It was one of the big events of the Australian theatre calendar — Geoffrey Rush in an early Sondheim musical — and it was darkened by death. Only a day before the opening, the news broke that Suzie Howie, the publicist who had handled Andrew Lloyd Webber, had handled everything, had succumbed to breast cancer. She was a vibrant woman: she could argue with critics on opening night, she could carry situations to the brink and retrieve them. When the director Simon Phillips, the man who had an international hit with Priscilla and salvaged Love Never Dies and was now overseeing this Roman romp, came on stage and said the final applause should be for Suzie Howie, the audience was with him.

Forum itself is a hoot and it is performed with great elan by a cast headed by Geoffrey Rush, who is a mighty chaos of improvised devilment in the role Zero Mostel created of the slave Pseudolus, a comedian in chief in a cup of comedy that floweth over and over. Rush is magnificent: dangerous, contorted, aghast — it is a shrieking, promenading display of vaudeville (and more than vaudeville) and it will have any audience laughing like a drain. And if the casting of Rush in a musical role seems preposterously luxurious casting, Forum is exceedingly rich: Shane Bourne’s flawless Senex, Gerry Connolly and Magda Szubanski as good as they’ve ever been, he as Lycus, the slimy brothel owner, she as Domina, the Roman she-who-must-be-obeyed of the show. Mitchell Butel is a revelation of frenetic disarray as the aptly named Hysterium. And this surfeit of comedians actually work to hold each other up rather than to upstage each other. It’s also a tremendous boost that Christie Whelan Browne is beautifully vacant and sings like an angel as the blonde ditz of
a courtesan, and that –– to everyone’s amazement –– Hugh Sheridan from Packed to the Rafters actually has a singing voice made for musical comedy.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is certainly a comedians’ musical. This is Sondheim a few years after he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story (and Gypsy) and a few years before every waltz tune seemed to unlock something in the Bergman-derived script of A Little Night Music.

Forum is Sondheim at his most commercial and wisecracking, it is Sondheim writing to the strengths and limitations of his genius as Oscar Hammerstein’s apprentice rather than as the extraordinary auteur who would turn the Broadway musical on its head, shredding sentiment and deconstructing melody in pursuit of an idea of theatre that is like an x-ray and a poison sign on the folk operas of the preceding age.

But the massacring master of Sweeney Todd, even of Assassins, is somehow implicit in Forum, at least in potentia, because it is so much like a pseudo-Broadway show that could be concocted from mouthfuls of air and pastiche by comedy-skit mongers.

It is farce of the low kind practised immemorially and there’s something neat about the fact that it gets its gags from Plautus, the original purveyor of low stereotypes: boastful soldiers, conniving slaves, the works.

The opening night audience was like a one-to-one map of Melbourne’s entertainment world. Bert and Pattie Newton were clapping heartily at the curtain call. You could see everyone from Rachel Griffiths, fresh from her days in America with Brothers and Sisters (before that Six Feet Under) and doing Other Desert Cities on the New York stage with Stacey Keach and Stockard Channing, to Derryn Hinch and beautiful Kate Kendall. Her Majesty’s seemed so much more full than it did in my childhood when the great musicals were its staple and when I saw Michael Denison as Higgins in My Fair Lady and Paul Daneman as King Arthur in Camelot.

Bob Hornery (the father of the house in any Simon Phillips production) actually appeared in the 1964 production of Forum from J.C. Williamson at this theatre, and he is terrific as the doddering semi-blind old man who is made to circumnavigate the seven hills of Rome seven times.

But so are they all. It is an astonishing thing that Geoffrey Rush, an actor you might kill to see playing Don Quixote or doing Beckett, should lavish his talent on farcical low-rent capering, but he does so with a consummate artistry that makes you realise how Shakespeare must have treasured clowns like Robert Armin for whom he wrote Feste and the Fool. Rush goes through an anthology of mask-like stylisations of the human face, each ludicrous and each full of a recognisable caricature of feeling. It is a marvellous cartoon of a performance and something more besides. Watching Geoffrey Rush you can feel the terror of the tightrope as well as the supreme excitement of an indecorous thing done with classic grace as well as audacious grossness. Geoffrey Rush as Pseudolus is a great capering cat of anarchy and delight and for all the lameness of the material this is a performance that belongs in the gallery of this actor’s greatest roles.

What’s true of the star is true of the firmament. There is no attempt to ape early Sixties New York wiseguy-ism. There is only one Zero Mostel, and Nathan Lane hails from another world.

Nothing is more intelligent in this very clever production than the confidence with which it channels the old high and mighty tradition of Tivoli circuit vaudeville. It’s worth remembering that the Australian figure who awed Olivier when he came here in the Forties (Peter Finch aside) was Roy Rene a.k.a. Mo McCackie — a short decade before Larry did John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

Geoffrey Rush is in some ways the opposite kind of actor: a natural comedian and caricaturist, one of nature’s funny men who has somehow ended up being universally perceived as a great actor.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a monument to the old, all but archaic, tradition of ocker camp vaudeville, the spirit that ran through the Tivoli and Sorley’s tent shows and into Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight and Les Patterson.

It is the natural idiom of Australian comedy. To see it articulated by Geoffrey Rush in the presence of Magda Szubanski’s imperiousness and Gerry Connolly’s sliminess — in a spirit of nothing but fun in this Simon Phillips production — is a delicious thing. You will never experience ‘Everybody ought to have a maid’ done with more flawless comic timing than Shane Bourne’s, and the preposterously leggy call girls are a thing of wonder, gorgeously dressed and laid bare by Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes so that the whole show has a tone-lowering glory that reminds us that our coarseness runs in a direct line from Ancient Rome.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, now booking until 23 December.