After begrudgingly writing only the lyrics for his first two Broadway shows — West Side Story and Gypsy — the great Stephen Sondheim at last penned both words and music for 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
A rare musical comedy that is actually funny, it ran 965 performances, a brief run by Phantom of the Opera standards, but it remains the longest run of any of Sondheim’s shows. It also became his most popular musical on the stock and amateur circuit, in part because of its happy ending — a rarity for the songwriter more associated with ambiguity and angst. This Thursday evening, Forum opens in a new production at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre (previews are Tuesday and Wednesday).
“As Sondheim has said, this musical is a celebration of over 2,000 years of comedy and comedy techniques,” notes director Jennifer Werner, referring to its source material, the plays of ancient Roman farceur, Plautus. “And Larry Gelbart,” Forum’s co-book writer, “has said it’s basically a vaudeville show in the guise of a Broadway musical. So that style of comedy, especially the world that Gelbart comes from — it’s Sid Caesar and Milton Berle — all these wonderful old comedians. People who get that style, that slapstick, the comic take, are exceedingly rare these days.”
Fortunately for Werner — and for Maltz theatergoers — Scott Cote submitted a video of himself and then nailed the subsequent live audition. “Scott walked into the room and I knew he’d be my Pseudolus,” the show’s Roman slave top banana, says Werner. “What excites me about a show like this and doing it now is when you do find those performers who understand that kind of comedy. And I sensed immediately that Scott was that kind of performer. Every instinct, everything that he does is spot on. It’s not a Zero Mostel imitation or a Nathan Lane imitation. It’s fully Scott, but it comes from the same craft.”
As Cote says of Pseudolus, a role he previously played two decades ago, “I think he’s the smartest person on the stage, and maybe in the whole town. I love his guile and his trickery and his confidence basically.”
When conniving Pseudolus is asked by his master — callow, naïve Hero — to introduce him to the virginal Philia next door, Pseudolus sees the request as a means for him to get what he wants most — his freedom. Along the way, the effort is complicated by mistaken identity, a sleeping potion, an alleged breakout of the plague, alluring courtesans and an egotistical warrior, all designed to increase the mirth level.
Cote says he has no difficulty immersing himself in the character’s mindset. The challenge, he finds, is “Stamina. The other shows I’ve done, I haven’t been as active as I am in this one. Once it begins, it is a sprint from start to finish.”
He enjoys delivering the sure-fire laugh lines of Gelbart and his co-writer Burt Shevelove, but his joy in performing Forum is singing Sondheim. “I’m a huge Sondheim nerd. He gives you all the information that you need. He does all the homework for you,” Cote says. “On this show, they’re such fun lyrics. Sometimes a lot all at once, like ‘Pretty Little Picture,’ which is patter-patter-patter.”
“You see how his songs elevate the plot points. You see his breadth and depth of understanding human emotion,” says Werner. “Even in the lightness of ‘Forum,’ you get that huge panoply of human experience. Take ‘Impossible.’ Yes, it’s a comedic song, but he’s also delving into the vulnerability of male insecurity. It’s really very deep. There’s many layers to it.”
In our contemporary times of political correctness, some have charged the show — which features an ensemble of leggy courtesans — with being sexist. Werner scoffs at the label. “It depends on how you play it,” she offers. “We have a female creative team, so there are things you can lean into or steer away from. For instance, I’ve tried to give the courtesans more agency. They’re sort of in on it with Pseudolus. They’re in on the hijinks.”
And as with most of the productions in the Maltz’s season, Forum will have a diverse cast.
Diversity in ancient Rome? “This is a great script to do that with, because it’s sort of a show within a show,” Werner explains. “We come out as a troupe of actors singing ‘Comedy Tonight,’ explaining that we’re doing this and she’s playing that. So we have a very diverse group of actors playing these roles, which is really fun and also refreshing for me as well.”
For Werner, the challenge is to make this 60-year-old material, based on plays that are thousands of years old, feel “fresh and original, within the confines of the dramaturgy. If you’ve seen ‘Forum’ a few times, you’re going to laugh maybe at the way we do something a little differently here, but it still fits in the realm of what was originally intended. I respect what the writers have done and what their sensibility is. They would say, as they do at the beginning of the script, there is room for ad libs, so have fun with it.”
Chances are that most of the Maltz Jupiter audience has seen Forum before, perhaps several times. But Cote is confident that will not get in the way of their enjoyment. “You may know the jokes, but you’ll probably laugh at them again,” he says. “Don’t we all need to laugh right now? And ‘funny’ is in the title.”
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. From Thursday, Dec. 1, to Sunday, Dec. 18. $68-$120. Call 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.