DATELINE: Musical Farce
Mythic Comic Competition: Zero & Phil Silvers
Notable composer and writer Stephen Sondheim has always been of two worlds: his high-falutin’ musicals, and his low-brow musicals. He started out writingTopperfor TV about ghosts in a sit-com—and he wound up as one of the most celebrated of American Broadway composers of A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George.
We prefer low-brow this time.
We took a look again, years later, of his 1966 low-brow story: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Those who saw it on Broadway are a dying breed, thank heavens, because they always complained the stage version was longer, contained better songs, and was a work of genius.
The movie was directed by Richard Lester in a style that won converts after A Hard Day’s Night.His frenetic pace and visual burlesque moments are right out of slapstick in ancient Rome.
However, the film is monumental because Zero Mostel recreated his stage performance. Well, it is not exactly a performance. Mostel chews up scenery and mugs in such a way that defies anything resembling acting. This is a happening. It is beyond, way beyond, perhaps the Twilight Zone goes to the Forum. He is matched by Sgt. Bilko, Phil Silvers in an equally stunning screen travesty.
They are marvelous and will certainly dismiss anyone thinking this could have occurred on Broadway. Throw in Jack Gilford and Patricia Jessel as the shrew harridan of all-time, and Michael Herndon’s seminal browbeat husband grows all the more impressive.
The four stars dance along the aqueduct. Buster Keaton only shows up for cameos and the surprise ending.
The leering sexuality is of another age, but that is burlesque, friends.
If ever Broadway musicals were to be staged with perfect segues between action and music, this film accomplishes it.
We recalled it was a show and a half, but it has lost nothing and gained mythic proportions. If you have never seen it, you must stream it now. A comedy tonight indeed.