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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart.

Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC) — specifically Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Mostellaria — it tells the bawdy story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door. The plot displays many classic elements of farce, including puns, a two-tiered set with many doors, cases of mistaken identity (frequently involving characters disguising themselves as one another), and satirical comments on social class.


Original Broadway production

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway May 8 1962 at the Alvin Theatre. Directed by Broadway legend George Abbott and produced by Hal Prince, it ran 964 performances.

The show's creators originally wanted Phil Silvers in the lead role of Pseudolus, but he turned them down (allegedly because he would have to perform onstage without his glasses, and his vision was so poor, he feared tripping into the orchestra pit). So did Milton Berle. Eventually, Zero Mostel was cast.

Out of town during pre-Broadway tryouts, the show was attracting little business and not playing well. Director and choreographer Jerome Robbins was called in by Abbott and Prince to give advice and make changes. The biggest change Robbins demanded was a new opening number to introduce the show as a bawdy, wild comedy; Stephen Sondheim complied, creating the song "Comedy Tonight." From that point on, the show was a success.

Along with Mostel, the musical featured a cast of seasoned performers, including Jack Gilford (Mostel's friend and fellow blacklist member), David Burns, John Carradine, Ruth Kobart and Raymond Walburn. The young lovers were played by Brian Davies and Preshy Marker. Karen Black, originally cast as the ingenue, was replaced out of town.

The show won several Tony Awards: best musical, best actor, best supporting actor (Burns), best book, and best director. The score, Sondheim's first time on Broadway writing both words and music, was coolly received, however, not even garnering a nomination.

Motion picture

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was made into a film in 1966, directed by Richard Lester, with Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford recreating their stage roles.

Broadway revivals

In 1972 there was a critically well-received Broadway revival, directed by co-author Burt Shevelove and starring Phil Silvers. Larry Blyden, who played Hysterium, the role created by Jack Gilford, also co-produced. Two songs were dropped from the show, and two new Sondheim songs were added. The new songs included in this production had been added during a 1971 Los Angeles production: "Echo Song" (sung by Hero and Philia), and "Farewell" (sung by Domina as she and Senex depart for the country). The production ran 156 performances, but had to close soon after Phil Silvers suffered a stroke. The show won Tonys for Silvers and Blyden.

The musical was also revived with great success in 1996, starring Nathan Lane as Pseudolus; he was replaced later in the run by Whoopi Goldberg and also by David Alan Grier. The production, directed by Jerry Zaks, ran 715 performances. Lane won the Best Actor Tony for his work.

Every actor who has opened in the role of Pseudolus on Broadway (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane) won a Best Actor Tony for their performance. In addition, Jason Alexander, who performed as Pseudolus in one scene in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, also won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.

Other productions

The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts produced a limited-run revival of the musical from January 11 to 27, 2008. The production is directed by Randal K. West, with Justin Hill as musical director and Adam Cates as choreographer. The cast featured Richard Kind as Pseudolus, Joel Blum as Senex, Stephen DeRosa as Marcus Lycus, Sean McCall as Hysterium, and Steve Wilson as Miles Gloriosus.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada has announced a production for June 11, 2009 to November 1, with Des McAnuff directing and Wayne Cilento choreographer.

West End productions

The show was presented thrice in London's West End. The 1963 production and its 1986 revival were staged at the Strand Theatre and the Piccadilly Theatre respectively, and featured Frankie Howerd starring as Pseudolus. In 2004 there was a limited-run revival at the Royal National Theatre starring Desmond Barrit as Pseudolus, Philip Quast as Miles Gloriosus, Hamish McColl as Hysterium and Isla Blair as Domina (who had previously played Philia in the 1963 production.)


The musical centers around the denizens of three adjacent houses in ancient Rome. In the center is the house of Senex, who lives there with wife Domina, son Hero and several slaves, including head slave Hysterium and the musical's main character Pseudolus, who wishes to buy, win, or steal his freedom. He is the slave of young Hero, son of Senex and Domina. One of the neighboring houses is owned by Marcus Lycus, who is a buyer and seller of beautiful women; the other houses the ancient Erronius, who is searching for his long-lost children (stolen in infancy by pirates).

One day, Senex and Domina go on a trip and leave Pseudolus in charge of Hero. Hero confides in Pseudolus that he is in love with the lovely Philia, one of the courtesans in the brothel next door. Pseudolus promises to help him win Philia's love in exchange for his freedom. Unfortunately (as the two find out when they visit the business), Philia has been promised to a pre-eminent soldier, Captain Miles Gloriosus, who is on his way to pick up his prize. Pseudolus, an excellent liar, uses her cheery disposition to convince Lycus that she has picked up a plague from Crete, which causes its victims to smile endlessly in its terminal stages. By offering to isolate her in Senex's house, he is able to put Philia and Hero together, and the two fall in love. But Philia insists that, even though she is in love with Hero, she must honor her contract with the captain, for "That is the way of a courtesan." Pseudolus comes up with a plan to slip her some sleeping potion that will render her unconscious. He will then tell Lycus that she has died of the Cretan plague, and will offer to remove the body. Hero will come along, and they will stow away on a ship headed for Greece. He steals Hysterium's book of potions and has Hero read him the ingredients to the sleeping potion. Alone among the ingredients, he does not have any mare sweat, and he goes off in search of some.

Unfortunately, Senex returns home early from his trip, and knocks three times on his own door. This was the signal that Pseudolus had told Philia he will give when Miles arrives. She comes out of the house, and, thinking that Senex is the captain, offers herself up to him. Senex instructs Philia to wait in the house for him, and she does. Hysterium arrives to this confusion, and tells Senex that Philia is the new maid that he has hired. Pseudolus comes, and tricks his master into thinking that his road trip has left him smelling odorous by sprinkling some of the mare sweat that he has procured onto him. Senex instructs Hysterium to fix him a bath in the long-abandoned house of Erronius. While all of this is happening, Erroneous returns home, finally having given up the search for his long-lost children. Hysterium, desperate to keep him out of the house where his master is bathing, tells the old man that his house is now haunted, which is seemingly confirmed by the sound of Senex singing in his bath. Erroneous states that he will have a soothsayer come and banish the spirit from his house. Psuedolus poses as a soothsayer and tells Erroneous that in order to banish the spirit, he must travel seven times around the seven hills of Rome.

When Miles arrives, Pseudolus hides Philia to prevent her from going with her new master, and to keep her away from Senex. He tells Miles that Philia has disappeared, and he sets out to "look for her". Miles sends his soldiers to accompany him, but Psuedolus is able to lose them in the streets. Domina returns from her trip early, saying that she has been having a premonition that Senex is "Up to something low." She disguises herself as Philia to try and catch Senex being unfaithful. Pseudolus pretends to be Lycus to Miles Gloriosus, and finally convinces Hysterium to help him by dressing in drag and pretending to be Philia, now "dead" from the plague. Unfortunately, Miles Gloriosus has been stationed in Crete, and—with the ruse revealed—the main characters run for their lives, resulting in a madcap chase across the stage. with both Miles and Senex chasing all three people who appear to be Philia. Meanwhile, the courtesans from the house of Marcus Lycus, who were posing as mourners at the funeral of "Philia", have escaped, and Lycus sends his eunuchs out to round them all up, adding to the chaos. Unfortunately, Miles' troops are able to round up everyone, but Erronius returns bearing a deus ex machina: both Miles and Philia are wearing the gaggle-of-geese rings, making them not only his children but siblings. Philia weds Hero, Pseudolus gets his freedom, Erronius gets his children, and a general happy ending prevails.


  • Pseudolus: A Roman slave, owned by Hero, who seeks to win his/her freedom by helping his/her young master win the heart of Philia. While originally written as a male role, it has been performed by female cast as well.
  • Hero: Young son of Senex who falls in love with the virgin, Philia.
  • Philia: (Filia, Latin for "daughter"; also, "Philia" is the Greek word for "love.") A virgin in the house of Marcus Lycus, and Hero's love interest.
  • Senex: (Latin for "old man," or "senile") A Roman senator living in a less fashionable suburb of Rome.
  • Marcus Lycus: A purveyor of courtesans, who operates from the house to the left of Senex. (Name based on Lycus, the pimp in Plautus's Poenulus.)
  • Domina: (Latin for "mistress") The wife of Senex. A manipulative, shrewish woman who is loathed by even her husband.
  • Erronius: (Latin for "wrong") Senex's elderly neighbor who has spent the past twenty years searching for his two children, kidnapped in infancy by pirates.
  • Gymnasia: (Latin for "Nude", though could be a play on words for "Gymnasium") A courtesan from the house of Lycus with whom Pseudolus falls in love. (portrayed in the film as mute, as she hails from "the Island of Silent Women")
  • Miles Gloriosus: (Latin for "braggart soldier") A captain in the Roman army to whom Marcus Lycus has promised Philia.
  • Hysterium: (Latin for "Hysterical", or "Anxious") The chief slave in the house of Senex.
  • Fertilla the Populator: A female "breeder slave" purchased by Senex and Domina. (film only)
  • Crassus: A merchant at the docks. (film only)
  • Tintinabula: (Latin for "Bell") A jingling, bell-wearing courtesan in the house of Lycus.
  • Vibrata: (Latin for "Vibrant") A wild, vibrant courtesan in the house of Lycus.
  • Geminae: (Latin for "Twins") Twin courtesans in the house of Lycus.
  • Panacea: (Latin for "Cure All") A courtesan in the house of Lycus.
  • Domina's Mother: Senex's overweening mother-in-law. (briefly mentioned in the play; only actually seen by the audience in the film)
  • Proteans: Literally the chorus, they play multiple roles in the play (slaves, citizens, soldiers, and eunuchs), and they accompany Pseudolus in "Comedy Tonight" (in the play, three people played all of these roles; in the film, these parts were played by extras).


  • "Comedy Tonight" — Pseudolus and Company
  • "Love, I Hear" — Hero
  • "Free" — Pseudolus and Hero
  • "The House of Marcus Lycus" — Lycus and Pseudolus
  • "Lovely" — Philia and Hero
  • "Pretty Little Picture" — Pseudolus, Hero, and Philia
  • "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" — Pseudolus, Senex, Lycus, and Hysterium
  • "I'm Calm" — Hysterium
  • "Impossible" — Senex and Hero
  • "Bring Me My Bride" — Miles Gloriosus and Company
  • "That Dirty Old Man" — Domina
  • "That'll Show Him" — Philia
  • "Lovely" (reprise) — Pseudolus and Hysterium
  • "Funeral Sequence" — Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Company
  • "Finale" — Company

Note: The songs "Love, I Hear", "Free", "The House of Marcus Lycus", "Pretty Little Picture", "I'm Calm", "Impossible", "That Dirty Old Man" and "That'll Show Him" were cut from the film.


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