Next week, WaterTower Theatre opens A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — the classic musical by Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim. In this instance, “classic” doesn’t mean just “great” or “venerable” or “old and mostly forgotten,” but quite literally, “classic” in that the two main sources of the show are the farces by the Roman playwright, Plautus, as well as the “classic,” baggy-pants vaudevillian origins of much of Broadway humor. The show’s sub-title is, in fact, “a scenario for vaudevillians.” This helps explain why, in the early stagings and the 1966 film adaptation, the lead roles were often filled by such veteran stage clowns as Zero Mostel (above), Phil Silvers, Jack Gifford and in England, Frankie Howerd.
For those who are interested in the other half of the equation – just how funny the Romans may have been – there are quite a few studies (including several by the classicist, Erich Segal, best known, or perhaps, infamous as the author of Love Story). But now there is also A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humor, a new scholarly study by R. Drew Griffith and Robert Marks that, reviewer Timothy Saunders claims, manages to pull off “the remarkable, and strangely pioneering, feat of making ancient humour seem, well, actually rather humorous.”