How do you take one of Broadway's greatest and much loved farces while still being inventive and imaginative with it? With its many cases of mistaken identity, it's quite easy. Watch This, Australia’s first and only Sondheim repertory company is bringing one of the composer and lyricist's earliest work to the stage, with not only an all female-identifying cast but a multi-generational one too. We spoke to Sarahlouise Younger, who plays Marcus Lycus, about the new perspectives this production offers and the joy of working on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
"I was champing at the bit to get into the rehearsal room! If you're a Sondheim fan like I am, and what musical theatre performer isn't?, Forum is the second time we see Sondheim standing on his own and taking the reins as both composer and lyricist," she tells me. "While the influence of his mentor Bernstein is quite evident, you can hear little musical gems of what will be iconic Sondheim in his future musical creations. The book is a fabulous example of what is great comedic writing. His co-writer Larry Gelbart would go on to write M.A.S.H, so as a musical theatre performer it is such a treat to be given a rich, wordy text to play with."
Being an all female-identifying cast has allowed the ensemble to consider how the binaries of gender restrict how work is written and presented, and how they present themselves. "In this work there is a loveable incompetence that seems to round out each male character and this softens any villain qualities and making the audience blind to it. The women characters however either do not speak or are the source of much grief and boredom for their male counterparts," Younger explains. "Our cast is gloriously multi-generational with every generation over the last 60+ years represented on stage, so it's fascinating to hear the different language each generation uses, as we find our place and voice in the world."
"One of the common themes, that is probably not going to change anytime soon, is how beauty seems to be the only currency deemed important that female-identifying persons can trade. We trade it for care, opportunities, jobs and relevance, but this in no way guarantees our safety and we become irrelevant once that beauty starts to fade. We are thought of as invisible members of society with our wisdom and experience seen as either nagging or being difficult," she continues. "For many of us, getting cast in Forum has permitted us to do our job; work as a performer, where the role is in no way tied to our body, youth or looks. A problem in our industry, and one I am starting to encounter, is how a lot of plays/musicals written by male-identifying playwrights require the majority of cis-women protagonists to possess vulnerability, innocence, beauty, and youth (and whiteness)."
"Strangely, the character of Marcus Lycus is a character that closely resembles the types I have played before, like Mama Morton from Chicago and Justice Charlier in Rock of Ages. I find these characters interesting to dissect and figure out what their function is. Are they evil? Are they survivors? Oddly when the character is a cis-women she is called strong, which I find odd because usually she is also a villain, and almost always the role is originated by a plus-size woman-of-colour. To play these types of characters at times tends to interrogating my own need to be desired, I have to sit in the space of past comments and assumptions of me as a person and overcome them, which in some ways mirrors these types of characters so I have an appreciable affection for them."
With Forum considered one of the funniest plays ever written, Younger feels confident that this cast have what it takes to draw out a fresh outlook on the humour and provide even more laughs for its audience. "The talent in this production makes keeping a straight face during rehearsals very challenging. The script is so well written that all you have to do is speak the words and everyone cracks up, but we discussed the expectations placed upon female-presenting persons and the assumption that we are not funny. I believe many female-identifying comedians have spoken about the pressure to be funny," she says. "Women have their own way of being funny, our own self-deprecating humour and our own way of presenting and embodying comedy, which is hysterical, and I cannot wait to perform this show to a live audience and for them to experience this. It's going to be a hoot!"
Venue: Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran
Season: 8 - 24 September | Wed- Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2:00pm, Sun 2:00pm
Duration: 140 minutes (including 20 min interval)
Tickets: $50 - $60
Bookings: Chapel Off Chapel