The question Jerome Robbins used to bug his writers with all the time in rehearsal is the most basic one of all: What is this show about? And the place he wanted it answered was in the opening. On A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963), audiences were thrown off by the period setting—the togas and the Latin—so he ordered up a curtain-raiser simply announcing that it's meant to be funny—"Comedy Tonight":

No Royal curse, no Trojan horse

And the gags that hadn't worked the night before suddenly worked.

Gypsy (1959) opens at Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Show in Seattle and a chaotic stageful of garishly costumed moppets lumbering through sad routines, until from the back of the auditorium a rasping voice yells, "Sing out, Louise!," and Mama Rose comes barging down the aisle, effectively disrupting the...


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