Theatre yesterday and today



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My long and abiding affection for the Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, can best be summed up in one word: comedy.

Being hysterically funny is the main reason why The Producers took Broadway by storm fifteen years ago. It was possibly the most hilarious show to hit town since the original Forum back in 1962. And with Nathan Lane, the closest thing to bringing back the memory of Zero Mostel, it made people of a certain age nostalgic for a time when a comedian could lead a show to such uproarious heights.

The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q are modern classics that are extremely funny, but not star-centric. In order to produce Forum you must have a qualified clown. All three times Forum has been produced on Broadway it starred a one-of-a-kind performer: Mostel first, Lane third and Phil Silvers in between. There was even a revival planned for 2014 that was to star James Corden, relatively fresh off his Tony as Best Actor in the slapstick British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. As we now know, Cordon took a far more lucrative and perhaps longer gig than a year’s run in a show would have made possible. But with Broadway not going anywhere anytime soon, we can wait for what eventually should be a smash revival of Forum starring Corden at some point down the road.

Beginning rehearsals yesterday for what will be my third production of Forum, I’ve come full circle. At sixteen, I played Hero, the shy and love-struck ingénue; at nineteen I graduated to the role of Hysterium, in vaudeville terms “the second banana.” Now I cast myself (I’m directing this production) as Erronius, “a befuddled old man in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.” It’s a natural progression (I’m not getting any younger). And, as the Old Actor says in The Fantasticks, “there are no small parts … only small actors.”

The young cast of which I’ve been put in charge is composed primarily of college students from New England drama schools such as Boston University, Emerson, Boston Conservatory at Berklee and Harvard, but also as far-flung as Hofstra and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. I discovered quickly, and with little to no surprise, that this energetic and talented group had no idea of the entertainment roots from which Forum sprang; burlesque and vaudeville. To that end, I am taking up some of our valuable rehearsal time to view (thanks to YouTube) vital and important artifacts that remain from a time close to a hundred years ago. Ancient history, sure. But history all the same. How can the actors playing Pseudolus and Lycus go into a routine as fast and furious as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” without first seeing Abbott and Costello perform “Who’s on First?” The answer: they can't.

How do you do a slow burn unless you have seen the great (and now forgotten) Edgar Kennedy mix incredulity with concealed rage while Harpo Marx destroys his lemonade cart in Duck Soup? Or observe how a wordless deadpan look can bring an audience to its knees when it’s delivered by the master of them all, Jack Benny? I will also have them watch more modern descendants like Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane (just take a look at how he owes a large part of his characterization to Benny—it’s all there). What is a straight man? A low comic? How do you execute a pratfall without signaling ahead that it's coming? What's the best way to do 'a take'?

The actor who first played Erronius was Raymond Walburn, who came out of retirement at the age of seventy-four to take on the role. In his day, Walburn was best known for playing bumblers with a mastery of something once known as "the sputtering take." I intend to find one or two of them in order to pay homage to this wonderful character actor, who can be seen in many of the classic 30s and 40s comedies of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges.

Raymond Walburn as Erronius with Jack Gilford as Hysterium in

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962).

By the end of three weeks of rehearsal if I can have this company shuffling around like a bunch of old men we should be on our way to being pretty successful. Well, not really old men, but you get the idea. They say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. With these young people paying direct attention, my intention is to make sure they repeat it! After all, one of the first rules of comedy is that rules are made to be broken.

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