Throughout the litany of memorable musicals that Stephen Sondheim has contributed music and lyrics to, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is perhaps his most inspired and inventive. Inspired by the ancient farces of the Roman playwright Plautus (251-183 BC), this musical tells the bawdy tale of a slave named Pseudolous and his attempts to win freedom by helping his young master woo the ‘girl next door’.
Although a seemingly simple narrative on the surface, the ancient plays from which it is adapted are some of the earliest ever discovered, and are also the most challenging, including numerous puns, multiple cases of mistaken identity, and relentless satirical comments on social class that are thrown like arrows amidst this convoluted flurry of inter-connected action among the various characters populating the stage in this incredible musical.
Apart from the original 1962 Broadway production winning several Tony Awards, including Best Musical & Best Author (Musical), A Funny Thing has enjoyed several successful revivals and was made into a film in 1966, directed by Richard Lester (who also directed The Beatles first two film outings).
And now to launch their 101st Season, Bay City Players will be presenting their own version of this challenging classic from September 27-30th and October 4-7th.
With a cast of 18 actors, the core narrative is set In ancient Rome, with neighbors living in three adjacent houses. In the center is the house of Senex, who lives there with wife Domina, son Hero, and several slaves, including head slave Hysterium and the musical's main character Pseudolus. A slave belonging to Hero, Pseudolus wishes to buy, win, or steal his freedom. One of the neighboring houses is owned by Marcus Lycus, who is a buyer and seller of beautiful women; the other belongs to the ancient Erronius, who is abroad searching for his long-lost children (stolen in infancy by pirates).
For director Michael Wisniewski, the continuous action from beginning to end in this production presents its own unique set of opportunities and challenges. “A Funny Thing….is considered one of the funniest musicals ever written,” he reflects. “It has ancient Roman character names that re not made up, but taken from these actual ancient plays; plus it is superbly written and has all the element of farce. People in one house will jump around to another, with one actor exiting as another is going off, and when you add all the elements of comedy into the mix, it’s a true challenge in terms of blocking and staging”
“There is a message for vaudevillians contained in the script notes that explains how many things such as ‘the double take’, the ‘stammering’, and the ‘mad walk’ have been omitted from the script because all these and more are intended to be supplied by the actor, selected from the actor’s bag of tricks; so in putting this together as a director you’ve got to stage and block the production, but also rely on actors to bring those additional elements of comedy to the stage and give them a true sense of ownership of their roles.”
For this Bay City Players production of Forum a seasoned troupe of actors have been selected, consisting of David King as Senex, Carol Rumba as Domina, Andrew Fergerson as Hero, Jake Monroe as Hysterium, Tony Lynch as Pseudolus/Prologus, Tim Simons as Erronius, David Ryan as Miles Gloriosus, Kelley Gray as Lycus, Cathy Gobboney as Tintinabula, Katy Hamilton as Panacea, with the remaining cast consisting of Marcy Chambers, Natalie Schwartz, Liberty Starkweather Smith, Lauren Klett, Justine Miller, Dale Gibboney, Matt Kehoe and Avery Weiler.
And then of course, you have the incredible musical score and lyrics of Sondheim. “Usually when you think of Sondheim, you think of these weird keys and bizarre harmonies,” notes Michael, “but Forum was the first musical he wrote both the score and the lyrics.” Indeed, Sondheim’s work in this production is a synthesis of perfect rhyme, alliterative pleasure, and the connection of deliciously contrasting notions that match rhetorical form to musical function. As a critic of the New York Times noted, “Of all the great Stephen Sondheim musicals, Forum has the lyrics with the most oomph, mostly because they are so much better than they needed to be”
Wisniewski says his key goal for Forum is reaching a perfect state of balance with the production. “Because it is both farce and strong comedy, it has to be played in a certain way so that the impact is immediate, yet not too much in the face of the audience,” he responds. “If you look at the story line you have this top layer of plot-line, but from that basic level all these intricate things start to happen and the play goes on to another level, so you really have to pay attention because the audience has no time to digest and think about this as its happening; and then all of a sudden you’re on to another layer of plot, and then another one, which keeps building until the intermission.”
“The final scene of Act 1 is mirrored in the opening scene of Act 2,” continues Michael, “so the audience gets a recap of everything and doesn’t lose anything; and it’s an older show so it’s also longer than most modern musicals. I’ve thought about how interesting it would be to see this production without an intermission, because it would be constant action for 3-hours, only it’s so perfectly created that what is 2 hours seems like one. Obviously, our main goal is to entertain the audience and keep them there.”
With so many elements of farce, humor, a deftly written script, and a remarkable musical libretto from one of America’s most beloved songwriters, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is certain to take the audience through an immersive experience of memorable entertainment.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs from Sept. 27-30 and Oct. 4-7. Curtain time is 7:30 pm except for Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm. Tickets are on sale now for $20 adults, $10 students by phoning 989-893-5555 or visiting baycityplayers.com
9th February, 2024