Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Such a little word, but oh, the difference it makes!
As people who pay attention to these sorts of things know, for quite some time the Broadway season, and by that I mean in terms of Tony Award eligibility, usually ends toward the end of April with the awards given in June. However, that hasn't always been the case. For example, though A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened May 8, 1962, when it received its Tony nominations they belonged to the crop of 1963 Tony nominations with winners handed out nearly a year later on April 28, 1963. Furthermore, Forum's May 8 opening came a mere nine days after the previous Tony Awards held April 29, 1962 for 1961's Broadway season. On the musical side, Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which had just opened Oct. 14, 1961, hauled away the most awards. It won best musical, best actor (Robert Morse), best featured actor (Charles Nelson Reilly), best director of a musical (Abe Burrows), best authors of a musical (Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert), best producers of a musical (Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin) and best conductor and musical director (Elliot Lawrence). In fact, the only nomination that How to Succeed lost was Loesser's as best composer. Richard Rodgers won for No Strings, his first solo effort since Oscar Hammerstein's death. Loesser did receive the consolation of a Pulitzer Prize for his work — one of several parallels between his career and Stephen Sondheim's, one of which we'll be coming upon shortly. As far as when the Tonys switched their eligibility dates and started holding the awards in June, as near as I can determine (cross your fingers, I'm forced to use Wikipedia as a source), the first time that happened was 1977, the year before CBS began carrying the broadcast which it has ever since, heaven help theater fans (at least as far as the past decade or so has gone). I must note, as I return to the subject at hand, that the photo at the top as well as the one inset in this lead both came from the camera of Tony Walton, the scenic and costume designer of the 1962 production. The inset photo shows his model of what the set should look like when complete. Both come courtesy of Walton via an interview he did with examiner.com.
When those 1963 Tony nominations did come out, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, despite having opened so long ago, did very well. It received a nomination for best musical, competing against Little Me, Oliver!, and Stop the World — I Want to Get Off. Sondheim might have felt guilty about lying to David Merrick but he produced the latter two musicals that would be competing against Forum. Merrick also garnered a nomination as best producer of a musical with Donald Albery for their work on Oliver! where the duo faced off against Hal Prince for Forum as well as last year's winners, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, for Little Me. Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove picked up a nomination as best authors of a musical for Forum and one of the competition happened to be another veteran from the days of writing for Sid Caesar on television like Gelbart once did — Neil Simon for Little Me. which Simon happened to write specifically for Caesar, who would face off against Zero Mostel's Pseudolus in Forum, Anthony Newley in Stop the World — I Want to Get Off and Clive Revill in Oliver! for lead actor in a musical. Lionel Bart (Oliver!) and Leslie Bricusse and Newley (Stop the World — I Want to Get Off) rounded out the author of a musical category. The venerable George Abbott's work on Forum earned him a best director of a musical nomination and he also landed a nomination as best director of a play for Never Too Late, a comedy that actually ran longer than Forum. In the musical direction category, others receiving recognition were Peter Coe (Oliver!), John Fearnley (Brigadoon) and Feuer and Bob Fosse (Little Me). (At right, we see Abbott at the 1994 Tony Awards at the age of 106 braced by Gwen Verdon and Jean Stapleton. He died in January 1995 at 107.) David Burns as the leering, patrician Senex and Jack Gilford as the nervous slave Hysterium took half the nominations in featured actor in a musical for Forum. Filling out the category were a young David Jones as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! The recently passed Jones became better known when he changed his first name to Davy and became part of The Monkees. Sven Svenson in Little Me took the fourth slot. The final nomination that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum garnered was for Ruth Kobart, who played Senex's suspicious wife Domina, as featured actress in a musical alongside Virginia Martin (Little Me), Anna Quayle (Stop the World — I Want to Get Off) and Louise Troy (Tovarich). Sondheim's score got snubbed and wasn't nominated in the category for best composer and lyricist. The composers of the other three nominated best musicals made the cut but the fourth slot went to Milton Schafer and Ronny Graham for Bravo Giovanni, a musical that ran only 76 performances and received only two other nominations for choreography and conductor and musical director. Sondheim, who didn't get nominations for his lyrics for West Side Story or Gypsy either, remained in the ranks of those never nominated for Broadway's top honor. Boy, would he make up for that later.
When Tony night 1963 arrived, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum won almost every award for which it was nominated. Mostel defeated Gelbart's former boss. Gilford lost — but he lost to co-star Burns. Abbott won for director of a musical, though he didn't take the prize in the play category. Gelbart and Shevelove took the prize for their book, so Gelbart beat his former co-worker as well. Prince won as producer. The American Theatre Wing crowned the show best musical meaning David Merrick went 0 for 2 in that category. Other than Gilford, the only Forum nominee that didn't score was Ruth Kobart, who lost to Anna Quayle for Stop the World — I Want to Get Off. (Shown in the photo at left are the 1963 winners in the lead acting categories. From left, Mostel, Vivien Leigh, lead actress in a musical for Tovarich; Uta Hagen, lead actress in a play and Arthur Hill, lead actor in a play, both for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) In Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, the composer described watching the ceremony from home. Secrest writes, "Prince…thanked Abbott, Gelbart and Shevelove. Gelbart and Shevelove, who won book, thanked each other, Abbott and Prince. 'Nobody mentioned me on the program at all. As far as they were all concerned, my friends, my colleagues, I did not exist. That's what really hurt,' Sondheim said. 'Hal was the only one — Hal called me the next day and apologized. He said, 'I'm sorry, kid. I should have mentioned you and I didn't.'" The lack of acknowledgment did lead to some rifts such as when the hurt Sondheim confronted Shevelove and Shevelove lashed out at him, saying his songs almost killed the show before it ever got to New York. In an anecdote that appears in Secrest's book and Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, Sondheim shares the tale of a special letter he received that lifted his spirits, though it's unclear when Sondheim got the correspondence. Secrest's book says he received the letter shortly after Forum opened, but places the story right after the Tony story. Sondheim doesn't date it at all, though he adds the detail that Frank Loesser told him in the letter that he commiserated with him because he remembered the reception for his first Broadway musical, Where's Charley?, and wanted to let Sondheim know how good he thought the score of Forum was. Specifically quoted in both books, Loesser wrote, "Sometimes even a composer's working partners, to say nothing of the critics, fail to dig every level and facet of what he is doing. But I know, and I wanted you to know that I know."
Before I discuss the revivals, I've been looking for a place to work in talk of the song "Love, I Hear" somewhere and failed to accomplish my mission. Now, I adore "Comedy Tonight" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" but I can't believe that no one mentions "Love, I Hear" anywhere. Hell, "Bring Me My Bride" found its way into a review. While Sondheim criticizes himself for being clever instead of funny, I love his wordplay (and he can't hide his pride in Finishing the Hat about the alliterative string of double consonants that he pulled off in one line of the song, "Today I woke too weak to walk." Links: First "Love, I Hear" from 1962 original cast recording; Second "Love, I Hear" and "Bring Me My Bride" both from 1996 revival original cast recording.
Like most Sondheim shows, Forum tends to add and subtract songs in later versions. After missing out on the original production because they wouldn't let him wear his glasses, that didn't seem to be a problem anymore and Phil Silvers took the role of Pseudolus in the show's first major revival, directed by Burt Shevelove himself. It actually started in October 1971 for a 47 performance run at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. I mentioned in the last part that Reginald Owen played Erronius. The cast also included Larry Blyden as Hysterium, veteran comic actor Carl Ballantine as Marcus Lycus and, the second biggest name in the show after Silvers, Nancy Walker in the role of Domina. In fact, she felt she needed another solo so Sondheim wrote "Farewell" for her. One of the courtesans happened to be Ann Jillian. The only song dropped was Philia's "That'll Show Him" and "Echo Song" put in its place. When they made the move to Broadway and opened March 30, 1972, Walker and Jillian didn't travel with them and another song got the axe. This time, they excised "Pretty Little Picture." Whatever the Tony eligibility dates were for the 1972 awards were, Forum must have cut it close since the awards were given April 23. Shevelove received a nomination for directing but, ironically, lost to Prince and Michael Bennett for their work on Follies. Silvers won lead actor in a musical and Blyden won featured actor as Hysterium. The revival won two of its three nominations. (They hadn't added a revival category yet.) The show seemed to be doing well until Silvers got sick, reportedly because of "food poisoning." An understudy filled in as they hurried to rehearse Tom Poston as a replacement, but ticket sales fell fast. The show only ran 156 performances and it turned out that Silvers had suffered a stroke. Links: "Farewell" info beneath video; "That'll Show Him" and "Pretty Little Picture" from 1962 cast recording.
When the next Broadway revival arrived in 1996, it did so during the era when the Broadway bug had bitten me badly so I actually got to see it soon after its April 18 opening. I had pretty good orchestra seats — I swear at one point it appeared as if Nathan Lane addressed me personally and we locked eyes at one point. Quite different from the couple of times I bumped into Lane accidentally in Manhattan when he always seemed to be the most annoyed, pissed-off man in the universe. Sure, he hammed it up like crazy as Pseudolus but that's a role that doesn't require nuance and it still won him his first Tony Award. Mark Linn-Baker did fine as Hysterium and, as I mentioned earlier, I got to see the late William Duell as Erronius. Ernie Sabella took on the role of Marcus Lycus and the long-cut song of "The House of Marcus Lycus" finally made the show. Lewis J. Stadlen received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Senex, but he was out the night I was there so I saw Macintyre Dixon in the role. Mary Testa played Domina. The songs followed the 1962 set with the exception of the addition I mention and continuing to keep "Pretty Little Picture" out of the show, though Lane recorded it for the cast album. Jerry Zaks received a nomination for directing the musical, but lost to George C. Wolfe for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. By now, the Tonys did have revival categories but Forum lost to The King & I. The revival made a bit of history when it recast Pseudolus as Lane exited the show by installing Whoopi Goldberg in his place. Casting a woman, let alone an African-American one with Goldberg's reputation, made people wonder what she'd do. Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, "The work's authors, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and its composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, have always said they made a point of constructing a show true to its ancient sources and free of distracting anachronisms. But the leading role of Pseudolus, the wily slave in pursuit of freedom and a part that demands a manic comic spirit, has inevitably gone to wild-card performers unlikely to resist opportunities for their own shtick. As Mr. Gelbart said, in a recent interview with The Sondheim Review, 'after seeing Zero Mostel recite baseball scores in front of the House of Senex, there's not too much that would surprise me.' So there is Ms. Goldberg, queen of the devilish aside, firmly reminding you of just who she is in the production's opening moments. She finds comic fodder not only in her present personal life, but in her professional life in Hollywood as well.…That this occurs early raises delighted expectations that many audience members have brought with them: Just how bad, as in naughty, is their Whoopi going to be? Of course, others — that nasty breed of theatergoers who find Schadenfreude in seeing big stars blow it — are asking the same question with a different emphasis: Can this movie star-comedian possibly carry a musical? Sorry, guys, she can." Following Goldberg, David Alan Grier took on the role. The second revival ran for 715 performances.
The wreckage in that photo in 1993 represents the remains at the time of the outdoor amphitheater of Butler University in Indianapolis that for decades hosted Starlight Musicals every summer. Other cities around the Midwest also received visits from the touring program that would bring concerts, plays and musicals featuring celebrities. From the time I was a young child, each summer when we visited my grandma we would take in some shows. Many of the early things we saw tended to be concerts by people such as Mitzi Gaynor, Liberace and the tag team of Jim Nabors and Florence Henderson. In 1979 when I was 10, I got to see my first actual musical. I wish I could locate the program so I'd remember what songs were in that production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As a youngster, I tended to be an autograph hound so if we got there early, I'd either stake out the entrance to the backstage or I'd assault the performers after the show. For me, Forum boasted an all-star cast. Playing Pseudolus was none other than Arte Johnson from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. I'd see him again when I grew up and he appeared in the Broadway revival of Candide. Avery Schreiber portrayed Hysterium, but to me — unfamiliar with his comedy work with Jack Burns — he was the Doritos guy. When I got his autograph after the show, I even brought Doritos with me so when he stepped out I had one ready to take a big crunchy bite out of for him. Schreiber raised his hands and said to me, "You got me" then signed my autograph. John Carradine played the role he originated on Broadway, Marcus Lycus. I didn't know that at the time nor did I realize the breadth of his career, but at 73, he looked frail to me, though he'd live another eight years. The final big name belonged to Hans Conried who was cast as Senex. I didn't know at the time that he supplied the voice of Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan and I hadn't heard of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I knew Conried as Wrongway Feldman from an episode of Gilligan's Island. He died less than three years later. Johnson alone remains alive. Schreiber passed away in 2002. That same summer, I saw Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel starring a drunk-as-a-skunk Robert Goulet, who exited his limi when he arrived bellowing, "Nobody owns me!" However, that's another story. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.
Labels: Awards, Books, Disney, Fosse, Frank Loesser, Gelbart, Hammerstein, J. Carradine, Music, Musicals, Neil Simon, Phil Silvers, Rodgers, Sid Caesar, Sondheim, Television, Theater Tribute, V. Leigh