A Funny Thing Happening

A perfect sense of timing
Marcia Milgrom Dodge Jerry LaMonica

    Timing is everything in music, dance, and comedy. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director-choreographer of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” running at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor through Sept. 1, has always had a perfect sense of timing, onstage and off.
    Born in Detroit, she started dancing when she was a child.
    “My mother took me to tap and gymnastics, in Oak Park, Mich., when I was 3 years old,” she said Friday. She continued studying dance until she went away to college.
    “I went to Ann Arbor as a liberal arts major. I wasn’t dancing, and I was unhappy.” She transferred to the dance department at the University of Michigan, and dance, and theater, have been at the center of her life ever since.
    She began choreographing in college.
    “In the beginning, I would watch Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly. But, I learned on my feet,” she said.
    On her feet, and on the floor, as well, she took the time to study modern dance with Martha Graham for three months over the course of a summer in New York. Anybody who has studied with the legendary Graham carries with them a sense memory of doing contractions. Ms. Dodge actually choreographed a brief homage to Ms. Graham’s technique in the current production of “Forum,” she said laughing.
In terms of launching her career as a choreographer, her timing couldn’t have been better. It was at the same time, in the 1980’s, that regional theaters across the country began to realize that musicals were an attractive, popular, and very doable alternative to straight theater.
    A pivotal moment in her career came in 1989. “I was given the opportunity to choreograph ‘On the Town.’ ” Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the authors of the book and lyrics to the seminal Leornard Bernstein musical, were involved in the production, which was produced at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. She also met with Sono Osata, the lead from the original 1944 Broadway production, which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
    While giving her own take on the material, she was careful to respect the characters. She spoke about her interaction with Ms. Osata in a 1993 interview with Playbill.
    “She emphasized the naivete and sweetness of the show,” she told Playbill. “She warned me not to camp it up and make fun of these people, and I really took that to heart.”
    It was a lesson that carried her through her transition to director-choreographer.
    Initially, when she would direct a show that she had previously worked on as only choreographer, she would borrow from her experience in the previous production. She quickly changed her approach.
    One of the big steps in her career was taking on the Fats Waller revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” in 1991. She felt the show was too formulaic. “We wanted to do it as a musical, not a revue,” she said.
   It was her goal to create a “Harlem rent party” on stage. Rent parties were held in Harlem in the first half of the 20th century to, as the name implies, pass the hat to raise rent money during a jazz party.
   “I am a crazy researcher. I read and read and read,” she said. “If I’m going to be a director, I have to have my own vision.”
    This production of “Forum” is the completion of many different cycles.
    For one, it marks Ms. Dodge’s return to Bay Street after a four-year hiatus. She has worked at the Sag Harbor theatrical oasis many times over the years. “I have a great love and affection for this theater,” she said.
    “Forum” opened on Broadway in 1962. It was the first musical in which Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for a show. He had previously written lyrics only for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”
Ms. Dodge worked on “Merrily We Roll Along,” with music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim, who was on hand for the production. The show, which was considered a flop when it opened and closed on Broadway in November of 1981, has since achieved something of a cult status in the theater community. “It is one of his best scores ever,” Ms. Dodge said.
    “I got to work with the master,” she said of the experience. Mr. Sondheim, she said, was always listening, open to new ideas.
    Directed by George Abbott with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, “Forum” was an immediate hit when it opened in 1962, starring, among others, Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford.
    Above all else, the show is fun.
    “I have a theory of summer theater,” Ms. Dodge said. “It’s vacation; it’s escape.” For dreary reality, she said,    “All we have to do is pick up The New York Times.” She is promising something quite different. “Go to the theater and laugh and carry on.”
    At the same time, as with all great musicals, the show has a serious core. “Pseudolus sings about being free,” Ms. Dodge said.
    She has worked on several productions of “Forum” and found that each different cast brings out new delights, as they put their own stamps on the show.
    The Sag Harbor cast is incredible, she said. “Peter Scolari is a great leader of the company.” He plays the role originally created by Mr. Mostel.
    Bringing a musical with a large cast into the intimate Bay Street Theatre is a challenge Ms. Dodge relishes.
“I have great respect for the space,” she said. “Right at the top of the show, we break the fourth wall,” she said of the imaginary separation between audience and players.
    Asked if she was grabbing the audience’s hearts, she laughed. “We’re grabbing them a little lower than that. We’ve got a few surprises. Just when you thought it was safe to go to the theater!”
    The goal of the production, from what Ms. Dodge said, can be summed up in the opening number, with those famous four words: “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”
    Timing is everything, and the time for comedy, Ms. Dodge says, is now.