A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
As with The Boyfriend, I figure there are two ways of looking at this movie. You can gripe about what it is not, or you can just enjoy what it is. Many people who saw The Boyfriend on the stage complained that that crazy man, Ken Russell, took what was a sweet, silly little musical and turned it into an overblown, gigantic monster. I, who never caught the stage version, saw it for what was on the screen, which was one of the craziest, funniest, most creative examples of singing and dancing and outrageous set design since Busby Berkeley. In fact, some of the numbers even topped that great man.
It is certainly possible to level a lot of charges against this one, too. I did see this one on stage, and I lament the loss of no less than half of the musical numbers, including wonderful ones like “I’m Calm,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and “Free.” And one could complain that that crazy man, Richard Lester, took a freewheeling farce and hugely expanded it for the wide screen, at the same time losing a great deal of the plot. A third carp (and this one I agree with) is that a totally unnecessary chase was tacked on to the end, just because this is the movies, and a chase is expected in a comedy. But for the rest, I look at what is up there on the screen, and it is glorious. And I should point out that Lester did film several of the other numbers, but the studio thought it was getting too long and forced him to cut them. Damn! I would really have loved to have seen Jack Gilford singing “I’m Calm,” one of the highlights of the show.
Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford reprise their stage roles as Pseudolus and Hysterium, and Phil Silvers (who the producers originally wanted as the star) plays the pimp Marcus Lycus, and Lester’s frequent collaborator Michael Crawford (still many years from his starring role in The Phantom of the Opera) is the young love-struck Hero. All of them are fabulous. It also contains Buster Keaton’s last performance. He was dying of cancer at the time, though he didn’t tell anyone. He was in great pain, and went out a trouper to the end.
The music and lyrics are all by Stephen Sondheim, and they are nothing like the Sondheim we have come to know since those early days. They are all hilarious, as is the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The jokes come so fast you are bound to miss a few. There is a laugh in just about every line. The production design is fantastic, right down to the rotting fruit left out on the set that drew flies. This led to some of the best end credits of all time, an animated eye-popper that featured a lot of those flies. The numbers that we do still have are staged very well. And there are the wonderful Richard Lester touches. He is in my list of top ten directors of all time. I really wish he had continued in the business longer than he did, but I understand his reasons for dropping out. His good friend Roy Kinnear (who has a small part as a gladiator instructor here) fell from a horse during the filming of The Fifth Musketeer, broke his pelvis, and bled to death right there on the location. Lester decided film wasn’t important enough to risk lives for.
Well, I digressed. To sum up, I really love this film. It could have been better, but I will continue to enjoy what we have.
BTW: There is a reason that Broadway musicals almost always get try-outs in smaller cities before hitting the Big Apple. It give the creators a chance to fine-tune the show. I recall Marvin Hamlisch telling of how his funny number in A Chorus Line wasn’t getting the laughs he had expected. He was watching it get just mild chuckles when he glanced down at his program book. There it was: “Tits and Ass.” He realized he had been giving away the punch line. So he retitled it “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” and from then on it got huge laughs. I remember it myself, when I saw it on Broadway.
Sort of the same problem with this show. It just wasn’t capturing the audience, and no one knew what was wrong. So they brought in Jerome Robbins and he told them. The audience was puzzled by it all. Just what is this show, anyway? A romance? No, not really. So he told Sondheim he needed a new introduction, spelling out that this was going to be a knockabout farce, a comedy. And Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight,” which became the signature number and saved the show!