By Amy Patton
It was composer Stephen Sondheim’s initial musical foray into the world of Broadway a little over 50 years ago. That’s when, in 1962, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the bawdy comedic farce set in ancient Rome, hit the stage at the Alvin Theater—now the Neil Simon Theater—in New York City.
The show ran for two years at the Manhattan venue but has since been revived on Broadway several times, not to mention played to audiences on thousands of worldwide live theater stages in the half-century since its creation.
This week, the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor will be one of those stages, when it welcomes the “Forum” production for the month of August.
Penned by playwrights Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the Tony Award-winning comedy that boasts as its musical backbone a collection of classic Sondheim tunes, has stood the test of time both on the stage and in a motion picture adaptation of the story. That film was released in 1966 starring two of the original Broadway cast members who re-created their original roles for the movie screen: Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford. Reportedly, however, Gelbart was unhappy with the big-screen version of his and Shevelove’s creation and ended up panning the film.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Bay Street, which debuts in preview performances August 6 with its official opening night on August 10, stars actor Peter Scolari who portrays the manipulating but kooky prevaricator Pseudolus, a Roman slave. Conrad John Schuck is Senex, Pseudolus’ sometimes-confused “and dirty old man” master, joked Schuck. Jackie Hoffman portrays Domina, the “dominating shrew” of the house, says the actress, and Senex’s controlling wife.
The arc and story of this musical — according to “Forum’s” creators Gelbart and Shevelove — was inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251-183 BC) who wrote “Mostelleria” and “Pseudolus.” His stage works critically examined the battles of the social classes in his time.
For those not familiar with “Forum’s” plot, here it goes: Pseudolus isn’t crazy about being a worker-without-pay. Duh. So he hatches a sneaky plot designed to set him free from slavedom in the ancient city of Rome. Senex and Domina’s son, the rebellious Hero, hopes to win the affections of a beautiful girl who just happens to work as a courtesan at the house next door. So Pseudolus schemes to acquire her love for Hero in exchange for the favor of his eventual freedom. What follows are lots of juicy, goofy and hilarious plot twists and turns that include classic comedic farcical stage antics such as door-slamming, puns, jokes and cases of mistaken identity that should garner lots of laughs from the audience.
Scolari, a television and stage actor best known for his roles in “Newhart,” “Bosom Buddies” (in which he played alongside Tom Hanks in the early 80s), and a television version of “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” explained in an interview with the Express last week how playing a slave in the context of what he calls “a vaudevillian comedy” comes with bittersweet moments in his portrayal of Pseudolus.
“The nuts and bolts of my character’s life, which takes place in this ancient Roman world, is what I love about Pseudolus. And that is his quest for his own freedom. At the risk of getting too serious about elements in the play, it’s a subject that really moves me. Freedom is the necessary essence of Democracy. I think that’s what really drives [this] character for me; he has to pull off this giant gambit and be funny doing it.”
Comedic and farcical offerings-accompanied by music-seem to have emerged as a theme at Bay Street this summer. Marcia Milgrom-Dodge, “Forum’s” seasoned director and choreographer, described it as “a season of comedy and entertainment.”
“I think that was the mission at Bay Street this summer, to get a collection of really fun theater experiences for the audience,” she said. “So far you’ve had a comedy, a mystery and now, [with our show], a musical.”
“Lend Me A Tenor” led the way at the Sag Harbor venue in June, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” in July and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” for August.
Cast members of the production said that ticket holders can expect to be fully immersed in the experience of this musical comedy.
“We break the fourth wall constantly,” said Schuck (Senix). “The audience is always included in the show. We go in and out of our scenes quite often.”
As far as the group of actors chosen to perform in “Forum,” said the show’s director, “We were lucky enough to put together the right DNA here. Everyone gets along both onstage and off — which is a miracle,” she quipped, to the giggles of Scolari, Hoffman and Schuck.
“If you don’t like forgetting your problems and laughing really hard, then stay away from this show,” joked Milgrom-Dodge,
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” opens August 6 and will run through September 1. The production is directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with music director Ethyl Will. Call the Bay Street Theatre at 631-725-9500 for ticket information or visit www.baystreet.org.