Canby wrote in his review of the film, "Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics hold up well, especially 'Comedy Tonight,' by which Mr. Mostel introduces the characters at the start, and the slightly bawdy 'Everybody Should Have A Maid' ('sweeping out, sleeping in')." When Clive Barnes assessed the 1972 revival for The Times, he said, "Mr. Sondheim's music is original and charming, with considerable musical subtlety but a regard for down-to-earth show-biz vigor that is precisely what is needed. And, as always, his lyrics are a joy to listen for. The American theater has not had a lyricist like this since Hart or Porter." By the time the 1996 revival arrived, Canby's beat had switched from film to theater. "This brazenly retro Broadway musical, inspired by Plautus, is almost as timeless as comedy itself. Here's a glorious, old-fashioned farce that, with its vintage Stephen Sondheim score and its breathless book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, celebrates everything that man holds least dear but can't deny himself: lust, greed, vanity, ambition; in short, all of those little failings that make man human. Yet for all of its disguises, mistaken identities, pratfalls and leering jokes, A Funny Thing is as sophisticated as anything now on Broadway. In its own lunatic way, it's both wise and rigorously disciplined. Easy sentimentality is nowhere to be found here; in its place: the kind of organized chaos that leads to sheer, extremely contagious high spirits," Canby wrote. Now, that other clip of "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" features original 1962 cast member Jack Gilford performing with two (well, at least one) other surprising performers in a television appearance.
I'd hoped to avoid this situation, but I got so caught up with the behind-the-scenes history that what I intended as a short tribute grew to be massive. I still need to write about the original production's performance at the Tony Awards and some tidbits concerning the two revivals, the second of which I saw, not to mention that version I saw in 1979 when I was 10. That won't be coming today I'm afraid. So, I'll leave you with the sequence for "Bring Me My Bride" from Richard Lester's film version.