Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight!
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May 17, 1962, Vol. VII, No. 30
By Jerry Tallmer
Some months ago in a theatre lobby I was chatting with a man named D. about a big musical that had just cracked up disastrously before ever reaching New York. Both D. and I knew and cared about some of those involved in it. I was solicitous, he was now bitter, contemptuous. "Musicals!" he snorted. "Anyone can bring in a play. But musicals! If people just had any idea what it takes to get a musical open, just to get it there to opening night. This is not for kids. This is what divides the kids from the men. This is for the pros."
Well, kids and miscellaneous other interested parties are herewith advised that for the next year or so up at the Alvin, on 52nd Street, there will be on exhibit the pluperfect example of the handiwork of a pro, an artisan, man among men. His name is George Abbott and he has been doing it for, I don't know, 40 years maybe, beginning for me in my own time with "Room Service" and "Three Men on a Horse," but beginning, actually, long before that, and doing it better and more consistently and more professionally than anybody else of his own lifetime. And more brilliantly. "A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM" is a brilliantly funny show made of sheer ephemera because, and I think only because, there was a George Abbott to do the making.
Brilliance attracts brilliance, so of course he has been gifted here with actors, clowns, of the royal blood, beginning with Zero the Great Mostel as a scheming Roman slave and working south through Jack Gilford and David Burns and Raymond Walburn to the mutest cooch girl in John Carradine's bordello or the lowliest legionary of Ronald Holgate's numbskull troop of valiant conquerors. It all comes out of Plautus, it says in the program, and if you believe that, I guess you can believe anything. In any event, it doesn't much come out of the book by Burt Shevelore and Larry Gelbart, yet less out of the narrow-bandspread melodies and semi-cleverish lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
No, it comes out of Mr. Abbot's extraordinary talent for hoking and heightening every line, every situation, every occasion placed within his hand; his talent for getting more people in and out of more doors in less time with less collision with more absolutely controlled hysteria than anyone else this side of a UNIVAC; his talent for piling one thin layer of spoof upon another until you're dizzy with the insane complexity of it; his talent for introducing the one all-shatteringly outrageous irrelevancy at precisely the unexpected climactic instant, and then doing it over and over again six times within the same evening and making you collapse before it each time; in short, since we have had to use words and concepts of time so often in the foregoing, his talent for timing, and his talent for talent.
...Zero balances, juggles all these and a thousand other elements of chaos as no man has juggled since W.C. Fields, and he is a riot of somber pleasures in every living moment of it...to hear him thunder: "Silence! I am about to say the sooth!" or with no sound whatsoever reprove an infantryman who has slipped three-quarters of an inch offside -- to see and hear him do any of these things or anything else here is to be born anew, to start your days afresh. And to fall out of your seat.
There are gaps. It is all superstructure. It is the flimsiest of the flimsy. But, as the best of Mr. Sondheim's songs puts it: "Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight." Go to the Alvin, to the old pros, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
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