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Theatre / A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!

"Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy. Tonight, I am pleased to announce a comedy. We shall employ every device we know in our desire to divert you!"

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 Hero 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").

Many puns 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 Roman army captain Miles Gloriosus (Latin, "boastful soldier" and the title of a play by Plautus). The latter 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 recognizable 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 1966 film adaptation and many revivals. The film, directed by Richard Lester, starred Zero Mostel as Pseudolus (reprising his part from the original Broadway production), Phil Silvers as Marcus Lycus, Michael Crawford as Hero, and Buster Keaton (in his final film role) as Erronius. Revival productions have featured, among others, Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Geoffrey Rush and Gary Chalk.

This musical provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: The breeding slave, Fertila the Populator, is constantly trying to get Pseudolus alone. She happily lays claim to any other man who unwittingly stumbles into her room (and stumbles out again looking dazed).
  • Adaptation Expansion: The film greatly opens up the story, including an action-packed climax throughout the countryside. Pseudolus' romance with Gymnasia is also greatly expanded. However, several songs were cut to make room for all of the additional content.
  • 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.
    • This is Lampshaded by Pseudolus at one point:
      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"?
  • An Aesop: Discussed and subverted. The last lines of the closing number imply that they're going to say what the moral of the story is, but then sing "Morals tomorrow! Comedy tonight!"
  • All Part of the Show: When Lycus (in disguise as one of the troupe) fails to catch an acrobat, Miles delightedly laughs that the man is very good.
    "He really makes it look like he fell on his head!"
  • All There in the Manual: The setting is "Two hundred years before the Christian era" in the script book. As Rome became Christian in 313, this tell us the setting is 113, during the reign of Trajan. In case there was any doubt, Pseudolus' question of "Was 1 a good year?" definitely tells us that it is not the time of the Republic.
  • 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: The story takes place in a "less fashionable suburb" of it. Actual dates or the Emperor in charge aren't relevant, though.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: Hysterium and Marcus Lycus. Even when Marcus pulls off his wig to reveal his true sex, his Abhorrent Admirer simply vows to get revenge on the one who shaved "her" head.
    • Pseudolus quickly realizes that the best way to convince the narcissistic Miles Gloriosus that his bride is beautiful is by making her sound like him.
    Pseudolus: A face so fair, a heart so pure sir... if you had been born a woman, you would have been she!
    Miles: As magnificent as that...
  • Awful Wedded Life: Senex and his shrewish wife Domina. He's a Henpecked Husband, while she's constantly suspicious of even the smallest things he does.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Pseudolus is good at these.
    • Pseudolus manages to successfully convince Lycus that he's a free man by walking into his brothel, swaggering around a bag of money and coming up with a good line of bullshit about how he bought his freedom.
    • By acting like he's Lycus, Pseudolus manages to successfully convince Miles Gloriosus that everything is going according to plan, even as Pseudolus is playing Xanatos Speed Chess.
  • 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. Her song "Lovely" has Hero reassuring her that her inability to read or tell the difference between 3 and 5 doesn't matter because she's so, well, lovely.
    • And to a lesser extent, Hero. He's usually portrayed as a quite handsome young man who's rather lacking in the brains department, enchanted with Philia with Love at First Sight while deliberately ignoring his lessons.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Hero says Senex can't be a suitor to Philia because "He has gas, chronic asthma, gout, and a wife."
  • 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.
    • 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 gets humiliated and outsmarted by Pseudolus at every turn, despite being the superior of Pseudolus as the head slave. Pseudolus constantly uses his wit and intelligence to slip by Hysterium or convince him to go along with the ever-increasingly complicated schemes, such as Pseudolus threatening to reveal Hysterium's hidden collection of erotic pottery to keep Hysterium quiet about Hero and Philia.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The nearsighted Erronius who is searching for his long-lost children, discovers in the end that Miles and Philia are his son and daughter that disappeared many years ago.
  • 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 pierrot
    • Hero is the innamorato
    • Philia is the innamorata
    • Senex is the pantalone
    • Lycus is the brighella
    • Miles Gloriosus is the capitano
  • Contrived Coincidence: Senex just happens to knock on his door three times after Pseudolus tells Phillia that will be her captain's signal. The movie then actually averts it when it expands the gag, with Pseudolus telling one of Miles' men and then Senex again to knock three times to fob them off on Fertila.
  • Covert Pervert: Hysterium and his erotic pottery collection become a plot point when Pseudolus uses it to convince Hysterium to keep his mouth shut.
  • Credits Gag: One fresco depicts a Roman orgy, but one character raises the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) seal in protest. In the 1960s the MPAA developed a film rating system to judge whether a film's content was too offensive/adult for audiences.
  • Creative Closing Credits: The film features a closing credits sequence animated by Richard Williams, seen here. The closing credits are a sequence of animated Roman frescoes. At the end of the credits, all the frescoes appear together as a gallery with the words "THE END" as a centerpiece.
  • Cross-Cast Role: Pseudolus is usually played by a male actor, but Whoopi Goldberg replaced Nathan Lane in a Broadway revival.
  • Cute Clumsy Girl: Hero is a genuine male instance. He never gets through a scene without falling over something, even if it's his own toga, but he's never so much as slowed down. Even when he's rolling through a waterwheel he bounces right back up.
  • 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. Turns out Pseudolus can talk with Gymnasia because he had a nurse from the Isle of Silent Women.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • 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. Everyone reacts like the whole affair is perfectly reasonable, if a little convoluted.
    • Miles Gloriosus describes himself as both "slaughterer of thousands" and "paragon of virtue" within thirty seconds of each other. In Rome, such a thing would be rather attractive qualities for a man (assuming it was all done in Rome's name, of course).
  • Deus ex Machina: Erronius just shows up at the end and solves everyone's problems (including his own) completely by accident, including revealing that Miles and Philia are siblings, so they can't get married.
  • Dirty Old Man: Senex, who's a little too interested in the brothel that's moved in next door. 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: Philia and Hero aren't very book smart. The former because she never had to learn anything as a courtesan, and the latter because he's the son of a wealthy family who was too enthralled with romance to care.
  • 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. The movie includes a rather... drawn-out sequence of Lycus' "merchandise" showing themselves off for Pseudolus.
  • Foregone Conclusion. The song at the start guarantees "a happy ending, of course", seeing as how it's a comedy.
  • Gambit Pileup: Towards the end, the gambits of the entire cast all come crashing together, often literally. It's only in the final scene that everyone figures out how many lies Pseudolus was telling, and what his motive was.
  • 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.
  • Hear Me the Money: Upon their first visit to the bath house, Pseudolus gets Lycus to pay attention by jingling a bag of coins.
    Lycus: I know that sound... and I love it!
  • Henpecked Husband: Senex gets verbally abused by his wife for everything, including for things he only might have done or might potentially do. At one point, Senex is screamed at for looking at Lycus and his brothel for too long.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Pseudolus and Hysterium.
  • Hilarity Ensues: Essentially a two-word summary of the play. Pseudolus hatches a scheme to buy Philia so that Hero will free Pseudolus from slavery. However, the need to keep anyone else from finding out about this scheme results in a massive Gambit Pileup by the end.
  • High-Class Call Girl: The courtesans, available for hundreds of mina. Part of the reason Hero and Pseudolus can't just buy Philia from Miles is because they don't have enough money.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Hero and Pseudolus are a textbook example of the "stupid master/smart servant" trope. Pseudolus is far more intelligent and book-smart than Hero, but Hero's the one with the power to free Pseudolus from slavery.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Subverted near the end of "Free," after Pseudolus mentions that as a free man, he will have the right to buy his own slave:
    Can you see him?
    Well, I'll free him!
  • "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. More than anything else, he wants his freedom from Hero and his family. This results in his scheme to buy Philia for Hero, but it gets incredibly complicated by the play's conclusion.
  • Incredibly Long Note: At the end of Miles Gloriosus's Villain Song. Followed immediately by Intermission.
  • Incoming Ham: Miles Gloriosus gets an entire song dedicated just to his entrance.
    "Stand aside, everyone! I take large steps."
  • Innocent Soprano: Philia, a Brainless Beauty who is an Affectionate Parody of the traditional Purity Personified love interest, sings in the soprano range.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Miles Gloriosus is not exactly a great guy, but the only reason he's bothering the protagonists at all is because they're attempting to take the bride he paid for away from him. Pseudolus even points out that they legally have no standing to take Philia away from Miles, meaning they'll have to think of something else.
  • 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.
  • Karmic Death: Gusto the body snatcher immediately had his own body snatched upon his death.
  • Large Ham:
    • Even considering the play is a World of Ham, Miles Gloriosus, the bombastic, egotistical captain who never has a scene without shouting at least once, manages to out-ham everyone else.
    • Pseudolus is quite a ham as well. Hilariously, one New York Times review said that Zero Mostel's film performance was subdued next to the stage version.
  • Logo Joke: The United Artists logo is scrawled in a messy Roman font, now looking like it reads "VNITED ARTISTS".
  • 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: Hero and Philia fall in love at first sight, though Hero's been pining for Philia for some time. Once the two of them actually get to know each other, they hit it off instantly.
  • 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. While fitting the "pompous, arrogant braggart" part, it's clear that he's also an accomplished warrior who legitimately walks the walk.
  • 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.
  • Mr. Exposition: Pseudolus, at the film's beginning:
    Pseudolus: Our principal characters live on this street, in a less fashionable suburb of Rome, in these three houses: First, the house of Erronius, a befuddled old man, abroad now in search of his children stolen in infancy by pirates. Second, the house of Lycus, a buyer and seller of the flesh of beautiful women; that's for those of you who have absolutely no interest in pirates. And finally, the house of Senex, who lives here with his wife and son. Also in this house dwells Pseudolus, slave to his son. Pseudolus is my favorite character in the piece; a role of enormous variety and nuance, and played by an actor of such versatility, such magnificent range, such... Let me put it this way: I play the part.
  • Never Learned to Read: Pseudolus, naturally for a slave.
    Soldier: Do you know what this is?
    Pseudolus: Of course I know what this is. This is...writing!
    Soldier: This is your contract with the captain.
    Pseudolus: And a pretty piece of work.
  • No Fourth Wall: Pseudolus does this a few times. He addresses the audience directly in the stage version, and the camera in the movie. The song "Comedy Tonight" is addressed directly to the audience, and is about the show itself. However, multiple characters break the fourth wall, especially in the play, such as Hysterium telling the audience never to fall in love during a total eclipse.
  • 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.
  • Oscar Bait: defied. It's fairly obvious that this show was never intended to woo critics. And yet, every time it opens on Broadway, the person playing Pseudolus (first Mostel, then Silvers, and finally Nathan Lane in 1995) wins a Tony for it. In fact, as of this writing, Pseudolus is currently tied for the most rewarded role at the Tony awards.
    • Additionally, Jason Alexander won a Tony for his work in Jerome Robbin's Broadway where he played the part performing a rendition of Comedy Tonight, meaning that there are actually four instances of an actor winning a Tony when they played Pseudolus. Although, this is admittedly not a pure example, as Alexander only performed one part of the role and played various other characters throughout the production.
  • 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.
  • Plotline Crossover: Of the works of Plautus.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Hysterium got to be the head slave of Senex mostly by constantly kissing ass.
  • Race Against the Clock: Miles Gloriosus gives Psedolus (as Lycus) half an hour to fetch Philia before he and his men ransack the entire neighborhood in retribution.
  • Red Herring: The sleeping potion. It does get drunk a couple of times, but always by accident and never in a way that seriously affects the plot.
  • 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 during the closing chase scene.
  • Shout-Out: Pseudolus and Miles Gloriosus are named for two Plautus farces that formed the basis the of the musical's story.
  • Servile Snarker: Pseudolus is always using his wit subtly—or sometimes not subtly—on his masters.
  • 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:
    ...Morals tomorrow! Comedy tonight!
  • 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.
  • Surprise Incest: Almost happens with Miles Gloriosus who is engaged to Philia, with Erronius discovering that Miles and Philia are brother and sister before anything intimate happens.
  • 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.
    • A 2011 production at Cal Tech had Pseudolus fighting off a soldier with spells from Harry Potter.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: In the film version, Pseudolus ends up with Gymnasia.
  • The Trickster: Pseudolus, so much so that when Lycus rails that he's been cheated by the "lyingist, cheatingist, sloppiest slave in Rome", his friend immediately replies:
    "Ah. Pseudolus."
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: Lycus' house has twins. Miles buys them at the end... but as far as he's concerned, the fantasy should be theirs.
    "I get the twins, they get the best!"
  • Villain Song: "Bring Me My Bride" contains numerous lines where Miles brags about his atrocities.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum