by Thom Ernst Wednesday March 13, 2013

Just over a year ago to this date, Josh Mostel, came up from New York to take in the opening stage production of Zero Hour at Toronto's Al Green Theatre, a one-man play based on his father, Zero Mostel.  Toronto Star theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian gives it a glowing review.

A bit about Zero Mostel:  Mostel died in 1977.  He was 62.  Zero had a skill at portraying the fast-talking, fast-thinking con-man which Mel Brooks put to brilliant use in the original "The Producers".  But when he played a blacklisted comic in the under-rated Martin Ritt film, "The Front"  alongside Woody Allen, he proved he had a serious side as well.  On Broadway he became known to many as the original, and to some, the only, Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof".  To Mostel's dismay, Norman Jewison would cast Topol as Tevye in the film version of Fiddler.

He had a brief moment in the academy award winning documentary "Best Boy" where he met Philly, the 50 year-old man who stopped aging mentally at 5, backstage after a performance of Fiddler on the Roof.  Philly's favourite song was If I Were A Rich Man, the centerpiece performance from the play.   At first Zero met Philly and his parents (and camera crew) with the aloof respect that any performer, exhausted from just finishing a show, might meet a fan in his dressing room.  The moment Zero recognized Philly's capacity, as well as his warmth and gentleness, he opened his arms and heart.  In an unforgettable moment Zero and Philly sing,  If I Were A Rich Man.

There are many films to choose from from the canon of Mostel's work. " A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is not necessarily the best choice. Josh Mostel, doesn't even like the film suggesting that Zero didn't quite care for it either.

The problems with Funny Thing are not obvious to me.  It works.  Perhaps as a tale of a conniving, plotting and self-centered slave (can a slave actually be self-centered) the comedy is too broad and bawdy to be consider tasteful.  But with a cast like Mostel, Jack Gifford, Michael Crawford (who would, years later, show up in Toronto as The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera), Phil Silvers, and in his final film, Buster Keaton, how could you be anything else but broad and bawdy?  The music numbers by Steven Sondheim are as catchy as they are hilarious from the opening credit sequence featuring the song A Comedy Tonight to the wonderfully campy Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.

The film boasts the talents of Richard Lester, who was accused of trying to use the same frantic, reckless pace that worked for him with The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night" to a far lesser affect in this film. Its a valid criticism that I quite easily forgive.  The film was shot by future director,  Nicholas Roeg with a script co-written by Larry Gelbart and Melvin Frank. 

If the film is a failure, and you will judge for yourself and let me know what you think, than it's a delightful, memorable, and wonderfully giddy failure.

The other feature this weekend is "Spartacus".  Now we're in the hands of master director Stanley Kubrick.  This is epic sword and sandal material that also deals with slavery just without the back beat.

Tonight we visit the Roman Empire - one as a satire, one as a social comment.

Enjoy.