In vaudeville, comedians often would start their jokes by saying, “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater…” In the early ‘60s Stephen Sondheim turned the phrase on its head with his new comedic musical set in ancient Rome.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” ran on Broadway for 964 performances between 1962 and 1964. Since its inception, it has run at the West End in London thrice, has seen a few Broadway revivals, and was turned into a motion picture in 1966. It’s opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” even made an appearance on “The Muppet Show,” with a chorus of monsters and criminals heightening its appeal.
Inspired from comedies that Titus Maccius Plautus wrote in Rome, circa 254-184 BC, “A Funny Thing…” is the first musical Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics to (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart). It follows the story of a young slave, Pseudolus, who finds his ticket to freedom by helping his master conquer love with a young girl next door. Narrated by Pseudolus, the play guides the audience through many hijinks with a host of colorful characters.
“Pseudolus often breaks the fourth wall to have a conversation or a wink with the audience,” Troy Rudeseal, who’s playing the character, tells. “I love that there is almost nothing too big for this character to get away with.”
Rudeseal performed as slave owner Hero in “A Funny Thing…” in the ‘90s. He even shared the stage with his parents. “I decided at that time I wanted to pursue theater, and asked them to join me so they could see all the work that went into it and why I loved it so much,” he says. “We had a great time.”
Rudeseal says Sondheim’s work has timeless allure because of its themes of love, mistaken identities and sexual innuendo. But, really, it connects with most audiences because of the lengths it goes to for a laugh. Sondheim’s well-known wordiness and fast pace shows itself a little, too.
“This falls on the spectrum of his earlier work, so it’s not as difficult rhythmically as ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘Into the Woods,’” says Jason Aycock, who will take on the role of one of the Proteans.
“There are double-takes, wordplay and slapstick galore,” adds Brad Mercier, who will play Hysterium. “It runs the gamut of all the classic comedy styles. It didn’t bog itself down in parody or make references to popular culture, which keeps it funny no matter the decade. It’s so packed with jokes, you could probably see the show twice and still not catch everything.”
Directed by Anthony Lawson, “A Funny Thing…” boasts itself as “having something for everyone,” literally as heard in the lyrics in the opening number. Lawson adores “Comedy Tonight” because it’s one of the few times his ensemble are onstage togetehr. “When all their voices mix, it’s powerful,” he explains.
“Most musical theatre performers have a love/hate relationship with Sondheim,” Cindy Collucci says. Colucci will play Domina, the wife of Senex. “Just think of an 18-wheeler flying down a mountain at 80 miles per hour with no breaks,” she explains of her character. “[Sondheim is] challenging to learn, and you can never put it on autopilot.”
Lawson hadn’t seen “A Funny Thing…” until the opportunity to direct it came up last year. Before Opera House Theatre Company founder Lou Criscuolo passed away in December 2014, he hashed out their current 30th season. Now run by Alice Sherwood, the company has produced a slew of hits alerady this year, including “Mary Poppins” and “Chicago”—the latter of which Lawson just finished, in the role of Amos Hart, a mere two weeks ago. After watching “A Funny Thing…,” Lawson walked into Lou’s office to throw his name in the hat.
“Lou asked if I’d rather be in it or direct, and I told him I wanted to direct,” Lawson recalls. “He said, ‘OK, here’s your show; get the fuck out of my office.’ No matter what, ‘A Funny Thing…’ is going to be a show that sticks with me because it was my first show directing for a company that has always had my respect and admiration. Once I read the script and saw the movie I realized why it is so popular. It’s exactly my kind of humor.”
Admittedly challenging, Lawson says comedy can be even more difficult to direct than Shakespeare. Mainly, the idea of what is funny to some but not to others remains a mystery. “I know what’s funny, and I recognize a good gag when I see it,” he says, “but to explain the ’why’ of why it’s funny, I can’t do it.” He has honed direction of the script by casting actors who have good professional instincts. He’s telling them to do everything opposite of what they should be doing.
“It’s difficult to direct comedy, period,” he adds. “You can’t teach timing. If someone doesn’t have the natural instinct for comedic timing, you have to tell them to do something at a certain time and hope they trust you enough to do it that way.”
Mercier is enjoying delving deeper into the craft of comedic performance. More so, sharing the experience with the cast to find out which jokes work best have been as much fun as the show itself.
“Is it holding one or two beats before delivering the punchline?” he asks rhetorically. “Is it funnier to make a silly face here or hold it straight? Just going through all the possibilities has been a blast.”
The show moves from bawdy humor into slapstick comedy, from intellectual wit into historical references on the drop of a dime. Of course, the absurd also becomes apparent. It’s mentally and physically taxing on performers.
“The biggest thing I’m (re)learning from my character is how to fall without hurting myself,” Aycock quips. “We do a good bit of prat-falling, and it is probably the most I’ve done of that since ‘Wizard of Oz’ last year. I can’t say my body is super happy about it. But it’s worth it for a joke.”
Sondheim created the music—which will be under the direction of Lorene Walsh in the Opera House show—mainly to break up pacing. The music exists less to drive the plot as it does to add humor.
“[The songs] are full of puns and witty turns of phrases,” Mercier continues. “They allow the actor to really show off, not just vocally but comedically. And, believe it or not, they’ve been not too difficult to learn.”