Friday 31 August 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

There were strange musicals before Paint Your Wagon and this one was obviously going to be one of them, just from the title. It's a comedy musical set way back in the degenerate days of Rome and you know exactly the sort of humour from the people who are in it. The stars are Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers, and that's a stunning double bill in itself, but backing them up is Buster Keaton along with people like Michael Hordern, Michael Crawford and someone called Jack Gilford, who I imagine is much better known to an American audience.

Mostel is Pseudolus, a wily slave belonging to Senex, a henpecked nobleman with a wife with delusions of grandeur. He lives in one of three houses in a fashionable suburb of Rome, and the other two are populated by ancient and senile Erronius and and Marcus Lycus, who runs a house of pleasure. Erronius is played by Buster Keaton, and he's on a decades long search to find his children, who were abducted as infants. Lycus is played by Phil Silvers, who could almost have swapped roles with Zero Mostel. Almost but not quite.

The intracacies of the plot are as joyously complex, nonsensical and hilarious as they are plentiful. Young Hero, son of Senex, is dim but in love with Philia, one of the courtesans at the house of Lycus. Unfortunately she's already been sold to a virile and egotistical captain called Miles Gloriosus, so Pseudolus helps Hero to get her in exchange for his freedom. Naturally nothing works out as expected. Everyone gets into trouble, usually while hiding something from someone else who is trying to hide something from them, and usually

It would be stupid to go into details because you ought to see it yourself and enjoy the insanity of it. Mostel is hilarious, Silvers and Keaton are excellent though there isn't enough of either of them and I ought to find out more about Jack Gilford. Michael Horden is wonderful, as is Patricia Jessel as his wife. Leon Greene was obviously fighting the fact that Zero Mostel was making everyone on the entire set laugh like crazy, but he makes us believe in the size of his ego. Michael Crawford shows us just why he was so good in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Backing them up are people of the calibre of Annette Andre, Roy Kinnear and Peter Butterworth and the delectable Inga Neilsen.

Given that it's a musical, I really ought to comment on the songs. Anyone who's read any of my reviews of musicals know that I generally really don't like the things. I tend to either fail to get the stories or love the stories and just wish they'd shut up singing and dancing and get on with the plot. This one is such a riot that the songs merely carry on the inanity and they're good ones too, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim. They're cleverly written and generally not performed by people who are particular trained singers, but people like Zero Mostel who embue them with character and fun. Here's a musical I can enjoy, very much so.

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