The first show I saw on Broadway was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Before I got to see it, however, I once again proved myself to be a total jerk, and the problem was entirely my fault.
In June of 1997, der Brucer and I were on a trip to the East Coast, a combination of visiting his family in Philly and meeting politicians in Washington D. C. He had planned the trip so that we would fly from LAX to JFK, take the subway into New York, and then catch a train down to Philadelphia where we would rent a car for the rest of the trip. What he hadn't counted on were my fears of New York City, planted in my head by scary tales my mother used to tell me and amplified by even scarier tales told in movies, television shows, and the evening news.
We got on the subway (which threw me because it runs above ground for almost the entire run through Brooklyn) and I started to get a really bad case of nerves. I didn't have a clue as to where we were or where we were going, and I tend to panic if I don't know where I am. There was nothing der Brucer could say that was going to calm me down. The fact that I was trying to carry five pieces of luggage while he was holding only two didn't help matters. We finally got underground, traveling under the East River, and my panic attack just grew and grew. There were all these nice people on the train with us, and I was absolutely sure one of them had to be a mugger. Meanwhile, der Brucer was trying to comfort me and giving side glances to everyone else, to assure them that he wasn't traveling with a complete idiot while not being too sure of that himself.
By the time we got to Madison Square Garden to switch to the commuter train heading south, I was an absolute wreck. He finally grabbed one of the bags I was carrying (the lightest one, no fool he) and pushed me down the stairs to where the train was waiting. On the trip to Philadelphia, I explained my phobic reaction while he patiently listened. Finally, he told me in his best deadpan, "We're going to spend most of the week in Washington D. C. What makes you think it's any safer there?" Which made me stop to think. My mother had lived in both New York City and Washington, and had survived both. Could her upstate New York bias have prejudiced her view of the city? "Look, on the way back we'll have some time for ourselves. We'll take an extra day, look around, you'll see what New York is really like. You never had any problems like this when we were in London." And he gave me that irritating grin he gets when he really does know better, and settled in for a short nap.
The family in Philly was fine. The politicians in D. C. were, well, politicians. I did get to do some sightseeing during that busy week, finally getting to see for myself the Liberty Bell, the Star Spangled Banner, and the Lincoln Memorial. (Strangest of all was walking up to the Viet Nam Memorial and finding myself staring at my own name, but that's another story.) Finally it was time to take the train back for a day in New York. "First things first, we get tickets for a show," der Brucer announced. "Then I'll show you some of the town." And while he took another nap, I saw the city through the windows on our right, and yes it was big, but it wasn't really frightening, was it?
We parked our bags at the luggage check at Madison Square Garden, save the one we'd need that night, and headed north to what der Brucer proclaimed was the most important landmark in New York City, the TKTS booth at Duffy Square. "I'll get our place in line, you check over the boards and decide what you want to see," he told me. So I walked up to the l.e.d. signs alone, without him by my side to protect me, and looked over what shows were playing. We'd already seen most of the really long-running shows in either London or L.A., and I knew der Brucer, given a choice, would rather see a musical…hey, wait a minute! Sure, it was late in the run, but David Alan Grier had the lead in Forum, which I was sure der Brucer never seen. He smiled when I told him of my choice, we got our tickets, found a hotel room, and headed on out for a night on the town.
First we took the subway down to the Village, and he immediately led me through several wrong turns before getting his own bearings and buying us a round of drinks at Boots and Saddle on Christopher Street. After that, we wandered around trying to find someplace good for dinner, and Mario Batali's restaurant Po just happened to have a cancellation and could fit us in. (I love when that happens! I don't recommend going to celebrity chef restaurants too often, because of the damage it can do to the bank account, but this was worth it, right up there with Rick Bayless' Topolabampo in Chicago and better than Dean Fearing's Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas. Sorry, Dean.) Then it was time to head back to the theater district and some "Comedy Tonight."
You want to know what was strange? I don't think I laughed once during the entire show. Der Brucer was almost in tears, he was laughing so hard. Me? I just sat there, enjoying the warmth, basking in the good spirits. This was light years distant from the New York I'd feared for so many years. Every line, every gesture was familiar to me, like I'd returned home. It was one of the most wonderful nights I've ever spent in the theater. I didn't need to laugh. I was too happy to laugh.
The next morning der Brucer asked me if I to fetch him a cup of coffee, hopefully to jump-start him into action. I went out onto the streets of New York alone, comfortable and looking forward to a marvelous day. Then I found out how much they were charging for a grande coffee at Starbucks. Nothing is ever perfect.
I'm somewhat amazed that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum got to Broadway at all. In his book Laughing Matters, Larry Gelbart devotes a chapter to how he, Burt Shevelove, and Stephen Sondheim wrote, re-wrote, re-re-wrote, edited, hacked apart, pieced back together, and eventually came up with the final script. (Some of these details also appear in the introduction Gelbart wrote for the script of Forum published by Applause, but read Laughing Matters anyway. There's mountains of material in it covering everything from Gelbart's work on the television series M*A*S*H to the scripts he wrote for films and plays like Oh, God, Tootsie, Barbarians at the Gate, Sly Fox, and City of Angels. Plus he's filled it with irresistible lines like "Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue." Sorry, Dustin.) (This isn't to say I haven't found my copy of Forum from Applause valuable as well. Where else could I find the lyrics for the songs that Sondheim wrote that didn't make the final version of the show? There are songs here I've never even heard recordings of!)
So, a little background. At the time Stephen Sondheim was this brash young fellow from New York City who had written for the television situation comedy Topper and the lyrics for the Broadway musicals West Side Story and Gypsy, but the only musical for which he'd written both music and lyrics, Saturday Night, remained unproduced. Meanwhile, Larry Gelbart, whose parents had been immigrants who had settled in Chicago, had started his career writing for radio, first for Danny Thomas and later for Eddie Cantor, Jack Parr, and Bob Hope. His association with Hope led to his writing for the new medium of television, which in turn led to a writing job for Red Buttons. That's where he met Burt Shevelove, who was Button's director.
Shevelove had quite an interesting career, himself. On television he would later write, direct, and produce for such stars as Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. On Broadway he directed Hallelujah, Baby and No, No Nanette . There was also a trio of Sondheim-related projects starting in '72, when he directed a revival of Forum starring Phil Silvers. This was followed with his directing the star-studded Sondheim: A Musical Tribute in '73, and writing and directing The Frogs in '74, with Sondheim pooling in music and lyrics. Mr. Shevelove died in 1982.
The goal of these three men was to write a musical comedy that required actors with comic skills, to fill what Gelbart describes as "a vulgarity vacuum on Broadway." Looking at the list of hit shows that were running when Forum finally had it's opening in the spring of '62, I can see what he means. My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Camelot, and Carnival had all been running for more than a season. The fall of '61 had added Jerry Herman's Milk and Honey and Frank Loesser's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to the boards. The only other show to succeed that spring was Richard Rodger's inter- racial romance No Strings. Not a single decent vulgarity in the lot.
(For some reason, Forum wasn't considered for the Tonys in '62, but instead was lumped in with the following season. Insultingly, Sondheim didn't even get nominated for best score! The nominations instead went to Little Me, Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, Bravo Giovanni and Oliver! Needless to say, none of those shows had a run equal to Forum's. Go figure. If anyone has any information on what Bravo Giovanni was about, please keep it to yourself, thank-you.)
The trio poured over the works of Titus Maccius Plautus, the Roman master of comedy. From his twenty-six surviving plays they excavated the characters and situations that became Forum, a process that took nearly five years before the play found its final form. I can only recommend that everyone read Gelbart's book, or at least his introduction to the libretto, to get an understanding of that history. Any attempt on my part to retell the story would force me to endlessly quote him here, and besides he is a much wittier writer than I am.
There is, however, one conflict that I do feel I should deal with. It has to do with the opening numbers. Yes, my friends, I'm about to reiterate my "Second Song Theory." Briefly put, the first song in a musical gets the audience's ear tuned to what kind of music they're going to be hearing, so that by the second song they're actually ready to concentrate on what is being said in the lyric. If there ever was a show that gives credence to my theory, Forum is that show.
Sondheim had originally provided a song called "Invocation" to open the show. However, the man who was directing Forum, the legendary George Abbott, believed that the show needed something "hummable" to start the evening, so Sondheim agreed and wrote a new opening number, a clever and gentle soft-shoe called "Love Is In the Air." This was followed by a song called "Love, I Hear," the callow hero Hero's gentle ode to being in love for the first time, which made for two very nice, gentle songs acting as the introduction to what was really a raucous, bawdy comedy. No wonder audiences were confused. The opening needed to be fixed.
The man brought in to fix the show was choreographer/director Jerome Robbins, which caused new problems of political proportions. This is going to take some explaining, so bear with me. Back in the 1950s, during Senator Joe McCarthy's zealous attempt to purge the country of communism, all sorts of people had been dragged to Washington D. C. to testify before the House Un- American Activities Committee as to whether they were or had ever been a member of the Communist party, or knew someone who had been a member. If the people involved happened to be in the entertainment business, so much the better for publicity's sake. The people who were named usually lost their jobs and could not find other work, a practice known as blacklisting. It didn't matter whether they had joined the party in their youth, out of ignorance or because it was fashionable, or if they had since left the party. That people could change didn't matter to McCarthy. It was rightfully called a witch-hunt, and it polarized the nation. And Jerry Robbins had gone to Washington and "named names."
(Some of the entertainment industry remains polarized. Elia Kazan, director of such films as On the Waterfront and Streetcar Named Desire, is another person who "named names", and thus ruined many careers. When he was given an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, countless editorial columns and some of the more serious talk shows were filled with deafening howls of angry protest. The victims of blacklisting haven't forgotten what Kazan and others like him did in Washington.)
While Robbins hadn't pointed his finger at Zero Mostel (Forum 's star and a recovering blacklist victim), he had named Madeline Gilford, wife of Mostel's co-star, Jack Gilford. There was a very good chance that Gilford and Mostel would walk out on the production if Robbins even walked in the door. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Mostel and Gilford said that they would "boycott no one on the basis of their politics" (I'm again quoting Gelbart) and the production proceeded. Sondheim wrote a new opening number better suited for the show, Robbins got it staged, everything clicked, and on opening night Forum proved to be a hit.
(Lest anyone be concerned, "Love is In the Air" later found a home of it's own. Catherine Baranski and Robin Williams sing it as a duet in the film The Birdcage.)
So what exactly is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and why does it work so well? The opening number, "Comedy Tonight," pretty well sums things up: "Old situations, New complications, Nothing portentous or polite." Everything in the show has been done before in countless comedies that date back to, well, the days of Plautus. It is because we are so familiar with the characters and situations, and because they are all so identifiably, humanly typical, that we can laugh at them. Forum gives us the chance to laugh at "Man in his madness," a chance to laugh at ourselves.
At the center of the action is Pseudolus, the slave. Pseudolus is a liar of outrageous proportions. He will use blackmail to achieve his goals. He dangles the temptations of greed and lust to sway those around him to do as he chooses. In real life, whenever I meet someone like this, I try my best not to have a second meeting; people like Pseudolus simply are not pleasant to have around. But, on stage, we love to see him at work. In fact, we cheer him on. Why? Well, let's face facts. There is a part of every one of us that wishes we could actually be Pseudolus, someone who can get away with the lies and deceptions. Disagreeable as we might find him in real life, we also envy him. Plus there is something I haven't mentioned about Pseudolus that makes him someone we root for: he is determined to somehow win his freedom, with a passion so earnest that we can forgive him everything else. Again, we envy him, to be capable of that passion and to dare to express it, to follow his passion no matter the consequences! For all the negative aspects of his character, his aspirations make him heroic, a man we would like to be ourselves.
He is surrounded by a cast of characters so filled with human faults and foibles that they resemble a row of dominoes, waiting for the slightest nudge to make them all fall down with a clatter. First on stage is Senex, a man locked in a life of routines not of his choosing. Suffering from an ancient Roman version of mid-life crisis, he wishes he could be riding off into the sunset on his bright red sports chariot, with a buxom blonde babe thrilled to be at his side. Instead he is married to Domina, a woman who covers her own disappointment in marriage by bossing everyone around, whether they're her slaves or not. Both equally self-deceived as to their own attractiveness, they may never realize that what they have is about as good as they will ever get. We know these people. They are our neighbors, our parents, and eventually they are us.
Their son, Hero, is almost as scary and sympathetic in his own way. No matter how filled out they may be with outward braggadocio, at the core of every teenager lies this inept, tremulous and blushing geek. Even high school football captains are doomed to such moments of awkwardness. If we aren't Hero now, we surely have been him at some time in our lives.
The love of his life is the fair Philia, a virgin in every sense of the word. Not only is she completely pure sexually, she is unstained in her heart, and her brain is a total blank slate. She is admittedly a fantasy character, one we have all dreamed about at some time or other, in some form or other. Is her gender opposite, the virtuous rescuing knight on the pure white charger, any less a cartoon of the imagination? I think not.
Speaking of knights, we also have the warrior Captain, Miles Gloriosus, the embodiment of the aforementioned high school football captain who is too powerful and too full of himself to be defeated, the one who always gets his way whether he is on the playing field or his girlfriend. There's Hysterium, the fellow who always insists that every rule be followed regardless of how ridiculous the consequences, and then kisses up to the authorities to make sure they never notice when he himself breaks those rules. There's the greatest rule-breaker of all, Marcus Lycus, willing to make any deal or pull any swindle just to make sure he ends up at the top of the heap (even if it turns out to be a dung heap). And there is Erronius, forever chasing daydreams, willing to believe any story told him, in this case literally blind to the real world around him. Add to this the courtesans and Proteans, who take on every other role and station in life, and the cast is complete.
We know these people so well because we grew up with them, have lived with them, and sometimes are them. They surrounded us throughout school, they live in our neighborhoods, and they sit at the next desk at work. "Something familiar," the song tells us. Indeed these characters are.
For this review, I've decided to use the Original 1996 Broadway Cast Recording of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum because I think it's the most complete version of the score so far, not because the performances are necessarily the best. I'll cover the differences between this version, the Original Cast Recording, and the London Cast Recording at another time.
By now you must be ready to actually listen to the revival recording of Forum, right? I was hoping you would be. Here it is, Track by Track!
Track 1: "Overture"
There's nothing spectacular about the Overture to Forum, no ripping blast into the stratosphere from a solo horn like we heard in Gypsy, no extended dance sequence like we found in West Side Story. It does have in its favor the trait of brevity, running less than two minutes; just long enough to make sure the audience gets to their seats. It starts with a bit of the song "Free," followed by "Love, I Hear" with "Free" continuing through as counterpoint, followed by a more complete interpretation of "Free." The piece concludes with Miles Gloriosus' fanfare from "Bring Me My Bride" and a final flourish.
Track 2: "Comedy Tonight"
Announced by a repeat of that fanfare, this time on a higher horn, Prologus enters and announces that we are to have a comedy. He then proceeds to tell us in song what sort of comedy he means, assisted by the Proteans (Brad Aspel, Cory English, and Ray Roderick), a trio of actors who will be playing everything from soldiers to eunuchs and here serve as the chorus. Busy fellows, the Proteans. They are especially helpful when Prologus explains the setting, three houses on a street in Rome. The first, the house of Erronius, was attacked by pirates, which the Proteans recreate for us to the music of "Free"; the second, the house of Lycus, is filled with courtesans, inspiring a dance to the music of "Impossible." Prologus then points us to the house of Senex, from which he will play the part of Pseudolus. Finally, he brings on the entire cast for one more chorus of Comedy Tonight, and the show begins. (As Der Brucer has commented, there aren't many shows that begin with a curtain call.)
"Comedy Tonight" is basically a list song set to a quick march, but Sondheim sure gets a lot of mileage from his list. Alliteration offsets contrasts (appealing/appalling), homophones give birth to grand puns (weighty affairs will just have to wait). At the same time, the music speeds us through a lot of expository material. This is no soft-shoe. There is, however, an added bit of business that may bewilder listeners who didn't seen the revival: after the first chorus of the song, there's an interruption of much wailing and tragic moaning and someone screaming "My baby's dead! AAARGH!!!" What was taking place onstage was a momentary parting of the curtain, revealing a fragment of a town beset by war, quakes, and whatnot, with the screamer holding up a dead doll. Hmmm, maybe you have to have been there.
Track 3: "Love, I Hear"
I've never really cared for the way this song is performed. My apologies to any and all Hero worshipers, but it has always struck me as being played on the tremulous side, and poses Hero as far too wimpy to be a respectable, er, hero. Don't get me wrong; it's a decent song. The two-note musical phrasing perfectly captures the breathlessness that first love causes, and there's enough wordplay to show us that Hero has a decent IQ. My argument is with the arrangement, which I find far too dreamy and in need of a good stiff jolt of full-voiced testosterone. Hey, Hero is twenty years old, fer gosh sake! What he lacks is experience, not guts; he knows he's in love, but hasn't a clue as to what he should do next. Just because he's dominated by his mother doesn't mean he has to constantly simper. Everybody cowers when Domina's around.
My other complaint brings us back to my second-song theory. Hero's falling in love may be the catalyst that starts the action of Forum, but the plot's real trigger is Pseudolus' dream of being a free man. By all rights, the second song should belong to Pseudolus, not Hero. Unfortunately, due to plotting problems, there really isn't a space for a song for our hero, so Hero gets to sing instead.
Track 4: "Free"
Fortunately, Sondheim and company make up for that weak second song with a truly great third song, which I've heard Whoopi Goldberg thinks is the most important in the score, and I never argue with Whoopi. Lyrically there's a lot of punny playing on the various meanings of the word free, from "unshackled" through "loosely garbed" to "no payment required, thank-you very much!" Plus, Hero gets to have fun in how he sings the word "free," from good and loud to soft and nice. But the true brilliance is found in how Sondheim handles the music. Initially, when Hero offers Pseudolus his freedom, Pseudolus can't believe it and the melody is a series of downward scales. Then, the idea sinks in and the melody charges upward as Pseudolus sings, "Can you see me!" Starting at that moment, the song is a series of upward quartets of notes, mirroring his uplifted hopes. However, when the flip side of the deal occurs to him, that he would have to spend money and earn a living, the melody returns to it's original downward tone again, only to reverse once more when Hero repeats the word "Free," and continues to move upwards right through the final four notes from the orchestra. I don't know if Sondheim did this intentionally or not, but it sure works, and it gets the show off (at last) to a rousing start.
Track 5: "The House of Marcus Lycus"
Now, here's an interesting little number, as Lycus might say. "The House of Marcus Lycus" was written for the original run of Forum, but someone decided it had to be cut because it butted up against the courtesan's dances. It was resurrected for the concerts sponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Arts and released on the recording A Stephen Sondheim Evening. When it came time for the '96 revival, the production team decided it should be put back in. Of course, some compromises had to be made. Lycus sings just a chorus of the song, a mere smattering if you will, before the girls…*ahem* before the women come in to dance. (This track is the real reason I'm using the revival for this general discussion of the score. You won't find any courtesans dancing on the OCR or LCR.)
Reinstating "The House…" naturally led to a rare opportunity for David Chase and Rob Marshall. As the Dance Music Arranger and Choreographer, respectively, it was their job to come up with some snappy dances for the courtesans, which they did by taking the music of "…Marcus Lycus" and coming up with several nifty variations. For Tintinabula (Pamela Everett) they have provided a slinky, tambourine-accented samba. Panacea (Leigh Zimmerman) gets what I like to call the Doris Day variation, with lots of bouncy flutes. The Geminae (Susan Misner and Lori Werner) twirl to a swirl of oboe-enhanced dark mystery. Vibrata (Mary Ann Lamb) shakes things up with a big band jazz variation. And Gymnasia (Stephanie Pope) tops the spectacle off with the bump and grind of a strip club. Lycus returns for a final chorus of his song, and number comes to an end.
Track 6: "Lovely"
This is a fine example of a song's comedy coming from its interpretation, rather from the lyrics themselves. It is hilarious in the reprise. The problem is that the song has to be delivered straight the first time it is sung, or the later jokes will never work. "Lovely" is sufficiently pretty when delivered straight, of course, and that's all that is required of it at this time. Enough said. Oh, and the Proteans show up on the balcony towards the end of this rendition, humming harmony and strewing rose petals.
Track 7: "Pretty Little Picture"
In his attempt to convince Hero and Phylia that they should run away, Pseudolus gets to sing this spritely cha-cha for three (I suppose I could have added another cha in there to make it a trio). It is filled with alliteration, with lots of S's and B's (like "the bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay"). I've read that during the '72 revival of Forum, the song had to be dropped because Phil Silvers couldn't master it. I suppose it doesn't hurt the show to cut "Pretty Little Picture" as far as plotting goes, but it is such a wonderful song with lots of opportunities for expressive movement that I find it a shame that anyone would want to.
Track 8: "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"
This song is simply a classic. It's good enough the first time around, when Senex and Pseudolus sing of the virtues of having a maid around (playing with the double meaning of a servant and a young woman, of course), and describing everything they would love to see her do. But when they come back out and sing the song again, now joined by Hysterium, and then return once more for a third chorus of the song, now joined by Lycus as well, the song keeps getting better and better each time. The technique of repeating a song this way has been used before and since (most recently in the song "Henchmen are Forgotten" from Triumph of Love), but never has anyone used it as well as Sondheim uses it here.
That's not the only way the song proves so winning, however. The melody is wonderfully bouncy, but there's an added surprise when Senex and Pseudolus sing about having a girl "to putter around the house." At the moment they reach the word "house" the melody jumps up a third, with the effect on the listener being much like suddenly and pleasurably being goosed! We not only get to witness the joy of the men onstage, but are also invited to take part in it ourselves. That's good writing!
Track 9: "I'm Calm"
Ah, the wonders of three-quarter time. It is so romantic, the basis of the waltz, the rhythm of a heartbeat, the music of love. Has anyone ever noticed how rarely Sondheim uses three-quarter time to express those things?
Here, in an early example, he uses three-quarter time to express Hysterium's panic, repeatedly telling himself "I'm calm" while singing at a full gallop. Even when Hysterium finally does slow down, his terror remains close to the surface, resulting in a full hysterical scream when Senex calls his name. It's not the funniest number in the show, but Sondheim's use of three-quarter time to express anxiety and stress is perfect.
Track 10: "Impossible"
I can think of only two songs written by Sondheim that deal with fathers and sons: this song and "No More" (Into the Woods). This doesn't mean much statistically, since very few father/son relationships are dealt with in Broadway musicals, and even fewer are put to music. (A Little Night Music's Fredrick and Henrick Egerman, for example, have a relationship but never sing about it.) The good news is that "Impossible" and "No More" are both, in their own ways, very good examinations of father/son conflicts.
In the case of "Impossible," we get the competition between a father and son played as a comedy act, both men yearning for the same girl, and both bewildered in what she could possibly see in the other fellow. The give and take in their bantering is almost something you would expect in a Hope and Crosby duet, expressing both a partnership and a rivalry. (Ah, but who would play the other's father?) In the end, nothing is resolved, which is exactly as it should be.
Track 11: "Bring Me My Bride"
With a swagger in his step, Captain Miles Gloriosus arrives at last, appropriately to a march. His song, a paean to his magnificence and the joys of battle, is too large to be sung alone, so he is joined by his soldiers, the Proteans. As Mary Poppins would say, he is "perfectly perfect in every way." (And I'll bet you weren't expecting a pop culture cross-reference to herin this column!) While a quick mention is made of his being masterful "with sword and with pen," much more is made of his various body parts. Interestingly, while the song is titled "Bring Me My Bride," the captain has nothing to say about her, only about himself. Which says everything.
Track 12: "That Dirty Old Man"
It wasn't until I saw Mary Testa perform this song on Broadway that I realized just how hard it really is. It requires a full, trained voice combined with a sense for comedy that includes a willingness to look foolish. The song alternates between being downright angry (represented by short notes attacked quickly and with punch) and still passionately in love even after years of being ignored (where Sondheim uses sustained, more operatic notes). On top of which, the actress playing Domina has to interact with the actor playing Hysterium, her trusted inferior. Tricky stuff, really.
Track 13: "That'll Show Him"
I have to say I've never really cared for this song. It's one long take on a single joke, that of Phylia's plan to get revenge on Miles Gloriosus by having wild, passionate sex with him, because that will prove how much she loves Hero. Sure, it plays funny because Hero is visibly upset by this idea, and she hasn't a clue, but really, folks, it's so…so…blonde! The joke tries to have it both ways, where she's this totally innocent virgin but knows how to get to a man by making him think he's just made the best score in history. It's a self-contradiction, and it just doesn't work for me. (I am now gyrating wildly as I dodge the daggers thrown my way for daring to not like a Sondheim song.)
Track 14: "Lovely" (reprise) Pseudolus (Nathan Lane) & Hysterium (Mark Linn-Baker)
It's only fitting that the number that doesn't work (for me) is followed by one of the funniest songs ever written, and it isn't even the song that's funny! The first time we heard this song was back on track 6, where Phylia and Hero introduced us to "Lovely." The melody is exactly the same here. The lyrics are exactly the same as before. What has changed is the situation (and the accompanying dialogue), and it's a hoot.
The reason "Lovely" works as a comedy song us because it works so effectively with reversals. This rendition of the song starts with Pseudolus using some strong-arm persuasion to make Hysterium pose as Phylia, or more specifically as a dead Phylia, and then sings the song to convince Hysterium that he is indeed a lovely bride. So far so good, right? But then Hysterium reverses himself, gets into the swing of things and repeats the song himself, all the while demanding the flowers and jewelry any fair maiden would deservedly have. It is a case of brilliant situational comedy, and it's the funniest in the show.
This isn't the only way I've seen the song "Lovely" turned upon itself for great comedic effect. When der Brucer and I went to see Putting It Together at the Mark Taper Forum last year, the song was sung first by the very sexy vamp Susan Egan, immediately followed by a verse sung by Carol Burnett. Susan's take was, of course, straight up. Burnett, meanwhile, sung her verse as a total put-down: "She's lovely, all she is is lovely, lovely is the one thing she can be!" It was a brilliant rethinking of how the song and its reprise can be used.
Track 15: "Funeral Sequence"
After the glory of the "Lovely" reprise, it's no wonder the "Funeral Sequence" pales in comparison. It's actually a well- conceived bit, with Miles continuing to view the rest of the world as centered on himself, specifically referring to Phylia not as a woman but as a part of his conquests. Adding to the continuing escalation of the situation, he decides he must have her burned (so that he can keep her ashes), and Pseudolus has to think quickly to keep himself and Hysterium out of the fire, so to speak. It is a good, funny song, but it's just not as good as the competition. (But don't tell Miles Gloriosus that, he's very sensitive.)
One thing I don't understand is why the Chase sequence that follows wasn't recorded. The disk clocks in at mere seconds less than 50 minutes. There was plenty of time/space on the CD to allow the instrumental track to be set in a recorded form. Unfortunately, the opportunity wasn't taken advantage of, and we're all less well off because of it.
Track 16:"Comedy Tonight" (finale)
The final denouement for all the characters is revealed in the reprise of the opening song. It is joyous, and the perfect way to finish the show. And that's the disk, track by track.
Well, it looks like I'm back! I want to apologize to everyone for the big gap between this column and the last one. I was hit with a major depression, and fortunately had the sense to seek treatment. I think the end of my writer's block as a good sign that the treatment is indeed working.
I would like to thank everyone who wrote me about the different lyrics to "Children Will Listen" that I commented on last time. It had completely slipped my mind that they had first appeared on Barbra Streisand's Back to Broadway album. That so many people responded, both by personal e-mail and on the Finishing the Chat forum, was one of the best ego-boosts I've had in years. Even der Brucer was impressed.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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