Broadway purists and Stephen Sondheim enthusiasts have always tended to decry the fact that Richard Lester’s film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) jettisoned much of the show’s songs in favor of slapstick and broad comedy. Personally, I was never bothered by the omission of such tunes as “Pretty Little Picture” and “That Dirty Old Man” and felt that Lester’s approach to the material was just right, but then I admit to being keener on Lester than on Sondheim. The film marked Lester’s first big-budget film away from the Beatles, whose A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) had established him as a major—if not the major—force in 1960s filmmaking. Having already applied his unique vision to The Knack and How to Get It (1965)—sandwiched between the Beatle pictures—Lester here made a bid for the mainstream, but on his own terms.
Lester’s playful sense of cinema was—and is—a perfect match for a farce set in ancient Rome (and filmed in apparently fly-infested Spain, something made into a joke on the ending credits). Already at home with larger-than-life performers, Lester was the ideal director for Zero Mostel, whose extremely broad stage mannerisms suited his own showy brand of filmmaking. The show’s thin story of Hero (Michael Crawford), a young man besotted by an already-purchased virgin (Annette Andre) residing next door at the house of flesh-peddler Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers), was a good springboard for the silent-movie type of slapstick (bringing in Buster Keaton attests to this) and casual fantasy that appealed Lester. The presence of Mostel as Hero’s larcenous slave Pseudolus drives the frenetic action, propelling the film with breathless forward movement. In so doing, Lester made what is perhaps the first modern film musical—breaking with and even making sport of the theatrical artifice that had been bogging down the genre for nearly a decade. He made the absurdity of it all part of the fun, allowing it all to be “cool” and not the canned theater that audiences had come to expect. Looked at 42 years later, Lester’s accomplishment is perhaps even fresher than it was when it was new.