Tuesday, May 08, 2012
Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone
By Edward Copeland
If I'd located one, a photo of the number "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from the first Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1972 that starred Phil Silvers as Pseudolus would be resting between the still from the original 1962 production starring (from left to right) John Carradine as Marcus Lycus, Jack Gilford as Hysterium, David Burns as Senex and the magnificent Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, which opened 50 years ago tonight, and the photo below it showing the cast of the second Broadway revival in 1996 that starred (from left to right) Nathan Lane as Pseudolus, Mark Linn-Baker as Hysterium, Ernie Sabella as Marcus Lycus and Lewis J. Stadlen as Senex. (Sadly, not only could I only find two black-and-white photos from the 1972 revival, they never made a cast recording either, so we can't hear what Silvers sounded like singing the part. The song link takes you to the 1962 original Broadway cast recording) This musical comedy registers as a theatrical landmark on many levels, the most significant being that it marked the first time Stephen Sondheim wrote both the lyrics and the music for a Broadway musical. Stellar support surrounded Sondheim on all levels: I just named some of the cast, the future director of his landmark 1970s musicals, Harold Prince, produced Forum and the legendary George Abbott (then 75) directed. Jack Cole, currently undergoing a bit of a resurrection in terms of his reputation, choreographed the show and the book, based on three works by Plautus, famed playwright of ancient Rome (c. 254-184 B.C.). came from the pens of Burt Shevelove, a writer-director from early TV, and Larry Gelbart, whose best known credit at the time was as part of the many talented writers working for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows but who would go on to turn Robert Altman's MASH into the hit TV series M^A*S*H, be one of the Oscar-nominated (and credited) co-writers of Tootsie, writer of one of the first great HBO movies, Barbarians at the Gate, and author of the book for the Cy Coleman/David Zippel musical City of Angels. On a personal level, Forum holds a special place in my heart because it happens to be the first musical that I ever saw performed live — and Carradine played Marcus Lycus in the production. No, I'm not much older than you thought. I was only 10 at that time and it happened to be a touring summer stock production 17 years after he created the role in the original Broadway show. Somehow, it seems only appropriate that both the first Broadway musical and the last Broadway show I saw featured scores by Sondheim (Passion and Assassins, if you're curious) and so did my irst live musical, even if at 10 I hadn't the slightest notion who Sondheim was.
Anyone who knows me personally or has read this blog for any length of time realizes what a devoted Sondheim acolyte I am and, without question, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum certainly must be considered the most entertaining and crowd-pleasing of all musicals for which he composed the score. As much as I love his music, it's also sadly true in far too many cases that Sondheim's scores often end up being vastly superior to the books of his musicals. With Forum, that cannot be said. When you read what Sondheim wrote in his book Finishing the Hat or heard what others said in reviews, Forum may stand as the rare instance of a Sondheim musical where the book actually supersedes the score in quality. Hey, it was Sondheim's first produced show as composer as well as lyricist after all. Before that, he'd only served both functions on his unproduced musical Saturday Night. His Broadway experiences had been limited to being the lyricist (to Leonard Bernstein's music) on West Side Story and (to Jule Styne's music) on Gypsy. As we begin, I should tell you that if you see a link, by all means click on it. For example, at the top the first link on a song title takes you to the original Broadway cast recording of that song from the 1962 production. Sometimes the links direct you to videos, other times just to the songs, but I wanted to get as much comparison in as I could.
Now, a lot of funny things did occur on the way to the Forum (though, technically speaking, no character in the show ever discusses a trip to that famous location in ancient Rome), but getting the musical to Broadway proved to be an entirely different matter. That trip encountered many bumps that threatened to scuttle the production before Forum ever crossed the New York state line, let alone landed on a Broadway stage. Those associated with the show who still walk among us might be able to look back with some relief now (though in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim does deal himself some heavy self-criticism about his work on the show even now, despite the fact that Forum remains the biggest hit of his career). Sondheim writes that he, Gelbart and Shevelove wrote Forum over a four-year period and that the show went through two major producers, two major directors and a major star before getting to the rehearsal stage. Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, spells out the specifics of his statement. Secrest quotes Sondheim about the dogged pursuit of Jerome Robbins, who would never settle on a decision about whether to direct the show or not. "The problem was we went to numbers of producers and directors. Jerry Robbins kept saying yes, then no, and then yes, and then no. We went to Joshua Logan and he wanted more naked boys and things like that. I went to Hal (Prince) and he said, 'Listen, kid, you know me. I hate farce.'…David Merrick agreed to produce. Then we were trying to get Jerry Robbins again. And Jerry said, 'OK, I'll tell you what. I'll do it, but I won't do it with David Merrick. You have to get it away from him." In Secrest's book, Sondheim expresses guilt for making up a lie to Merrick about the show not happening and returning an advance to Merrick but it did convince Prince to sign on though Robbins bailed again. Evemtually, they got George Abbott on board as director, but Robbins would return to play a pivotal role. The search for a lead also proved difficult. Their first choice, Phil Silvers, who eventually would portray Marcus Lycus in Richard Lester's 1966 film version and Pseudolus in the 1972 revival, rejected it out of hand because he couldn't perform while wearing his glasses and he'd be unable to navigate without them. Milton Berle agreed to star but when Gelbart and Shevelove turned in a draft of the book that would have run about four hours and received orders to make cuts (which they did), Berle claimed they removed his best stuff and quit. That's how Mostel got the part. In Secrest's book, Sondheim said that years later Mostel would claim that he didn't want to do Forum, but the truth was he needed the work badly and leaped at the part. Mostel's career, as had many others, had suffered during the McCarthy era, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and the Hollywood blacklist. One hitch: When Robbins returned to help the troubled show later, he'd face the glare of Mostel because Robbins had served as a friendly witness at the HUAC hearings. To make things worse, one of the names he named was Madeline Gilford, wife of Jack Gilford, who was playing Hysterium. Sondheim though sensed other problems.
Sondheim sought the advice of his friend James Goldman, who at this point in his career had written an original play that made it to Broadway and later would pen both the play and movie of The Lion in Winter as well as the book for Sondheim's Follies. Goldman also did some songwriting, so Sondheim let him look at the book for Forum and listen to the songs he had at that point, when the opening number was a song called "Love Is in the Air." According to what Sondheim wrote in Finishing the Hat, Goldman labeled Gelbart and Shevelove's book as "brilliant" and expressed enthusiasm about Sondheim's score. "The problem," Goldman said, "is they don't go together." Sondheim knew what Goldman meant, but he didn't start doing anything about it right then. Sondheim wrote that he'd been "trained by (Oscar) Hammerstein to think of a song as a one-act play which either intensifies a moment or moves the story the forward.…Prodded by my academic musical training as well as by Oscar, I had become accustomed to thinking of songs as being structured in sonata form: statement, development and recapitulation. For Oscar, it was first act, second act, third act. He tried to avoid writing lyrics that confined themselves to one idea, the traditional approach of every lyricist in the theater and the standard function of songs before he came along and revolutionized the way writers thought about musicals. Show Boat hadn't convinced them but once Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific had become enormous hits, most songwriters converted. The success of those were not entirely beneficial however." In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim noted something Gelbart wrote in his introduction to the published libretto of Forum. "Broadway in its development of musical comedy had improved the quality of the former at the expense of a great deal of the latter," Gelbart wrote.
At one point — frustrated as he tried to unlearn all he knew about composing and fearing he did the show more harm than good — Sondheim even suggested Forum should just be a straight play, but Shevelove said it would be too frenetic and the audience would have no space to breathe (without songs). He informed the composer that the few surviving plays by Plautus sll had songs. Sondheim did end up composing an opening song more in keeping with the spirit of the show that would follow called "Invocation." That also would be dropped but would return in a 1974 farce that Shevelove "freely adapted" from Aristophanes called The Frogs and to which Sondheim added "Instructions to the Audience," which is the only way you can listen to that number now, as in this cut from its 2004 Broadway debut sung by Nathan Lane, Roger Bart and the ensemble. Sondheim writes honestly in his book that he didn't think much of George Abbott's talent or sense of humor — saying they had to explain a joke to the old man once, but Abbott's reputation for saving shows had achieved legendary status and as the show suffered in Washington to scathing reviews and small audiences in big houses (50 people filling 1,000 seats) not laughing a bit, Sondheim described to Secrest the only time Abbott made him laugh "when he said, 'I dunno. You had better call in George Abbott.'" Obviously, that wasn't an option, but given Robbins' worship of Abbott, that made it easier to call him in, though they worried about Mostel's reaction. Part of this can be seen in a clip from a one-man show called Zero Hour written and performed by Jim Brochu and presented at the West Coast Jewish Theatre.
At the time Robbins named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he didn't really have a career beyond New York, so his motives always have proved puzzling and he never settled the question before his death, The most pervasive theory, as seen on an American Masters profile on PBS a couple of years ago and detailed in biographies such as this one on The Official Masterworks Broadway Site that he got blackmailed into testifying out of fear that the rather open secret of his homosexuality would be revealed. (He felt secure enough to declare himself gay to get out of service in World War II.) The site says, "Robbins was booked for an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show (The Toast of the Town), but three weeks before the event, Sullivan, convinced that Robbins was a Communist (he had attended the notorious Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949), canceled the contract. It was Sullivan — threatening at one point to expose him as a homosexual if he did not deliver (directly to Sullivan himself!) a list of names of leftists in show business — who set the machinery in motion that brought Robbins under investigation by the FBI and landed him, two years later, before the House Un-American Activities Committee." Whatever the truth might be, Robbins' uncredited contributions to Forum not only saved the musical, they also changed the way new musicals got their starts forever. Earlier in the flirtation process, before tryouts had started and Robbins continued to flirt with the idea of directing the show, he demanded that the principals cast the show, get them all in a room to read the script for him while Sondheim performed the songs. In essence, Robbins invented the theater workshop. Prince and Sondheim actually found it helpful at pointing out flaws in the show and repeated the process with their classic collaborations in the 1970s, though Sondheim doesn't like what the practice ended up evolving into later. "What had begun as a learning experience for the authors became transmogrified into thinly disguised backers' auditions," he wrote in Finishing the Hat. As for his contributions to Forum, as soon as he saw "Invocation," Robbins recognized the problem. Secrest wrote in her biography of Sondheim, According to Sondheim, (Robbins) said, "The opening number is killing the show. You open with a charming number and the audience does not know what it's in for, that it's a real farce. You've got to write an opening number that says baggy pants." Sondheim went back to the drawing board and the show's most famous song, "Comedy Tonight," was born and Robbins did the staging, specifically telling Sondheim to leave the jokes to him. Sondheim wrote in Finishing the Hat that Robbins also staged the massive Act II chase, meaning that though he received no official credit, Robbins essentially choreographed the two most important pieces of movement in the show. Still, it isn't as if no one realizes he did it. When Robbins directed his own tribute show, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, re-creating his most famous stage creations the show included "Comedy Tonight" with Jason Alexander taking on the Pseudolus role for that number. In fact, three men have been nominated for Tonys for playing Pseudolus in the three Broadway productions of Forum and a fourth inhabited the role for one scene in another show and all four — Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Jason Alexander and Nathan Lane — took home Tony Awards. No other part in theater history can make that claim. The song has attained a level of such popularity you'd be amazed by the permutations you can find on the Internet. In fact, I did a separate post on those alone. Unfortunately, no visual record of the 1962 version exists. Instead, we'll start with a poorly shot bootleg of the 1996 revival starring Nathan Lane as Pseudolus (and Prologus, the character the lead actor plays when introducing the show.) If unfamiliar with the show or what I'm talking about, the song spells it out pretty clearly. I actually got to see the 1996 revival.
After the disastrous runs in Washington and New Haven, Conn., once Robbins had put the bug in Sondheim's ear about the opening number, he writes in Finishing the Hat that "Comedy Tonight" was composed over the course of a weekend. What is it about pressure and/or inspiration that some of the greatest works seem to be created when it gets to be crunch time? Most people know the story of Arthur Miller writing the first act of Death of a Salesman in less than a day. Forum opened 50 years ago tonight at The Alvin Theatre where it played through March 7, 1864 when it transferred to The Mark Hellinger Theatre for two months before completing its run through Aug. 29, 1965 at The Majestic Theatre for a total of eight previews and 964 performances. In 1966, a film version with Mostel and Gilford repeating their stage roles and featuring future Phantom of the Opera Michael Crawford opened. Richard Lester, hot off directing The Beatles' films A Hard Day's Night and Help!, helmed the Forum movie. The film eliminated some songs but it also gave Sondheim his first opportunity to design a song specifically for a movie. In Finishing the Hat, he writes about penning a different version of "Free," heard here from the 1962 cast album. He confesses to being a lifelong movie buff and having made some home movies where he especially enjoyed the editing process. (Who doesn't want to see some of these as long as they're suitable for general audiences?) Lester told Sondheim, the composer wrote, that he approved and that his idea would work but Lester never filmed the sequence. "(A)lthough in the finished print, there's a curiously clumsy cut at the place where I'd cued the song, which makes me think it was at least planned. Rereading it now, I wish he had. I didn't get the chance to design another for 26 years, when I wrote two sequences for the movie of A Little Night Music, one of which was filmed the way I wrote it, one of which was not." This clip shows Mostel doing the song during the movie's opening credits.
While Sondheim accepted Shevelove's notion that the musical numbers allowed the audience a chance to take a breath from the chaos consuming the stage, he still disagrees to this day about the suitability of stopping a farce for a song. In Finishing the Hat, he wrote, "Although I do think that the book of Forum is the tightest, most satisfyingly plotted and gratifyingly written farce I've ever encountered, I don't think that farces can be transformed into musicals without damage — at least, not good musicals. 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." We can't see what Mostel looked like onstage singing "Comedy Tonight" in 1962, but we do have a clip of him performing a condensed version of the song at the 1971 Tony Awards.
"I had to write one-joke songs so I picked spots for them where the situations would supply substance: Songs like 'Impossible' and the drag version of 'Lovely,' which were dramatically static but theatrically funny. My mistake was that in trying to unlearn everything Oscar (Hammerstein) had taught me and write static songs which were nothing more than playful, I felt I had to justify them with cleverness, by juggling with words, leaning on rhymes, puns, alliteration and all the other boilerplate devices of light verse," Sondheim wrote. (Links: "Impossible" and "Lovely (Reprise)" both from 1962 original cast album.) Both in his own book and Secrest's, Sondheim praises producer Hal Prince's faith in the show, saying that most producers who endured the tryouts that Forum did in New Haven and Washington would have closed the show down and never brought it to New York. Prince didn't — and it paid off. The show would turn out to be a blockbuster, admittedly one with a few more hurdles to clear before it reached that point. When Robbins came in to help, everyone worried about the volatile Mostel's reaction. However, he'd behaved as a complete professional with nary an explosion up to this point in the chaotic production, according to Secrest's book. As they hurriedly rehearsed "Comedy Tonight" in New York, the stress weighed on the actors as Sondheim recounted in Secrest's book. "'We got to the afternoon of the first preview with our opening number, the one we hoped would change the show. And we were rehearsing and Zero kept screwing up his lines.' So once when Robbins stopped to consult with Tony Walton, the set designer, Sondheim went down to the footlights — 'I never, never give an actor a critical note in front of other people' — to correct one of Mostel's lines. 'Right, right, right,' Mostel said impatiently. They began again, and again Robbins stopped. Mostel was still making mistakes. 'And I said, "Please, I know you've got a lot on your mind, but it's the plural, not the singular." "Yeah. Yeah." The third time, Jerry stops again — 'Zero, it's the plural!' — and Mostel says in a booming voice that fills the entire theater and makes everyone start and turn around, he says, "Well, maybe if you'd write me a funny line, you cocksucker!" In front of everybody.' There was a silence that lasted for about four seconds. 'And in the back of the house, Mr. Abbott went, "All right, from the top please" and clapped his hands." Sondheim goes on to describe how Abbott defuse the tension that quickly and he realized that was part of the man's greatness. He also believes that Mostel made him the scapegoat for the anger he wanted to hurl in Robbins' direction.
In wrapping up this tribute's first half, I must praise the invention of Twitter, which introduced me to a man who not only witnessed the original production of Forum (as well as other original Broadway shows such as South Pacific with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, Fiddler on the Roof, also starring Mostel and featuring Bea Arthur, Bert Convy, Leonard Frey and Austin Pendleton and, the one that makes me green with envy, Ethel Merman in Gypsy — with Jack Klugman along as Herbie), but whose father became Mostel's doctor and, because of similar backgrounds, eventually the actor's good friend. Pietr Hitzig, also a doctor, wrote me briefly about his memories of those days. "I am 70 years old and as a NYC child had no idea what fantastic theater I was seeing.…Zero died at only 62 years old and had his most productive years destroyed by the witch hunters at the HUAC but is immortal for Fiddler, Forum and The Producers.…Nobody can play any of those roles today without remembering the bushy eyebrows and satanic leer," Hitzig wrote. On Twitter, Hitzig tweeted that his father saw Fiddler on the Roof at least 100 times. Imagine how inexpensive Broadway tickets cost to allow that back in the 1960s. I only paid to see one Broadway show twice (Rent) and saw another a second time because one ticket came to me as a freebie (Ragtime). (Piotr corrected me after I posted this that his father didn't pay all those times. He got free tickets.) "My father was a renowned Park Avenue doctor but lonely as hell as was Zero. They, children of the shtetl loved each other like brothers. Both were funny but had an angry side that alienated their families. After a busy day, rather than come home, my dad would head for Broadway and stand backstage as his idealized childhood in Fiddler was played out once again," Hitzig wrote. In The New York Times archives, I found a funny story that did illustrate Mostel's tendency to get riled. The British comedian Frankie Howerd, who would play Pseudolus in the London premiere of Forum in fall 1963, came to see the U.S. version earlier in 1963. Seated in the front row, Howerd tended to cover his mouth when amused so Mostel misinterpreted that he wasn't laughing at the show at all. "He is not laughing." the article says Mostel complained between numbers. The next day, Howerd, in an apologetic tone, insisted that he enjoyed the show. "I'm not a laugher. I don't lean back and flash my teeth. Actually, if anyone was frightened that night it was me, seeing how good Mostel was," Howerd told Louis Calta at The Times.
Labels: Altman, Arthur Miller, Awards, Beatles, blacklist, Books, Gelbart, H. Prince, Hammerstein, HBO, J. Carradine, J. Robbins, Merman, Music, Musicals, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Sondheim, Theater Tribute