A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Synopsis: The musical is based on farces of the Roman playwright Plautus. Set in ancient Rome, the story focuses on the lives of three adjacent households. In order to free himself from slavery, Pseudolus promises his master, Hero, that he will help him get the girl next door he has fallen for. The musical has retained many characteristics of farce with mistaken identities, satire and puns.
I thought it was about time to explore a new Stephen Sondheim. I'm sure I'm not the only one who on the first few listens was not too keen on the work of this legendary composer. His absolute focus on the lyrics to the extent that his melodies mimic the natural intonation of speech reduces the melodic aspect of the songs; an aspect which I generally demand from the music I listen to for pleasure. It is only when I got to singing Sondheim that it became clear how challenging some of his songs are to sing (and for the accompanist to play). I learned to appreciate Sondheim on a whole different level and he really is a genius. Having commented on the complexity of his music and his harmonies, however, I also have to point out that many of his scores are very similar to each other. That takes me to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The first song, Comedy Tonight, does not quite utilise enough atonality/wordiness (for me) to determine the show to be a Sondheim one - in fact, it resembles a stereotypical musical opening number to a great extent - but from then on, there is no doubt of who is behind the score. The next song, Love, I Hear, opens with speech-singing and the melody feels secondary to the lyrics. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was Sondheim's first major musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics so compared to some of his later work (e.g. Into the Woods) where his unique writing is more refined, so this show is not quite as "weird" musically.
A Funny Thing... contains some brilliant lyrics and character songs (I'm Calm) and some remarkably catchy phrases. I was ended up singing "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid". I also particularly enjoyed Bring Me My Bride for its comic value.
Most of the characters with solo songs in the musical are male but interestingly the main part of Pseudolus, though originally written as a male part, has been played by both men and women.