Theatre yesterday and today



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As I begin rehearsals today to direct an amateur stock production of the Larry Gelbart-Burt Shevelove-Stephen Sondheim musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I'm feeling very nostalgic. Why shouldn't I? My connection to this show goes back nearly fifty years!

The first time I even heard of it was in a movie theatre at age nine when I saw the trailer for its film version in 1966. There was Zero Mostel (who I only knew off the album of Fiddler on the Roof) cavorting with scantily clad women all over ancient Rome. It sure seemed like a lot of fun to me! When I told my mother that I saw the coming attraction and that it was something I would like to see, she told me "That film isn't for you!" Really? Not for me? If not me, who? It seemed perfectly suited to my interests ... but I think I wound up obeying my mom, and didn't catch up with it until it was on TV a few years later. By this point, with my curiosity about it having been raised in more ways than one, I had become familiar with the Broadway cast album and was puzzled when I saw what the filmmakers had done to it. Why were most of the songs missing? It made no sense to me. It wasn't until a few years later when I saw it on stage that I understood just what a disaster the film was beyond the excision of half its score.

I finally got to see a full-scale revival of it when Forum came roaring back to Broadway in 1972, starring the inimitable Phil Silvers. At this point in my theatregoing career which began when I was eleven, this was (by my meticulous and highly accurate account) my 159th Broadway show. (I know, right? That's why I'm writing a book about it, folks!)

Phil Silvers & Larry Blyden in the 1972 Forum revival.

This Forum had me thrilled at the opportunity to see a classic musical. You see, this was long before revivals were part and parcel of every season. There was no Tony Award category dedicated to revivals back then. The idea of the core Broadway audience wanting to revisit a show only a few years after having seen it wasn't the mini-industry it is today. We practically get revivals of revivals what with Gypsy and The Glass Menagerie coming back every few years.

It was only a decade after the original that a new production of Forum returned to Broadway. It hadn't been planned, as it was only produced to be done in Los Angeles as part of the Ahmanson Theatre subscription season. The impetus for it was that Phil Silvers was set to star it it and it was a show he always wanted to do, especially considering that he turned it down back in 1961 when it was first offered to him. The creators wrote it with him in mind, as he was, at that time, not only an in-demand theatre star, but one of the most popular comedians on television. This was due to his wild success as Sgt. Ernie Bilko in You'll Never Get Rich, quickly thereafter renamed The Phil Silvers Show, although it has forever been known as Bilko to its legion of fans ever since.

Forum's limited L.A. run was such a hit, Silvers's co-star, Larry Blyden personally sought investors and raised the money to take the show to New York. If possible, the New York critics were even more receptive to the show than they were the first time around. But revivals were risky in those days and even with Silvers and Blyden winning Tonys in the spring, its box office plunged in the summer tourist season. As a way to boost business, Blyden came up with the publicity stunt of giving away all the tickets to its July 4th performance for free. Even though I'd already seen it one and a half times (yes, I snuck in an intermission one afternoon because I loved it so much), my brother and I took a train into Manhattan from our home on Long Island to see if we could get in. Of course we didn't anticipate that thousands of people had the same idea. Were told when we got there that every ticket had already been given away.

Another teenager who adored Phil Silvers took a train in that afternoon. All alone, young Joe Lane (later to change his name professionally to Nathan Lane) came in from Jersey City and had much better luck than my brother and I did. We discussed this specific day in a recent talk: "I was sixteen years old and showed up for that 4th of July matinee. They were giving away every seat in the house for free, which would never happen today. I was the last one to get in. They closed the door after me. And with everyone there for free we went berserk when Phil Silvers came out. What a day that was. I thought he was phenomenal. I’m so glad I got to see him."

Little could Lane have predicted that he would win his first Tony Award for playing the same role in what would be the next Broadway revival of Forum twenty-four years later.

Indeed, throughout its history, funny things have happened on the way to the forum. Having barely touched on the subject with which I began this column about my personal connection to it, I guess I'll have to pick up at this same place tomorrow. Till then—

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.