A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is allegedly a show about nothing. Directed by Northwestern Theatre Adjunct Professor Matt Hawkins, the show opened Feb. 12 at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre on campus. From the show’s opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” the musical tries selling its audience on the idea that making the audience laugh and feel good is the number one goal. Introducing a flurry of character archetypes inspired by classic Roman comedies, the show’s insistence on farce becomes farcical in itself. The audience is invited to not think too much about what is going on while feeling vaguely superior to all of the characters on-stage. When enthusiastically produced, the show is an impressive sight on its own, but NU’s production at the Wirtz Center takes things one step further by gender-flipping nearly all of the characters.
While gender-flipping a show is nothing too revolutionary (many a high school drama departments have fared a similar route due to a lack of male recruitment), this particular production is interesting because of how much self-awareness is placed in this decision. The show’s main character and narrator Pseudolus, played by School of Communications senior Meghan McCandless, leads the show through its opening number in a traditional fashion before deciding of her own volition to recast. From here, gender roles are explored through two major routes. First, through examining the absurdity of songs such as “Lovely” by having a 6-foot-plus man in drag singing about having no talents except for being pretty. And second, by allowing for ‘actor reactions’ in addition to character dialogue.
It may be a coincidence that this production opened on the same weekend as Deadpool, but one could argue that there are quite a few similarities between the two of them. They both feature a fourth wall that is broken more frequently than the audience would imagine possible or necessary. They both are far raunchier most other productions of their like. (Seriously, despite the high average age of the audience, this is maybe not the show to take your grandmother to.) And they both thrive off of a large amount of suspended disbelief. This is not to say that someone who dislikes Deadpool will dislike A Funny Thing or vice versa, but NU’s production takes things to extremes, narratively and comedically.
On top of having an interesting concept, A Funny Thing is very well executed. Despite all of the additional material added to an already complex narrative, the show is clean all the way through. The performances and dialogue are tight, the technical elements all come into place, and the show becomes a whirlwind of fun. It is obvious how well rehearsed everything is within the show, while still avoiding the stale calculated feel of repeated runs.
The 1966 production of A Funny Thing marks the first show that Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Into the Woods) wrote both the music and the lyrics. While often considered to be a classic piece of musical theatre, it is also quite dated in terms of gender dynamics, due to its cast of stock characters and emphasis on low-brow comedy. Flipping the gender roles makes the show fresh again. The show about nothing becomes a show about something, while maintaining and even adding to the inherent silliness of the scenes. At the end of the night, the show provides more than enough laughs and even some relevant commentary to how gender is treated in art.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will have three more performances: Friday, Feb. 25 & Saturday, Feb. 27 at 7:30p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 28 at 2p.m. All shows are at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre. Tickets and more information can be found here.