Quick -- name the funniest musical of all. If you're thinking Springtime for Hitler, you're probably right, but that doesn't really count. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, though, is surely a contender.
St. Louis University mounts the hilarious production starting Friday in the Romanized confines of Xavier Hall. The first musical with music and lyrics by theater god Stephen Sondheim, Forum also boasts a book by Larry Gelbart, creator of the M*A*S*H TV show and scripter of Tootsie and Oh, God. The 1962 Broadway debut was a sensation, featuring the talents of the inimitable Zero Mostel and diminutive Jack Gilford, probably best known to today's audiences as one of the geezers from Cocoon. The 1966 movie featured Gilford; Phil Silvers; a young, unmasked Michael Crawford; and, in his final year on this earth, the great Buster Keaton. Recent Broadway revivals have starred character actors Nathan Lane and David Alan Grier in the role of the scheming slave Pseudolus.
Pseudolus desperately wants to be freed from bondage. If he could only become a free man, he would be so excited he would "vote twice." When he's left in charge of his master's son, Hero, who has fallen for a beautiful courtesan, the son makes the slave a deal: If Pseudolus can extricate the girl from her villainous pimp, Marcus Lycus, and arrange a marriage before Hero's parents return from a trip, Hero will see that Pseudolus has his freedom -- and so we are treated to a "comedy tonight."
Sondheim and Gelbart "drew freely" from the 21 surviving plays of Plautus to create Forum. Writing circa 225 B.C., Plautus is credited with vulgarizing theater and adding lots more laughs to ancient Rome. The vaudeville, burlesque and broad comedy of the 2,000-year-old plays are here in their resurrection.
For all you charades-players in the audience, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has to be one of the few 10-word titles in the genre. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is only eight.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is performed at 8 p.m. Feb. 18, 19, 25 and 26 and at 2 p.m Feb. 20 in St. Louis University's Xavier Hall. Call 977-3327 for information.