Magazine article The Spectator

Roman Follies

Magazine article The Spectator

Roman Follies

Article excerpt

It was the Broadway impresario Alex Cohen who famously noted about 20 years ago that every time Stephen Sondheim writes a new musical, Broadway gets rebuilt, and the rebuilding started here. In 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the very first score for which he wrote all the words and all the music, and nearly 40 years later it is still the most commercially successful and oftrevived of all his shows. In America it revitalised the late-life career of the great Zero Mostel, and over here it set Frankie Howerd off on an endless succession of togaand-tunic television sitcoms, suitably enough since its book comes from the subsequent master of Mash, Larry Gelbart, working with one of the great unsung geniuses of the American musical theatre, Burt Shevelove.

And almost 40 years later, the old Roman follies are back in the Open Air of Regent's Park, looking none the worse for wear; true, Ian Talbot's agile staging brings us Roy Hudd and with him memories of end-of-the-pier music hall rather than the vaudeville burlesque originally intended, but so tightly wound is the Gelbart and Shevelove book that the show is virtually indestructible. Sondheim himself, while later to be dismissive of his own songs (which critics described at the time as `less than impressive'), nonetheless thought the rest of it the best farce ever written, making even Feydeau look dim by comparison, and it is still hard to argue with that.

But the real joy of Forum is that it works on every level of audience involvement; on a warm summer night you can if you wish just check your brains in at the box office and go with the flow of a mindless, anarchic, high-speed romp about mistaken identities. But if you want to get even a little more serious, you can see in the halfdozen classic songs Sondheim wrote for the first half of the show the very beginnings of his work as a solo composer-lyricist. All his songs are, as they never were to be again, totally self-contained, telling little stories in counterpoint to the zany farce that explodes around them.

At the New Ambassadors and soon to tour nationally, Ayub Khan-Din's Last Dance at Dum Dum is a curious epilogue to Passage to India and Jewel in the Crown and all those other Raj returns; but now we are in the Calcutta of 1981 and among AngloIndians unable even after a quarter of a century to cope with Independence or the departure of the British colonial government. …

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