With the inability to get any of Stephen Sondheim songs for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum out of my head this week, perhaps it's a good time to tell how he came to write the score for it—the first chance a Broadway audience heard both music and lyrics by the composer.
At the start of his career, Sondheim wasn't able to get producers interested in his being hired to write both music and lyrics. He was very young and totally untested. He came to West Side Story, his first hire for Broadway, only when the chosen lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, couldn't get out of a Hollywood contract. When Leonard Bernstein's experiment at writing words to accompany his own music proved a hardship, Sondheim was procured, who was (at first) to share the lyric writing chores. As Sondheim describes it, "We worked together, but by the time we opened in Washington all the lyrics were mine, with some one or two-line exceptions. And so he [Bernstein] very generously took his name off the lyric writer list."
Over the years Bernstein noted that this single act of generosity wound up costing him millions in residuals, as there was no way he could have predicted its songs would wind up a royalties bonanza, the result of WSS's highly successful film version. He would say this laughing, but one wonders if he really thought it was all that funny.
Sondheim was happy to have gained the necessary experience WSS provided and, though proud of his accomplishment, he has also spent a lot of time over the years self-deprecatingly disparaging some of his work due to youthful oversights and overkill—"today the world was just an address," being his primary example. It was the first time he ever wrote lyrics to someone else's music and, as he writes in his book Finishing the Hat, "the someone else was a legend verging on myth." And at just twenty-five when they started working together? I mean—come on!
His next job, for which he very much wanted to write both music and lyrics, was Gypsy. With a book by WSS's Arthur Laurents, it was conceived by its director-choreographer Jerome Robbins as a star vehicle for the one-and-only Ethel Merman. As someone whose first song she ever sung on a Broadway stage was composed by George and Ira Gershwin ("I've Got Rhythm" in 1930's Girl Crazy), Merman was beyond spoiled, considering Cole Porter (5 shows) and Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun) were the caliber of composer she was used to working with. Merman's one time testing unknown songwriters resulted in the unhappy musical Happy Hunting, just prior to her taking on Gypsy. It was acknowledged as one of the few failures among her dozen or more Broadway musicals and it didn't allow her the confidence in hiring Sondheim as both composer and lyricist. She wanted the indefaticable Jule Styne, who Sondheim reluctantly agreed to provide lyrics, since the project intrigued him and his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II told him that writing for a star like Merman and working again with Robbins and Laurents (plus Styne) was nothing to turn down lightly.
Even with Gypsy a success that garnered excellent reviews, it did little for Sondheim in the way of a career move, since it was never his intention of being a lyricist for hire. It took the following four years to write a new show (this time on spec) that would finally serve to introduce him to Broadway as a composer-lyricist.
Opening in May 1962, Forum was an enormous hit—the longest running of all of Sondheim's shows (964 performances). It won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but get this: not only didn't Sondheim win for its score—he wasn't even nominated! That season the Tony committee found Bravo Giovanni more worthy (a show that ran for 76 performances with a score by the one-time-only Broadway teaming of Milton Schafer and Ronny Graham). Like Rodney Dangerfield, Sondheim got no respect. Even when the film of Forum was produced in 1966, it jettisoned nine of its thirteen songs. Again, no respect.
Forum received raves for its original production, but as with Gypsy, reviewers barely mentioned Sondheim's contribution. They were too busy praising the book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, with good reason, as it's one of the funniest ever written. Thought effortless in execution, it came out of intensely hard and disciplined work, conceived over many drafts, with many disappointments along the way. Like its authors, Sondheim too felt that achieving the right balance and tone for his score was at times elusive and, in his own words, has referred to the lyrics as "the most difficult set I've ever had to write."
Over time, Forum's score has settled into one that is now recognized as superbly crafted. After all, who doesn't admire the hilariously witty lyrics set to such an irresistible tune as "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," which never fails to bring the house down? Or the airy and lilting "Lovely," used first to express youthful love and lust, and then low comedy when reprised as a song for Pseudolus to sing to Hysterium, forced to dress in drag to substitute for a dead virgin.
Yes, a dead virgin. And if that doesn't make sense, then get to a production of Forum near you, where it's undoubtedly playing somewhere this summer and as good a place as any to plug the one I'm directing at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts from August 4-20th.
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