Plus there is something I haven't mentioned about Pseudolus that makes him someone we root for: he is determined to somehow win his freedom, with a passion so earnest that we can forgive him everything else.
Again, we envy him, to be capable of that passion and to dare to express it, to follow his passion no matter the consequences! For all the negative aspects of his character, his aspirations make him heroic, a man we would like to be ourselves. He is surrounded by a cast of characters so filled with human faults and foibles that they resemble a row of dominoes, waiting for the slightest nudge to make them all fall down with a clatter.
First on stage is Senex, a man locked in a life of routines not of his choosing. Suffering from an ancient Roman version of mid-life crisis, he wishes he could be riding off into the sunset on his bright red sports chariot, with a buxom blonde babe thrilled to be at his side. Instead he is married to Domina, a woman who covers her own disappointment in marriage by bossing everyone around, whether they're her slaves or not. Both equally self-deceived as to their own attractiveness, they may never realize that what they have is about as good as they will ever get.
We know these people. They are our neighbors, our parents, and eventually they are us. Their son, Hero, is almost as scary and sympathetic in his own way.
No matter how filled out they may be with outward braggadocio, at the core of every teenager lies this inept, tremulous and blushing geek. Even high school football captains are doomed to such moments of awkwardness. If we aren't Hero now, we surely have been him at some time in our lives. The love of his life is the fair Philia, a virgin in every sense of the word. Not only is she completely pure sexually, she is unstained in her heart, and her brain is a total blank slate.
She is admittedly a fantasy character, one we have all dreamed about at some time or other, in some form or other. Is her gender opposite, the virtuous rescuing knight on the pure white charger, any less a cartoon of the imagination? I think not.
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Speaking of knights, we also have the warrior Captain, Miles Gloriosus, the embodiment of the aforementioned high school football captain who is too powerful and too full of himself to be defeated, the one who always gets his way whether he is on the playing field or his girlfriend. There's Hysterium, the fellow who always insists that every rule be followed regardless of how ridiculous the consequences, and then kisses up to the authorities to make sure they never notice when he himself breaks those rules. There's the greatest rule-breaker of all, Marcus Lycus, willing to make any deal or pull any swindle just to make sure he ends up at the top of the heap even if it turns out to be a dung heap.
And there is Erronius, forever chasing daydreams, willing to believe any story told him, in this case literally blind to the real world around him. Add to this the courtesans and Proteans, who take on every other role and station in life, and the cast is complete. We know these people so well because we grew up with them, have lived with them, and sometimes are them.
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They surrounded us throughout school, they live in our neighborhoods, and they sit at the next desk at work. Indeed these characters are. For this review, I've decided to use the Original Broadway Cast Recording of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum because I think it's the most complete version of the score so far, not because the performances are necessarily the best.
I'll cover the differences between this version, the Original Cast Recording, and the London Cast Recording at another time. By now you must be ready to actually listen to the revival recording of Forum , right? I was hoping you would be.
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Here it is, Track by Track! Track 1: "Overture" There's nothing spectacular about the Overture to Forum , no ripping blast into the stratosphere from a solo horn like we heard in Gypsy , no extended dance sequence like we found in West Side Story. It does have in its favor the trait of brevity, running less than two minutes; just long enough to make sure the audience gets to their seats.
It starts with a bit of the song "Free," followed by "Love, I Hear" with "Free" continuing through as counterpoint, followed by a more complete interpretation of "Free. He then proceeds to tell us in song what sort of comedy he means, assisted by the Proteans Brad Aspel, Cory English, and Ray Roderick , a trio of actors who will be playing everything from soldiers to eunuchs and here serve as the chorus.
Busy fellows, the Proteans. They are especially helpful when Prologus explains the setting, three houses on a street in Rome. The first, the house of Erronius, was attacked by pirates, which the Proteans recreate for us to the music of "Free"; the second, the house of Lycus, is filled with courtesans, inspiring a dance to the music of "Impossible. Finally, he brings on the entire cast for one more chorus of Comedy Tonight, and the show begins. As Der Brucer has commented, there aren't many shows that begin with a curtain call.
At the same time, the music speeds us through a lot of expository material. This is no soft-shoe.
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There is, however, an added bit of business that may bewilder listeners who didn't seen the revival: after the first chorus of the song, there's an interruption of much wailing and tragic moaning and someone screaming "My baby's dead! Hmmm, maybe you have to have been there. My apologies to any and all Hero worshipers, but it has always struck me as being played on the tremulous side, and poses Hero as far too wimpy to be a respectable, er, hero. Don't get me wrong; it's a decent song. The two-note musical phrasing perfectly captures the breathlessness that first love causes, and there's enough wordplay to show us that Hero has a decent IQ.
My argument is with the arrangement, which I find far too dreamy and in need of a good stiff jolt of full-voiced testosterone. Hey, Hero is twenty years old, fer gosh sake! What he lacks is experience, not guts; he knows he's in love, but hasn't a clue as to what he should do next. Just because he's dominated by his mother doesn't mean he has to constantly simper.
Everybody cowers when Domina's around. My other complaint brings us back to my second-song theory. Hero's falling in love may be the catalyst that starts the action of Forum, but the plot's real trigger is Pseudolus' dream of being a free man. By all rights, the second song should belong to Pseudolus, not Hero.
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Unfortunately, due to plotting problems, there really isn't a space for a song for our hero, so Hero gets to sing instead. Lyrically there's a lot of punny playing on the various meanings of the word free, from "unshackled" through "loosely garbed" to "no payment required, thank-you very much!
But the true brilliance is found in how Sondheim handles the music. Initially, when Hero offers Pseudolus his freedom, Pseudolus can't believe it and the melody is a series of downward scales. Then, the idea sinks in and the melody charges upward as Pseudolus sings, "Can you see me! However, when the flip side of the deal occurs to him, that he would have to spend money and earn a living, the melody returns to it's original downward tone again, only to reverse once more when Hero repeats the word "Free," and continues to move upwards right through the final four notes from the orchestra.
I don't know if Sondheim did this intentionally or not, but it sure works, and it gets the show off at last to a rousing start. When it came time for the '96 revival, the production team decided it should be put back in. Of course, some compromises had to be made.
This track is the real reason I'm using the revival for this general discussion of the score. For Tintinabula Pamela Everett they have provided a slinky, tambourine-accented samba.
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Panacea Leigh Zimmerman gets what I like to call the Doris Day variation, with lots of bouncy flutes. Vibrata Mary Ann Lamb shakes things up with a big band jazz variation. And Gymnasia Stephanie Pope tops the spectacle off with the bump and grind of a strip club. Lycus returns for a final chorus of his song, and number comes to an end.
It is hilarious in the reprise. The problem is that the song has to be delivered straight the first time it is sung, or the later jokes will never work.