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.
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.
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.
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.
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.