Theatre: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
"Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!"
A Farce Musical
based on the plays of Titus Maccius Plautus
, with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
. Set in Ancient Rome
, it's about a slave, Pseudolus (Greek, "false liar"), helping his master's son woo the Girl Next Door
in exchange for his freedom. Along the way they get involved with the affairs of the houses on either side of them: one is a "house of ill repute
" run by Marcus Lycus; the other the home of an old near-sighted man named Erronius (Latin errare
, "to wander" or "to make a mistake").
appear in the names of the neighbors alone: Domina (Latin, "Lady," "female master"), the Beloved Smother
, Henpecked Husband
Senex (Latin, "old man"), the son named Hero, panic-prone slave Hysterium, aforementioned error-prone old man Erronius, love interest Philia (Greek, "love, friendship" or possibly intended as the Latin "filia" meaning "daughter"), and Miles Gloriosus
(Latin, "boastful soldier" and the title of a play by Plautus
) the general. He provides the main romantic competition, since Philia is a Bride for Sale
and he has just bought her. Meanwhile, Erronius trots around trying to find his lost children, who were stolen in infancy (by pirates!) but are recognizeable by an Orphan's Plot Trinket
. And the only reason any of this can happen is because Senex and Domina are off visiting her mother, thus giving Pseudolus and Hero the run of the neighborhood... but Senex finds an excuse to come home and, err, ogle the merchandise, with his wife in hot pursuit (that's for those of you who have no interest in pirates). Of course, Hilarity Ensues
The play opened in 1962, and did well enough to spawn a film (1966) and many revivals. The film was directed by Richard Lester and starred Zero Mostel as Pseudolus (reprising his part from the Broadway production), Phil Silvers as Marcus Lycus (the proprietor of the whorehouse), and Buster Keaton
as Erronius in his final film role. The stage version has featured, among others, Zero Mostel, Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg and Gary Chalk
This musical provides examples of:
- Added Alliterative Appeal: Miles Gloriosus tends to speak like this.
Miles: ...the beautiful bride I bargained for.
Miles: Now, I rid Rome of a rascal.
Miles: Her bridal bower becomes a burial bier of bitter bereavement!
Pseudolus: Very good! Can you say "Titus the tailor told ten tall tales to Titania the titmouse"?
- Aesop: Discussed and subverted. "Morals tomorrow! Comedy tonight!" (See Spoof Aesop, below.)
- Amazon Chaser: In many productions, Gymnasia is a scary dominatrix with a whip who towers over the rest of the cast — and that's exactly why Pseudolus wants her so bad.
- Ancient Rome: Ahem.
- Artistic Title: The film features a closing credits sequence animated by Richard Williams.
- Badass Baritone: Miles Gloriosus, especially compared to rivals Henpecked Husband Senex and Tenor Boy Hero.
- Batman Gambit: Pseudolus is good at these. He's also good at changing his plans at a moment's notice.
- Body Sushi: A form of this decades before the trope became popularized, when someone is eating food off the belly of a scantily clad courtesan at Miles' orgy.
- Brainless Beauty: Philia, being an Affectionate Parody of The Ingenue and Purity Personified.
- And to a lesser extent, Hero. He's usually portrayed as a quite handsome young man who's rather lacking in the brains department.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Hero says Senex can't be a suitor to Philia because "He has gas, chronic asthma, gout, and a wife."
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Pseudolus does this a few times.
- The song "Comedy Tonight" is addressed directly to the audience, and is about the show itself.
- Brick Joke: At one point, Pseudolus disguises himself as a soothsayer and tells Erronius he is under a curse and must run seven times around the seven hills of Rome to end it, in order to get him out of the way so that they can hide someone in his house. He's seen running in the background of several scenes. Eventually, he runs into the rest of the cast, and it is revealed that Miles Gloriosus and Philia are his son and daughter, so they can't marry. Then in the last scene Eronnius counts on his fingers, shrugs, and keeps running. Fade to black.
- Early in Act Two, Pseudolus touts Philia's beauty to Miles, saying "If you had been born a woman, you would have been she!" At the end, Miles and Philia turn out to be siblings.
- Butt Monkey: Hysterium.
- Chekhov's Gun: The passion potion that Senex tells Hysterium to make. Pseudolus ends up drinking it by accident. In the movie, it's Domina who drinks it
- Commedia dell' Arte: Many of the characters from the Plautus play "Pseudolus" upon which this is based are probably the Ur-examples of several Commedia dell' Arte types, so it's not surprising that they show up here in spades:
- Pseudolus is the arlecchino
- Gymnasia (despite being The Speechless) is the colombina
- (Speechless in the movie. Has one line in the play.)
- Hysterium is the pedro
- Hero is the innamorato
- Philia is the innamorata
- Senex is the pantalone
- Lycus is the brighella
- Miles Gloriosus is the capitano
- Covert Pervert: Hysterium and his pottery collection.
- Cute Mute: Gymnasia, mostly with Pseudolus. If you overlook the fact she's actually a tall Amazonian Beauty and more physically fit and proficient with weapons than the entire cast...
- Cut Song: "Love is in the Air", "Invocation", and "The House of Marcus Lycus", amongst others — some are included as underscoring, or added to revivals. Several of the lyrics from "Invocation" are recycled into "Comedy Tonight."
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: When Pseudolus sings of the things he can do if he is free, they include having a slave of his own. Obviously, he has no problem with slavery when he is not in bondage.
- Also subverted in that he intends to buy a slave of his own just so he can free him.
- Women being sold as courtesans and brides is treated as a normal, if rather disreputable, business. While Philia is not exactly thrilled to be sold to Miles Gloriosus and not be free to marry Hero, she's perfectly willing to do it to fulfill a contract and only agrees to run when she finds out that her husband-to-be is the same man who conquered and raped her home country of Thrace three times. She's only freed by virtue of the fact that she's actually the daughter of a freeborn Roman citizen (and Gloriosus's sister), Gymnasia is only able to be freed to be with Pseudolus through subtle blackmail, and the final song reveals that Miles Gloriosus just bought another slave girl (well, two) as his wives, the rest of the soldiers took the other courtesans for themselves, and Marcus Lycus just got new slave girls and reacts like the whole thing is perfectly reasonable.
- Deus ex Machina: Not in the literal sense (sadly), but Erronius just shows up at the end and solves everyone's problems (including his own) completely by accident. Legendary comedian Buster Keaton played him in the movie so that they could have bits of physical comedy with him throughout.
- Legend has it that the director, concerned with Keaton's advanced age, refused to let him do any physical comedy moments. Keaton bribed the cameraman to film him doing some pratfalls anyway and they were worked into the film.
- Dirty Old Man: Senex. Domina even sings a song about him with that exact title.
- Disguised in Drag: Hysterium's disguising himself as the "dead" Philia. Marcus Lycus also spends the last half hour of the film disguised as a woman in an attempt to sneak into Senex's house while it's occupied by Gloriosus's troops.
- The Ditz: The eunuchs. Not to mention Philia and Hero.
- Dramatic Timpani: Miles Gloriosus' "I Am" Song is accompanied by sufficiently bombastic sounding timpani booms.
- Even the Guys Want Him: Miles, judging by what his soldiers sing about him during "Bring Me My Bride."
- Evil Sounds Deep: Miles Gloriosus has the lowest notes, as well as being the closest thing the show has to a bad guy. (Which is to say that he's as bumbling and well-intentioned as the rest of the cast, he just happens to lead a Roman legion.)
- In the movie, they even transposed his part down lower, presumably to accommodate the operatic bass (Australian actor Leon Greene) who was cast.
- Falling in Love Montage: "Lovely". This gets an absolutely hilarious reprise when one of the (male) characters has to pretend to be Philia.
- Fanservice: Something for everyone, after all.
- Foregone Conclusion. Of a sort. The song at the start guarantees a happy ending.
- Gambit Pileup: Towards the end.
- Girl Next Door: Hero loves Philia.
- Albeit, Philia is a courtesan, but she's a virginal one...
- Grande Dame: Domina, who is the stereotypical matrona of the Roman theater.
- Greek Chorus: The Proteans, three men (usually) who "play many parts" — not included in the movie.
- Henpecked Husband: Senex.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Pseudolus and Hysterium.
- Hilarity Ensues: Essentially a two-word summary of the play.
- High-Class Call Girl: The courtesans.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Hero and Pseudolus are a textbook example of the "stupid master/smart servant" trope.
- "I Am" Song: "Lovely" for Philia and Hysterium; "I'm Calm" for Hysterium.
- I Just Want To Be Free: Pseudolus, as heard in his "I Want" Song.
- Improv: Zero Mostel was notorious for doing this, which didn't always amuse the rest of the cast.
- Incredibly Long Note: At the end of Miles Gloriosus's Villain Song. Followed immediately by Intermission.
- Incoming Ham: Miles Gloriosus.
"Stand aside, everyone! I take large steps."
- Intermission: Pseudolus triggers the intermission by saying it's the only thing that can get him out of his current fix.
- Insane Troll Logic: "That'll show him," in which Philia claims she'll get revenge on Miles Gloriosus for taking her away from her love interest, Hero... by marrying Miles and loving him.
When I kiss him, I'll be kissing you
So I'll kiss him morning and night
That'll show him!
I'll sit on his knee
Get to know him intimately
That'll show him how much I really love you
- "I Want" Song: "Bring Me My Bride" for Miles Gloriosus; "Free" for Pseudolus.
- Karma Houdini: Miles Gloriosus, reputedly the monster who "raped Thrace thrice," and serves as the antagonist for a good part of the play. His ending: Married to beautiful twins and reunited with his long lost family.
- Long-Lost Relative: Erronius finds his kids in the end.
- Also qualifies under Oedipus Complex and Luke, I Am Your Father, as his children, Philia and Miles Gloriosus, were actually supposed to marry, but he decided to allow Hero to marry Philia after learning that she is actually his sister separated when they were kidnapped.
- Love at First Sight: Pseudolus with Gymnasia.
- Love Potion: Actually it's a passion potion, and it causes its eventual drinker to run around the stage yelling "Kiss me! Somebody kiss me, anybody!"
- Meaningful Name: if you know Latin and Greek, it's easy to guess people's characters and roles.
- And, sometimes, even if you don't. Case in point: one of the protagonists is named Hero.
- Meido: Philia's cover story for being in the house when Senex gets home. Well "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid".
- Miles Gloriosus: A character in the play has this name, but he's not exactly the stock character. Rather, he's borrowed from the play of the same name by Plautus, which is also the inspiration for the stock character's name.
- Mistaken for Special Guest: Pseudolus impersonates Marcus Lycus.
- Mistaken Identity: And how! Senex mistakes Philia for his new maid, Philia mistakes Senex for Miles, Miles mistakes Hysterium for a eunuch, Erronius mistakes Hysterium for a woman, Miles mistakes Domina for a courtesan, and in the final chase scene, everyone mistakes Hysterium and Domina for Philia, since all three are dressed identically. Most of these misunderstandings can be traced back to Pseudolus.
- Nonverbal Miscommunication: Pseudolus pretends to be a fortune-teller, while Hysterium pantomimes the correct responses behind the subject's back. Or tries to, anyway.
Pseudolus: You have two kids.
(Hysterium pantomimes muscles)
Pseudolus: A fine strong boy...
(Hysterium pantomimes a girl sticking her hip out.)
Pseudolus:...and a very strange boy.
- Noodle Incident: Why on Earth does a bodysnatcher owe Pseudolus a favor?
- Orphan's Plot Trinket: a ring with a gaggle of geese on it.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: In some productions, Hysterium's crossdressing disguise is far from convincing, which makes it even funnier when all the men are completely fooled by it.
- In one particular production, Hysterium had 5 o'clock shadow. He was going to shave it, but the director told him to keep it.
- Plot Line Crossover
- Red Herring: The sleeping potion.
- Remembered Too Late: Pseudolus remembers he can't read, but seems to forget that Hero can, so the latter takes the recipe for the potion.
- Rule of Three: "He raped Thrace thrice?"
- Scooby-Dooby Doors: the stage version can feature this.
- Servile Snarker: Pseudolus
- The Soprano: Philia
- Someday This Will Come in Handy: Among the really few skills of Pseudolous there's the absolute mastery of a peculiar form of sign language, spoken by a small population of mute amazons (on the "Island of Silent Women"), one of whom was his nanny as a kid. Guess where his Love at First Sight comes from and what language she uses — Gymnasia the Silent!
- The Speechless: Gymnasia, Pseudolous' love interest.
- Spoof Aesop: the final sung lines:
What is the moral? Must be a moral.
Here is the moral, wrong or right:
- Suicide as Comedy: When Hero first learns that Philia has been sold, he tries to stab himself, only to miss (he gets the part of the toga under his arm instead). He tries again a minute later, only for Pseudolus to snatch the dagger and tell him to knock it off.
- Also spoofed when it turns out it's against Roman law to commit suicide. You get the death penalty.
- Tenor Boy: Hero. (In the film, he was played by an unbelievably young Michael Crawford.)
- Throw It In: Done In-Universe... in a way. At one point Pseudolus pretends to be a Fortune Teller to distract Erronius. He will sometimes turn to the audience and ask for help. (In one version, Erronius' reply was, "Is that your final answer?")
- The show being the celebration of absurdity it is, there's a lot more grounds to play this than other shows might offer. One example: two characters, who are eventually revealed to be blood siblings, were spotted being played in a community production in Oakland, CA by a white woman and a black man. And, completely aside of other considerations, this made The Reveal of same even funnier.
- The Trickster: Pseudolus
- Twin Threesome Fantasy: Lycus' house has twins. Draw your own conclusions.
- To quote Miles Gloriosus' line from the final song: "I get the twins, they get the best."
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Pseudolus and Hysterium.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A final song is devoted to Tying Up Romantic Loose Ends and otherwise clarifying what happened to everyone. It's pretty necessary.
- World of Ham: Being a farce, there are very few subtle characters.
- You Don't Want to Catch This: Used twice — first Pseudolus claims that Philia has the plague in order to get her from Lycus for free; then Lycus pretends to be a leper when he's hiding from Miles.