The other day, I posted a video of Zero Mostel re-creating his original performance of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof by Harnick and Bock. As I mentioned, this 1971 Tony Award 25th anniversary broadcast was perhaps the greatest TV specials I've ever seen, as they brought back the stars of the previous 25 Tony Best Musicals, re-creating their iconic song. (The Tonys had only been on television for a few years, but the awards had been presented for 25 years.)
Of all the shows and performers, only one person sang two numbers, having starred in two Tony-winning Best Musicals. And that person was -- Zero Mostel.
The other Best Musical that Mostel had starred in was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- which opened in 1962, just two years before Fiddler. (Quite a good run for the fellow, I'd say.)
Forum was the first big hit for Stephen Sondheim. He'd written the lyrics for several major classics -- West Side Story and Gypsy. But he was a composer, as well, and always wanted to do full scores himself Forum changed his career.
Zero Mostel, who seems so core to the exuberance and mischief of the show, wasn't the first choice. Among the people who passed on it was Phil Silvers -- to his great regret. However, to his great credit, when the movie was made (with Zero Mostel re-creating his role as Pseudolus and the narrator, Prologus), Silvers took a lesser, but important role of the shifty procurer Marcus Lycus. And then 10 years after the original, Silvers got the chance to do the role he'd been originally offered -- and he starred in the 1972 Broadway revival. And won a Tony Award for it, as well. (Oddly, and disappointingly, this is the only one of the three Forum productions that didn't have a cast recording. I did, happily, get to see it when it toured the country prior to Broadway and played in Chicago -- and it was quite wonderful.)
Seeing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on stage is a different -- and far better -- experience than seeing the movie, great as the cast was. Larry Gelbart (who co-wrote the show with Burt Shevelove) always hated the film version. He and Shevelove had nothing to do with the movie, and thought the rewritten script was too leaden and self-conscious. Jokes they had themselves cut from the stage version (for instance, when Pseudolus looks at a bottle of wine, he wonders "Was One was a good year?") were put back in. (Gelbart told me that the characters should never be self-conscious about where they are in history.) And he thought the film direction was too heavy-handed and obvious. Then again, there are some things are simply "theatrical" and probably could never have worked as well in a movie. The chase scene in the movie with chariots goes on endlessly and without much charm or humor. On stage, the audience is in awe watching an actual 10-minute chase scene that's at the level of a non-stop hilarious French farce, with slamming doors, missed timings, disappearances, and more. Larry was always pleased to note that the scene wasn't something that was the result of pure direction, since "every moment and beat in that chase is in the script and meticulously written."
The script for Forum famously went through countess drafts, 10 of them over five years of writing. And monumental research, going back to 21 plays by the Roman playwright Plautus, even finding some of its jokes. (When Miles Gloriosus has the egotistical line, "I am a parade!," that comes from a play 2,000 years old.) But perhaps the funniest thing of all isn't a joke -- it's that one of the ancient plays that Gelbart and Shevelove researched was titled...Mostellaria.
So, in the end, it's quite fitting that everyone else turned down the role, and Zeero Mostel starred.
What also wasn't in the opening of the show originally was the now-famous opening number. The show (originally titled, A Roman Comedy) had begun with a sweet little piece of whimsy, "Love is in the Air." The problem was that it didn't set the tone for the lunacy and farce that was to follow. So, after the Washington pre-Broadway run and before the New York opening, Stephen Sondheim was asked to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that would better inform the audience. What he came back with was "Comedy Tonight." And the audience was now quite informed.
(For all the justified credit that the new opening song gets for helping make the show a success, Larry Gelbart always said that it had an added benefit. They'd always had trouble figuring how to end the evening. And "Comedy Tonight" gave them the perfect reprise and way to finish.)
Though "Comedy Tonight" is a number meant for a full cast, throwing in what at times seems like every joke imaginable, it holds its own when performed solo -- but most particularly when that solo is Zero Mostel, throwing himself into every note and appropriately mugging moment.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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