When the curtain rises on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Two River Theater and the grinning cast files onto the stage to bring you “Comedy Tonight,” you might notice a missing element. – Where are the women?
The Tony Award-winning musical, running through December 13, is being presented with an all-male cast. Yet, if a show containing numerous female roles and no actresses seems a bit odd at a time when gender equality and diverse casting are top concerns in entertainment, have no fear; a woman is at the helm and it’s all intentional.
Based on works by the Roman playwright Plautus, “Forum” features a score by Stephen Sondheim, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and focuses on Pseudolus, a Roman slave, who is trying to win his freedom by playing matchmaker for his master. The quest leads to hijinks galore, featuring a revolving door of sex-crazed Romans pining after illiterate courtesans and evading their nagging wives.
Director Jessica Stone (an actress with numerous Broadway credits) was originally offered a role in the show, but her reaction set her and the production on a very different path.
“The idea just didn’t fill me with love and excitement,” Stone says. “At first I didn’t know why, since I love the show and think it’s such a funny book and a great score. Then I realized that these roles are stereotypes that have been passed down from Plautus and have affected storytelling—comedy in particular—for a millennia now. The musical was written in 1962 by a bunch of men for, basically, a bunch of men; the female parts are male constructs, really. I wondered what would it do to the comedy if we just made it all male.”
With that suggestion, Stone was hired as director and staged the show at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2010 for a brief run. She has remounted the production for Two River.
“Any female who’s an artist totally gets it,” Stone says of the staging concept. “We’ve all had our fill of playing the dumb hottie and the shrewish wife, so everyone’s happy to sit this one out. There have been a few women who have said to me, ‘How do you feel about putting women out of work?’ I don’t think I’m doing that. I think it’s actually more dangerous to silence the idea of a female artist than it is to, for one production of one show, look at it differently, which means six chicks don’t get a job this time around.”
The way Stone has staged the show is actually a throwback to Plautus’ time, when women were not permitted to participate in theater and men played all the female roles. The casting decision is more homage to the source material than a feminist viewpoint.
“My exploration had more to do with comedy than feminism,” Stone says. The farcical nature of men portraying women builds even more laughs into the show, which already comes with a script bursting with gags. “The fact is, Plautus made fun of everyone [in his plays]. It’s a chance to really poke fun and to celebrate the foolishness and silliness of men.”
To carry out her vision, Stone has assembled an impressive troupe of Broadway stalwarts, including Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty”), David Turner (“On A Clear Day You Can See Forever”), Graham Rowat (“Mamma Mia!”), and Eddie Cooper, who nearly stole the show this summer in New York City Center’s “Little Shop of Horrors” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. Leading the wolf pack is two-time Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald (“Young Frankenstein,” “Finian’s Rainbow”), who is not only one of Broadway’s leading comedic actors, but also Stone’s husband.
“I was not Jessica’s first choice, by any means,” Fitzgerald says with a laugh. But it’s true. Stone tapped Fitzgerald for the role of Hysterium, Pseudolus’ neurotic slave companion. But when a potential investor for the Williamstown production saw Fitzgerald’s performance as the leprechaun Og in Finian’s Rainbow, the funds were promised only if he were given the lead. “I didn’t think he was right for Pseudolus,” Stone says, “but now that it’s happened, everyone was smarter than me. I am saying this as a director, not as his wife—if I were speaking as his wife, I’d be more critical [laughs]—I can’t think of anyone else who has the physical comedic ability, spirit and joy that Chris does. There’s no one like him and he is the glue of this production.”
When the “Forum” opportunity came knocking, Fitzgerald surprisingly wasn’t familiar with the show. But upon reading the script, he felt like it was a “religious experience.” Talking about the icons who have filled Pseudolus’ sandals before him—Zero Mostel in the 1962 original and Nathan Lane in the 1996 revival—Fitzgerald says, “I know in myself I have some of their cosmic dust. [The role is] like Bugs Bunny mixed with Sid Caesar mixed with all of the greats.”
For some who may think that mixing a marriage with mounting a musical is a recipe for disaster, Fitzgerald and Stone say it worked to their advantage. “We have such shorthand. There’s so much we don’t have to go through to get to the meat of the matter,” Fitzgerald says. “[As a director], she’s a perfect combination of human and talent. And she’s cute too!”
With the frenzy of rehearsals and tech, “Forum” had the potential to consume the couple’s lives. However, the couple has two children together (Charlie, 8; Emmett, 6, and regardless of how much was going on with the show, Stone says they exited ancient Rome and entered “kid land” when they’d return home from rehearsals and preview performances, with concerns of reblocking and tech cues being swapped out for dinner and bedtime stories.
But the kids are aware of what mom and dad are up to. Says Fitzgerald, “Emmett the other day was like, ‘You guys talk about your show a lot.’”
Don’t miss “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, now through December 13. Get your tickets at http://www.tworivertheater.org.