Man in His Madness

Some people call the Rodgers and Hammerstein era of the Broadway musical, "The Golden Age," usually defined by the opening of Oklahoma! (1943) through to the opening of Fiddler on the Roof (1964). But as you know if you read my blog, I don't think it was a Golden Age. It was just the R&H years.

Early on in the creation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, bookwriter Burt Shevelove had to help composer Stephen Sondheim let go of those conventions.

Sondheim struggled with un-learning all Oscar Hammerstein had taught him. Sondheim said, “Next to Merrily We Roll Along, it was the hardest score I ever had to write.” The Rodgers & Hammerstein model dictated that every theatre song must advance plot or characterization, and that “serious” musicals adhere to the faux naturalistic Fourth Wall, pretending the audience is not there and the action is not taking place on a stage – requiring the audience to “suspend their disbelief,” or in other words, to pretend the actors aren’t pretending.

Let's be honest. It’s a silly conceit.

Rodgers & Hammerstein made the big and surprisingly obvious mistake of trying to make musical theatre naturalistic. Though the R&H shows were mostly realistic (i.e., dealing with real world issues, rather than fantasy), they were never naturalistic (i.e., seeming natural, seeming like reality rather than a performance). Musicals can’t be naturalistic since people in the real world don’t spontaneously break into song – that peculiar convention is a storytelling language, not reality.

Previous to Oscar and Dick, musicals didn’t try to “fool” the audience into believing the story was real. There was no Fourth Wall. The characters often confided in the audience. The legendary “suspension of disbelief” didn’t apply – everyone involved knew that the audience knew that this was a performance, that actors were telling them a story. But Sondheim had been taught – and believed in – Oscar’s model.

Shevelove said to Sondheim, “There’s a whole other way to write songs, the way the Greeks did it and the Romans did it, and the way Shakespeare did it, which is to savor the moment.” Instead of a theatre song functioning as a little one-act play, as Oscar advocated, a song could also take one idea and play with it, play with language, play with meaning. That’s what Cole Porter and Irving Berlin did, in large part. And it’s also how songs were used in Roman comedies like Pseudolus and The Haunted House.

Alongside his other artistic iconoclasm, Sondheim came to realize that Oscar’s other core belief, that songs should erupt only when the emotions get too big for words, also doesn’t always make sense.

Larry Gelbart wrote in his introduction to the published Forum script, “Broadway, in its development of musical comedy, had improved the quality of the former at the expense of a good deal of the latter.” Sondheim wrote in his collection of lyrics, Finishing the Hat, that:
I don’t think that farces can be translated into musicals without damage – at least, not good musicals. The tighter the plotting the better the farce, but the better the farce, the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains: musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going. That’s why the songs in Forum are bunched together in the first half of the first act, where there is more exposition than action, and then become scarcer and scarcer, until eventually in the last twenty minutes before the finale, there are no songs at all.

Forum was an early Sondheim experiment in what forms the musical theatre could explore. Like Company a decade later, the songs could be removed from Forum without missing any plot elements. Usually that would be considered bad (or at least ineffective) writing. The whole point of musical theatre is to tell stories through songs, right?

Yes, but what that meant was changing as Sondheim experimented in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

By design, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was populated by stock characters, types so old they were already clichés when Shakespeare played with them. As Peter Smith writes in his introduction to the collection Plautus: Three Comedies, “For the most part the Hellenistic stage was peopled with down-to-earth types, many of whom were given a memorable dramatic individuality. It was a comic society of courtesans, pimps, and lovers, of soldiers, slaves, and parasites – a cosmopolitan demimonde.”

Smith later writes, “We see characters motivated by youthful love, senile lust, selfless loyalty, selfish greed, affection, fear, modesty, vanity. Although farce abounds, it is super-imposed on plays of basically sound construction and good characterizations, and it is balanced by a sparkling gift of wit. If one quality above all others that can be taken as Plautus’ hallmark, it is his delight in language, manifested in constant puns, word coinages, alliteration, and assonance. Although the diction is colloquial, the comic idiom is enriched by countless rhetorical figures and is disciplined by Plautus’ demanding verse forms. His rhythmical sense made him highly skillful in versification; in the cantica or lyric portions of his comedies, Plautus develops complex and sophisticated metrical patterns. His is an obtrusive style, seldom muted or subtle in its effect, but the undisguised verbal exuberance has been a strong feature in his perennial appeal.”

By the way, the cantica were meant to be sung, as solos, duets, and trios. Before Plautus, these lyric sections were not songs; after Plautus they were. He invented musical comedy.

So much of that quote from Smith could be describing Sondheim. Or Shakespeare. Forum is often dismissed as simple farce, but it’s so much more than that. What’s different here are the songs. Adding musical comedy songs changes those stock characters into real people, because the songs in a musical explore emotions and psychology and hidden motivations that just don’t exist in stock characters. Now these ancient clichés become complicated by these new inner lives. Domina seems to be a predictable stock character until she sings “That Dirty Old Man,” after which suddenly we know her. She’s in a crappy marriage but she still loves her husband. She’s no longer a stock character. Pseudolus seems like a stock character until he sings “Free,” and we find out he’s got dreams, plans for a future. And we can’t help but fall in love with Philia when she sings “That’ll Show Him.”

The songs in Forum are pauses in the action, reflections, rather than moving the action forward; but the score is deceptively unified. Almost every song plays with ideas of restraint and release, another common Plautus theme, and that theme emerges throughout the show, in terms of slavery, but also sexual impulse, marriage, parenting, contracts, danger, sorrow.

As Smith writes about Plautus’s theatre, “Many conventions can be explained by the tendency to adopt a thoroughly self-conscious attitude toward dramatic performance. The illusion of reality is not the ultimate goal in a theatre that relishes interaction between actor and audience, a theatre where glorious comic effects can be achieved by a deliberate violation of the supposedly invisible Fourth Wall.”

Forum is a complete rejection of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, even though (because?) Oscar Hammerstein had been Sondheim’s mentor. By eliminating the (arguably ridiculous) Fourth Wall and speaking/singing directly to the audience, the eventual opening number, “Comedy Tonight” opened the era of the Concept Musical, shows in which the central idea is as important (or more important) than the plot. Just a few years later, Jerome Robbins would open Fiddler on the Roof with the very conceptual song, “Tradition.”

Nothing that's formal, nothing that's normal...

Long Live the Musical!

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