May 16, 2014

[Movies] A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966)

It's interesting how many movie versions of stage musicals exist. When you think about it, it's sort of like how Hollywood is currently obsessed on adapting comic books into movies - well that and young adult science fiction and fantasy books. It was a safe enough formula - the musical already worked on stage, so naturally it had a decent chance of being a success on film.

And while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum isn't exactly the most amazing stage musical out there, but for one reason or another this movie even paled in comparison to that original story. I suppose this just acts as a good example of how theater sensibilities don't automatically adapt well to the big screen. And some of the decisions made in such translations end up taking away from what made the original play so great.

The movie is really more on the okay side - nothing amazing but not quite unwatchable. There's still a pretty solid story that defines this whole experience and it manages to hold up well enough. But the movie just didn't have that home run in terms of the total entertainment factor that we expect from such creative ventures.

Synopsis: Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a 1966 musical comedy movie adapted from the stage musical of the same name with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The movie was directed by Richard Lester with a screenplay by Melvin Frank and Michael Pertwee.

At the center of the story is the slave Pseudolus (Zero Mostel), who is determined to become a free man. And he is willing to do pretty much anything to secure his freedom somehow. Thus he manages to strike a deal with young Hero (Michael Crawford), son of his owner Senex (Michael Hordern), who in turn is married to the larger than life Domina (Patricia Jessel). Given Hero is rather smitten by the girl next door, Philia (Annette Andre).

But Philia is actual a virginal courtesan, who has been already been sold to a Greek soldier, Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who is due to return for his prize soon. Philia is currently part of the house of Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers) and now it's up to Pseudolus to figure out how to steal Philia away for Hero and thus secure his own freedom. And given this is crafted as a farce, you know that means a lot of things are going to go wrong.

As is the case with a number of movie musical adaptations, the number of songs was drastically reduced to a measly 7 - and one of them had to be a reprise. And while that shouldn't automatically make the movie a bad one, it certainly didn't help things along. Thus we had a lot more of the live-action bits that could have totally benefited from more musical narrative. The large gaps made this feel less like a true musical.

Music-wise, this was more of the middle of the road Sondheim piece that lacked a lot of the nuances and complexities that we tend to associate with his work. And given the loss of several songs, from the work, that further made it feel a lot less like a Sondheim creation, which admittedly is what I was looking for in this particular movie.

I think a lot of the problems had to do with those expanded live-action sequences and the fact that they had access to a lot of different locations. Farces tend to be complex comedic stories with a lot of interconnected plots and characters usually playing out in a limited space. That's part of the reason why the Senex and his family lived right next to the house of Marcus Lycus and his virgins - to keep all the action close together. And we didn't have that added element of comedy that could have helped things along.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum didn't totally knock it out of the park. At least it had moments that had me smiling, but there were some long gaps in-between the fun bits that killed things a bit for me.Thus the end result is the movie felt more like 2.5 funny bits lost in translation out of a possible 5.

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