This is a highly popular show (indeed, it was Sondheim’s most popular effort as a composer before Into the Woods came out), but still a rather misunderstood one. The show’s book is probably the best-written farce plot in musical-theater history, amazingly tight and controlled in spite of its ultra-complex permutations. The dialogue doesn’t offer many quotable lines, since most of it loses its humor value when taken out of context, but that just shows how well the authors integrated the comedy into the overall story, with flowing comic scenes instead of extractable quips. The pace of the action never flags for a second, constantly throwing new situations and shenanigans at the audience.
Based loosely on the formulas of ancient Roman playwright Plautus (though not on any specific Plautus play), it uses character types familiar from the Commedia dell’arte legacy, but it does a fine job of relating those types to actual real-life situations, reminding us that they were originally based on the foibles of real people. Written by screenwriting legend Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove (who would later write the book to Forum’s companion piece The Frogs), the book to this show has been widely proclaimed to be the funniest libretto ever written for a Broadway musical.
The show’s score, on the other hand, doesn’t receive the same respect as most of Sondheim’s other work. Indeed, it has a reputation for being so incidental to the action that you could remove it completely and not notice the difference. This is actually only true of two individual numbers, the bubbly charm song “Pretty Little Picture” and the burlesque-influenced showstopper “Everybody Ought To Have a Maid”.
The rest of the score, as the movie version inadvertently proved when it cut all but five of the songs, serves a vital purpose…it makes us care about the characters. The book, for all its hilarity, is so relentlessly paced that it never gets a chance to explore the characters’ feelings, so the score serves to flesh out the characters, making them more than the mere Commedia dell’arte archetypes they seem at first glance. This is particularly important because, let’s face it, the actions of our main character don’t make him seem very likable. Pseudolus is, after all, an unscrupulous trickster who uses and manipulates everyone around him. The reason we sympathize with him in spite of this is that we really feel his motivation (to win his freedom), and the reason we feel that motivation is largely because of his stunning song “Free”. Without the songs, the story becomes far more one-dimensional, the audiences’ emotional involvement is all but lost, and Pseudolus comes off as a much more cynical antihero type than he’s supposed to be.
Granted, the score isn’t the equal of Sondheim’s work in the Seventies and beyond: the lyrics, as clever as they are, have a self-consciously showy quality, in contrast to the effortless feel of his later work, and a few of the melodies are simply forgettable. But the show also offers several sparkling tunes and even a few of Sondheim’s finest melodic creations, particularly the famous opening, “Comedy Tonight”, the gently lyrical “Love I Hear”, the aforementioned “Free”, and the best of the show’s plethora of cut numbers, “Your Eyes Are Blue”, which was later used in the Sondheim revue Marry Me a Little. As stated, the book gets well-deserved plaudits, but despite the show’s popularity, the score remains rather underrated. Fortunately (or not so fortunately), we have the disappointing movie version as an abject lesson in why this show works better with its songs intact.