The play title Mostellaria is likely to mean nothing to anyone but classical scholars, while Miles Gloriosus and Pseudolus will ring a bell with contemporary theatregoers not as titles but as character names from the 51-year-old musical theatre classic A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But it is in those three simply titled comedies by the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.) that Forum had its collegiate pre-origins in the years before World War II. Playwright Burt Shevelove recalled in a program note for a Forum revival:
I was a first-year student in the Department of Drama at Yale University. Richard O’Connell (later to become the authorized translator of Lorca’s plays) was directing Plautus’ Mostellaria as his master’s thesis. He had conceived it as a Broadway musical comedy, and I wrote the lyrics for the production. I remember one of the songs was called “A Couple of Greeks on a Roman Holiday.” It was that kind of show.
Shevelove’s memory is sound: The year was 1938, and the work’s full title was “Plautus Potpourri: A Roman Holiday, Adapted from Plautus’ Mostellaria (The Haunted House).” Setting Plautus to music became something of a pet notion of Shevelove’s: In 1942, as a resident director at Yale, he wrote the book and lyrics for When In Rome, adapted from the Plautus plays Miles Gloriosus, about a swaggering Greek soldier, and Pseudolus, about a conniving slave.
The idea didn’t resurface until the late 1950s, when Shevelove, as he recalled it, was part of a late-night bull session among fellow playwrights and TV writers in which the topic of “the lack of low comedy on Broadway” came up, and he began to wax nostalgic about his New Haven experiments. Plautus’ early comedies, he felt, could provide a template for all that was missing from the Broadway musical at the time—a form which was then defined by comparatively sophisticated shows like South Pacific and My Fair Lady. As Larry Gelbart, who would join Shevelove as co-writer on the musical that would soon bear the working title of A Roman Comedy, put it, Broadway’s development of “the musical comedy…had improved the quality of the former at the expense of a good deal of the latter…The Rodgerses and Harts and Hammersteins, the Lerners and Loewes, brilliant men of music and artists of great refinement, had created a vulgarity vacuum, a space we were happy, even anxious to fill.”
Among those similarly anxious to join Shevelove was a young songwriter, Stephen Sondheim, who by that point had already penned the lyrics for West Side Story (another exemplar of the era’s weighty musicals) and tried his hand at television writing, but was itching to for a chance to premiere both his music and lyrics on Broadway. Sondheim saw great farcical potential in the Plautus plays Shevelove showed him. Gelbart, too, devoured Plautus’ comedies, and later raved:
What a treat he was to research! How incredibly Plautus’ aged, ageless writings based on men’s gift for silliness, for pomposity and hypocrisy, have survived; how well it all stood up, the comedy that would serve as fodder not only for the theater, but for future stand-up comedians as well. Digging about as archaeologists might have, what unbelievable treasures we found in his plays, a catacomb filled with nothing but funnybones…I believe it is safe to say that there is not a joke form, comic character, or farcical situation that exists today that does not find its origin in Plautus’ work.
The homework may have been a laugh, but the gestation of Forum was famously arduous, taking more than four years of writing—not quite non-stop, as the writers took on other assignments in the interim between beginning work in 1957 and the show’s first production in 1962, but rough going nonetheless. One hurdle was the familiar behind-the-scenes heavy lifting of courting producers and directors (Jerome Robbins got cold feet, George Abbott stepped in, Robbins returned to rescue a few ailing numbers, etc.), which in this case had the historically significant effect of essentially creating the musical workshop process; Sondheim thinks Forum may have been the first musical to get regular private read-throughs as its writing developed, rather than being forged in the unforgiving crucible of a rehearsal-and-production schedule.
Adding to the show’s hard sell was its unique conception; if Broadway was low-comedy-deficient, as Forum’s writers had diagnosed, it had accordingly little interest in taking their medicine. Shevelove recalled that, in an era of thematically meaty musicals, “it was difficult to explain to people what the intention of the show was,” and that the notion of a Broadway musical with a single set, let alone a single set of costumes, was considered perverse by the standards of the day.
Perhaps Forum’s biggest challenge, though, was the construction of its farcical plot, looted from elements and archetypes of Plautus and stitched together with original material. Broadly speaking, it concerns the efforts of a scheming slave, Pseudolus, to pair his young master Hero with a courtesan, Philia, who’s already promised to the strapping Roman captain, Miles Gloriosus. Complications entangle Hero’s lecherous father, Senex, also in thrall to Philia, and Senex’s jealous wife, Domina, ever on the alert for her husband’s infidelity, as well as the brothel proprietor Marcus Lycus, a high-strung slave named Hysterium, and a neighboring geezer, Erronius, on a quest to find his orphaned twins. “You have to work it out almost on graph paper so you know what is going on,” said Shevelove of the script, and Gelbart later wrote:
If one could take Forum apart, unscrew the back of it, so to speak, it would be not unlike looking at the works of a computer or the jumble of different-colored wires telephone repairmen deal in. The play is that dense, that tangled. Add or subtract one character and his or her absence or altered presence affects the behavior of every other character in the piece.
Sondheim has called the result of the librettists’ detailed work the “tightest, most satisfyingly plotted, and gracefully written farce I’ve ever encountered,” and elsewhere has said, “Everybody thinks that it was whipped up over a weekend because it plays so easily. The plotting is intricate, the dialogue is never anachronistic, and there are only two or three jokes—the rest is comic situation. It’s almost like a senior thesis on two thousand years of comedy.”
The composer/lyricist has a much lower opinion of his own contribution, however, feeling that his score and the script don’t match, and pointing out, reasonably, that “farces are express trains; musicals are locals.” Sondheim protests too much, of course; try to imagine Forum without its sprightly score, and you have another fine theatrical curiosity fit to join Plautus on the academic shelf, not on the musical stage, where Forum has deservedly become a beloved staple. Sondheim’s music, after all, is one of those integrally entwined telephone wires in the show’s layout which couldn’t be extracted without damage to the rest of the mechanism. It’s true that if you reverse the thought experiment above and imagine a concert of Forum songs minus the script, Sondheim’s score may seem relatively trifling, particularly compared to the towering achievements ahead of him. But this inextricability is just further tribute to the songs’ seamless integration within the show’s whirring comedy contraption—it is the musical equivalent of that effortfully achieved seeming effortlessness that Sondheim rightly admires in the show’s book.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is Associate Editor at American Theatre magazine. He has written features and criticism for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Variety, Newsday, Village Voice, Time Out NY, The Guardian and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. He was the founding editor of Back Stage West.