The Broadway-bound revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum held a press preview March 4 at the show's rehearsal hall at 890 Broadway in New York, and Playbill On-Line was there.
The revival, which opens April 18 at the St. James Theatre, stars Nathan Lane, Lewis J. Stadlen, Ernie Sabella and Mark Linn-Baker, and they were there, too, along with the designers, producers, co-librettist Larry Gelbart and director Jerry Zaks.
Zaks, who said he recently discovered Playbill On-Line's chat rooms, said he's impressed with "the passion for the material that people online have," but he said, "it makes them believe they OWN it."
He said he has been feeling pressure because "people say 'It's my favorite musical,' 'it's the funniest musical ever'." His solution to those expectations is "I like to pretend it's never been done before, that I'm directing a brand-new show."
Zaks said there will be no changes in the script, other than some lines reassigned (Domina now delivers the line "Baritones and basses" in "Comedy Tonight") and none of the songs cut from the show or inserted in later productions will be used in this production. Zaks, who directed the original production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, said he talked with composer about the possibility of new songs for the show, but both concluded that the show was fine as is. Nevertheless, Zaks said he plans some surprises in staging. His idea is that "This is a company of actors who do comedy and tragedy on alternate nights -- though they do tragedy in much the same way they do comedy."
Zaks said the curtain will rise on Nathan Lane as Prologus introducing a tragedy, "something between Medea and The Trojan Women" but then the curtain comes down. "Clearly there's been a problem." And instead they go into Forum.
Tony Walton, who designed sets and costumes for the original, is designing those elements again, but "riffing" on his original designs. "There is a twentysomething young man who peers over my shoulder," Walton said of himself, "who looks at this older, gray-bearded and says 'What are you doing?' I would say I'm messing with it [the original set] quite a bit."
Walton's drawings posted in the rehearsal hall show Pseudolus and Hysterium to be dressed in the familiar modified togas with quilted leggings. The costumes for the Courtesans are somewhat more daring, but unfortunately the cast wore only rehearsal clothes for the preview. A model of the set shows a much deeper playing space, with Senex's house (the one in the middle) surrounded by streets that actors can use for entrances and exits, with more houses visible in the distance.
The entire cast performed the last half of "Comedy Tonight." The Courtesans (Stephanie Pope, Pamela Everett, Leigh Zimmerman, Susan Misner, Lori Werner and Mary Ann Lamb) gyrated through "The House of Marcus Lycus. Lane, Sabella, Stadlen and Baker got such a hand for "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid" that Lane shouted "I think we're winning 'em over" to his fellow performers.
The four last-named actors have come to constitute a sort of repertory company for Zaks. Zaks directed Lane and Sabella in Guys and Dolls on Broadway, and directed all four (though not at the same time) in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Since then, Lane and Sabella appeared memorably as the voices of Timon and Pumbaa, the comic meerkat and warthog in the Disney film The Lion King.
Sabella happily performed Pumbaa shtick for the TV cameras at the press conference, shouting "Hey Timoooooon!" and making flatulent noises while Lane shook his head.
Sabella, who said he and Lane got the scripts for The Lion King II in late February, said he and Lane work together well because "He knows what I'm thinking."
He said the two of them concocted several pieces of business in boisterous bad taste for Forum including a running gag with a detachable rubber hand in the scene where Sabella, as pimp Marcus Lycus, pretends to be a leper.
Mary Testa, who plays Domina, said working with the four comedians is like working with "a machine: you try to find where you can fit in, like a cog."
On taking over a role that Zero Mostel made his own in the Broadway original and the film, Lane said, "Who? Zero who? I don't think you can dwell on that. He was a one-time performer who gave a one-time performance. What can I say? I hope I'll bring to it my own style."
Asked whether there was anything he could do in 1996 that Mostel wouldn't have been able to do in the 1962 original, Lane said "What -- full frontal nudity? No, it's a pretty sophisticated piece of material."
Asked to compare Pseudolus with the role he played in Love! Valour! Compassion!, he quipped, "I won't be wearing any high heels in this show, and I'm very happy about it."
A surreal note was added when a TV reporter asked Lane about the March 3 terrorist bombing of a bus in Jerusalem. Lane gagged and said he hadn't heard about it. He then exclaimed "This is what fame is!? They ask you questions about the WORLD? I don't know how VELCRO works!"
PRODUCTION INFORMATION: "Forum" will begin previews March 18 at the St. James Theatre, and open April 18.
Lane, who has appeared in "Guys and Dolls," "Love! Valour Compassion!," "The Lisbon Traviata" and "Merlin" onstage, and sang "Hakuna Matata" as the voice of Timon in "The Lion King," leads a 23-member cast that includes Ernie Sabella (Lane's partner Pumbaa in the latter film), Mark Linn-Baker and Lewis J. Stadlen. All four of these actors appeared together in Neil Simon's 1993 play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."
Also in the cast: Cris Gronendaal, Jessica Boevers and James Stanek.
The production will be staged by Jerry Zaks, who directed Lane in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and directed him to a Tony nomination in "Guys and Dolls." Zaks also directed Broadway productions of "Six Degrees of Separation," "The House of Blue Leaves," "Anything Goes" and "Lend Me a Tenor."
Tony Walton is doing sets and costumes; Rob Marshall will do musical staging; Paul Gallo has designed lighting.
Based on the 18-centuries-old farces of the Roman Plautus, "Forum" is the story of the wily slave Pseudolus who will do anything to win his freedom. His young master, Hero, promises to grant that freedom if Pseudolus will win him the hand of the girl he loves, Philia. The problem is, Philia is a courtesan. Pseudolus must outwit the boy's disapproving parents, the girl's tight-fisted procuror, and a bloodthirsty Roman general to unite the lovers and earn his liberty.
The libretto is by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove. Stephen Sondheim's score includes "Comedy Tonight," "Lovely," "Free," "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid" and "Pretty Little Picture." The musical was revived on Broadway in 1972 with Phil Silvers
"Forum" will play 8 PM Monday through Saturday, with 2 PM matinees Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets cost $25-$70 through Tele-charge (212-239-6200). "Forum" originally opened May 8, 1962 and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It was the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics -- and it remains his longest-running show, at 964 performances. The show has won Best Actor in a Musical Tony Awards for its stars both times it was on Broadway: for Zero Mostel in 1963 and for Phil Silvers in 1972. Lane has never won the Tony, a fact that he made fun of in 1995 when he co-hosted the Tony broadcast.