Required Listening – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Michael Gordon Shapiro has chosen Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) by Stephen Sondheim

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum has been a reliable crowd-pleaser for decades, and its opening number – Comedy Tonight – seems to perfectly embody the show’s whimsical mood and self-reflective wit. However, the musical got off to a very rocky start and the opening number was a last-minute addition to the score.

When Forum faltered during its 1962 pre-Broadway run, legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins was consulted for advice. He concluded that audiences weren’t properly oriented at the opening; in particular, that the then-opening number (Love is in the Air) failed to establish the show’s comedic tone. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim penned the replacement number at the last minute, establishing the show’s humorous intentions in unmistakably direct terms. The show proceeded onto Broadway and became a lasting success.

The song’s catchy melody and clever turns of phrase make Comedy Tonight both effective in context and charmingly likable on its own. But it also represents a lesson about the importance of nimble-footed revision to a show’s development.

P.S. This is an unusual case of Sondheim not consistently using perfect rhyme, instead matching words by their unstressed syllables — for example, the pairing of “familiar” and “peculiar”. But the near-rhymes are chosen so skillfully that we barely notice.”

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