Pretty Little Picture

Even when Stephen Sondheim writes a lightweight comedy, there's buried treasure everywhere you look.

It's been fun to dive into the Sondheim's score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Nearly all the songs in the score foreshadow the even more confident Sondheim still to come, with as much musicplay as wordplay.

He places “wrong note” dissonances all over the score, in “Love I Hear,” “Free,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and other songs, as well as in Miles Gloriosus’ trumpet fanfare. All these “wrong notes” tell us that this world is off balance; things are amiss and need fixing, that Pseudolus’ schemes are all lies, secrets, manipulations, and misdirections, and they can only end in chaos.

And nearly all the songs are ironic.

“Love I Hear” deconstructs the musical comedy love song, by Hero singing not to his love or to himself in an R&H “interior monologue,” but explicitly singing to the audience, even asking their forgiveness. It also subtly tells us that Hero is a virgin; all he knows about sex is hearsay. And the song does one other thing, by satirizing that staple of rock and roll, the “I’m so in love, I’m sick” song, like “Great Balls of Fire.”

Sondheim fully rejects the Rodgers and Hammerstein model at the end of the song:
Forgive me if I shout…
Forgive me if I crow…
I’ve only just found out,
And well, I thought you ought to know.

"You" is the audience! This is almost a traditional “I Want” song, in which the protagonist literally tells us what they want. But this one breaks most of the rules – well, the mid-century Rodgers & Hammerstein rules, anyway – by acknowledging that he just literally told us, the audience, what he wants. In an R&H show, the characters still tell us this stuff, but the writers, actors, directors – and audiences – pretend the characters don’t know they’re telling us this stuff, that they’re just thinking out loud or something, and the song is an “interior monologue.” Nonsense.

Here, Sondheim has pulled aside the curtain. Not only is the Fourth Wall gone, but the first two songs both use direct address to the audience. Sondheim is setting the rules for the evening.

And setting the tone. Irony abounds throughout Sondheim's score.

In “Free,” Pseudolus fantasizes about buying women and other slaves, even as he seeks his own freedom from slavery. In “The House of Marcus Lycus,” the women are commodities, and yet it appears that any of them could kick Pseudolus’ ass. And though in the 21st century we well might find this scene uncomfortably sexist, its underlying irony – that Pseudolus doesn’t really intend to buy a courtesan; he just wants to find the girl Hero loves – gives it a funnier and less troubling vibe.

In “Lovely,” a love song to superficiality, the two young lovers, Hero and Philia, are quite serious, but we hear this content as cringe-worthy. Philia has been raised to be beautiful, and nothing else. In her world, beauty isn’t an attribute; it’s a job. This is an upside-down love song, in which the lovers sing only about her appearance, subtly satirizing all the Love-At-First-Sight songs in traditional musical comedies. Even though the characters are aware of one level, the audience is aware of both levels. And the song will return in Act II to be hilariously deconstructed even more.

And even in the relatively straightforward song, “Pretty Little Picture,” we in the audience know that Pseudolus is acting entirely out of self-interest, and the dream he paints is just another manipulation. In “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the accumulating singers are talking about cleaning duties, but we know they’re really talking about sex.

And of course, the song "I'm Calm” is anything but.

Sondheim reprises “Lovely” in Act II, and though most mid-century songwriters would feel obligated to write new lyrics for this repeat of a song, Sondheim found a smarter and funnier tack, not to change the lyric at all, but instead drastically change the circumstance and the players. Here, instead of young lovers, now Pseudolus is trying to convince Hysterium to dress in drag and portray the “dead” Philia. And halfway through this reprise, Hysterium suddenly feels beautiful for the first time in his life, and he begins to sing about his own loveliness. It’s an unexpectedly sweet, if wacky, moment.

Significantly, Hysterium’s name ends with a neuter suffix (-um), which subtly brands him as neither male nor female. This starts as a running gag in Act I, but it pays off as a significant plot point late in this show.

Throughout the show, the irony of the songs demonstrates the mad confusion and chaos of love. In “That’ll Show Him,” a passionate beguine, Philia plans her revenge against Miles Gloriosus by vowing to have sex with him, but only while thinking of Hero. In the bluesy torch song, “That Dirty Old Man,” Domina complains about how awful her husband is, and how desperately she wants him. Both songs are funny, but also poignant. We feel for these women in a way we don’t expect in such a wild farce. It’s Sondheim adding psychology and nuance to Plautus.

I really love this show and I'm so glad we finally get a chance to work on it. We open next week! Come see us!

Long Live the Musical!

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