A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC), specifically Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Mostellaria, it tells the bawdy story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door. The plot displays many classic elements of farce, including puns, the slamming of doors, cases of mistaken identity (frequently involving characters disguising themselves as one another), and satirical comments on social class. The title derives from the line that vaudeville comedians often used to begin a story: "A funny thing happened on the way to the theater".
The musical's original 1962 Broadway run won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book. A Funny Thing has enjoyed several Broadway and West End revivals and was made into a successful film. It is a popular choice for school and community theatre.
Original Broadway production
The show's creators originally wanted Phil Silvers in the lead role of Pseudolus, but he turned them down, allegedly because he would have to perform onstage without his glasses, and his vision was so poor that he feared tripping into the orchestra pit. So did Milton Berle. Eventually, Zero Mostel was cast.
Out of town during pre-Broadway tryouts, the show was attracting little business and not playing well. Director and choreographer Jerome Robbins was called in by Abbott and Prince to give advice and make changes. The biggest change Robbins demanded was a new opening number to replace "Love Is in the Air" and introduce the show as a bawdy, wild comedy; Stephen Sondheim complied, creating the song "Comedy Tonight." From that point on, the show was a success.
Along with Mostel, the musical featured a cast of seasoned performers, including Jack Gilford (Mostel's friend and fellow blacklist member), David Burns, John Carradine, Ruth Kobart and Raymond Walburn. The young lovers were played by Brian Davies and Preshy Marker. Karen Black, originally cast as the ingenue, was replaced out of town.
The show won several Tony Awards: best musical, best actor, best supporting actor (Burns), best book, and best director. The score, Sondheim's first time on Broadway writing both words and music, was coolly received, however, not even garnering a nomination.
Motion picture adaptation
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was made into a musical film in 1966, directed by Richard Lester, with Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford re-creating their stage roles and Phil Silvers starred in an expanded role as Marcus Lycus. David Burns did not return for the film role of Senex.
In 1972 there was a critically well-received Broadway revival, directed by co-author Burt Shevelove and starring Phil Silvers as Pseudolus. Larry Blyden, who played Hysterium, the role created by Jack Gilford, also co-produced. Two songs were dropped from the show, and two new Sondheim songs were added. The new songs included in this production had been added during a 1971 Los Angeles production: "Echo Song" (sung by Hero and Philia), and "Farewell" (sung by Domina as she and Senex depart for the country). The production ran 156 performances, but had to close soon after Phil Silvers suffered a stroke. The show won Tonys for Silvers and Blyden.
The musical was also revived with great success in 1996, starring Nathan Lane as Pseudolus; he was replaced later in the run by Whoopi Goldberg and also by David Alan Grier. The production, directed by Jerry Zaks, ran 715 performances. Lane won the Best Actor Tony for his work.
Every actor who has opened in the role of Pseudolus on Broadway (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane) won a Best Actor Tony for their performance. In addition, Jason Alexander, who performed as Pseudolus in one scene in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, also won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.