THEATER : 'Forum' Offers Vision of a 'New Vaudeville' of '90s

Des McAnuff gets a laugh out of his own assertion that the revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which begins Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for 13 performances, represents the "new vaudeville" of the '90s.

A case could be made for the idea, he said, relaxing one morning last week in faded jeans and an orange T-shirt at the La Jolla Playhouse office behind the Mandell Weiss Theatre, where the acclaimed revival has just ended a six-week run.

But McAnuff--who staged the production and who is the artistic director of the Playhouse--would rather not take the idea too far, considering how pretentious it might sound.

After all, how could he describe the new vaudeville? As post-modern shtick? The mere phrase seems ridiculous--not unlike the term "comedic kinetics," which the show's slapstick and clown coach, Jeff Gordon, has applied in jest to the circus-style antics that he developed for this "Forum."

"We borrowed shtick freely," said McAnuff, "from Gleason, from Berle, from Belushi. There are a lot of influences. The new vaudevillians plug into all the old burlesque. Some of the shtick goes back to the Borscht Belt and some of it goes all the way back to Plautus, including jokes."

Still, this production has an unabashed physical exuberance emblematic of the new vaudeville that never appeared in any of "Forum's" previous revivals on or off Broadway. Pratfalls, for instance, are turned into pitfalls. In fact, the acrobatic use of the orchestra pit has become a signature of sorts, demonstrating the length to which McAnuff and his cohorts will go for a gag.

Nor does their showmanship end there. In his ambition to resurrect and re-examine what he calls "an American musical classic," McAnuff has revamped everything from the orchestrations to the choreography, while also revising entire song-and-dance numbers.

That takes chutzpah--even for someone with McAnuff's record, which includes developing "Big River" at La Jolla and winning a Tony Award for directing it on Broadway in 1985.

The original "Forum" did just fine in George Abbott's 1962 staging. It ran for 967 performances and won six Tony Awards, including best musical. Why fix what wasn't broken?

Besides, "Forum" isn't simply any old hit farce written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. It happens to be the first show for which Steven Sondheim, the reigning genius of today's musical stage, wrote both the score and lyrics.

"I planned to have it reorchestrated right from the beginning," McAnuff said, "because if you don't you are more or less forced to ape the original. I wanted to start fresh. I didn't want to be stuck with choices that were already made for me.

"The first thing I did was call Steven and tell him I was going to do this. I asked if he had any objections to my having new orchestrations done. And he said no. Actually, he seemed to be delighted."

Bruce Coughlin's new orchestrations--not to be confused with new arrangements--entailed the creation of "three to four times more incidental music" than originally used, McAnuff explained. It not only meant feeding in thematic elements from the songs to cover changes in the action, it also meant melding differences between the music for the original production and the major Broadway revival of 1972.

In one instance, the new orchestration restored a full song-and-dance variation of "The House of Marcus Lycus," which had been used by Abbott simply as a dance break. In another instance, "The Echo Song"--intended for Abbott's original production but never staged--was put back in and its replacement ("That'll Show 'Em") taken out.

Despite such meticulous efforts, and capital costs of nearly $600,000 by McAnuff's rough estimate, neither the La Jolla Playhouse nor the Center--which is co-financing the revival as an equal partner--expects this "Forum" to tour beyond their two venues.

"We said from the beginning we were going to take it to (the Center in) Costa Mesa and that was all," McAnuff noted. "There has been interest in the show, but I really have no idea whether anything will happen. The producers who are most likely to do something with it haven't come to see it yet.

"If anything does happen, it would have to be a remount. And I doubt that any tour would go out immediately after Orange County. Frankly, my biggest ambition with this piece would be to put it on tape or film at the Center. But I don't think that will be done."

The urge to document the revival goes back to the 1966 "Forum" movie starring Zero Mostel, who also starred in the Broadway original. That dull Hollywood version essentially ruined the show for a whole generation of theatergoers, McAnuff contended. So he hopes this "Forum" will serve at least as a local corrective.

Indeed, McAnuff has no doubt that the combination of Sondheim's most accessible score and the Plautus-based story--involving several farcical Roman characters but chiefly a slave trying to obtain his freedom--places "Forum" among "the 10 best book musicals of the American theater." His other picks include "My Fair Lady" and "Guys and Dolls," ("the two greatest"), "Sweeny Todd" and "West Side Story" ("even with its flawed book"), "A Chorus Line" ("the only dance musical to survive as dramatic literature") and "Oklahoma" ("not a personal favorite").

As for the so-called spectacle shows of the '80s--such as "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera" and all the British musicals--McAnuff is less impressed. "I think the jury is still out on them," he said. "I don't think 'Les Miz' has a terribly strong score, for instance, though I do think Trevor Nunn's staging is brilliant."

Meanwhile, he maintains that the basic problem with the current musical theater is not a lack of material but "not enough places to develop it." And not enough people with the know-how.

"There are maybe a few people around," he said. "It's just not like the old days in New York when you had all these guys working within eight blocks of each other near 42nd Street. Everybody was there--orchestrators, copyists, a whole industry."

Like everyone else, McAnuff points to the exorbitant costs of mounting musicals as a major reason for the decline. But he also notes that a change in popular musical taste--specifically the arrival of rock 'n' roll during the '50s--was crucial as well. "Until that time Broadway and pop music were the same thing," he said. "Then the split took place, and it has never been bridged."

Some small steps toward closing the gap have been taken with the Eurorock musical, he believes, but "theater people are snobbish about welcoming rockers in, as if there's some mystique about writing theater music."

In any case, top-draw rock musicians are not beating on the doors for entry, although McAnuff does get occasional calls from their agents. Between records and concerts, rockers have more lucrative outlets for their work than the theater.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" opens Friday at 8 p.m. and continues through Aug. 26 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $16 to $38. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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