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Remaking Whoopi Goldberg

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Last October, the producers of the hit Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum announced that Whoopi Goldberg would be taking over Nathan Lane’s role as a horny Roman jester. A few questions arose:

Would Whoopi play the part — as written — as a man?

Would she play it — slightly rewritten — as a lesbian?

Would the entire show be rewritten for Whoopi?

Can Whoopi sing?

On March 6, Whoopi finally had her opening night, and the answers, respectively, are no, maybe, no, and just fine. The casting of Goldberg — as a slave who procures her freedom by procuring a prostitute for her master — has transformed this dated, 35-year-old farce about dirty old men and leggy courtesans into something hip and hilarious. Decked out in a tunic and referring to her current lover, Frank Langella (starring a few blocks away in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter), she sets Forum’s rowdy new tone by turning away a geezer and quipping, ”What am I gonna do with that old white man? I got one at home.”

If Goldberg is exactly what Broadway needs, she needs Broadway even more. Back in 1993, when she starred in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit for $8 million, she became (at the time) the highest-paid actress in history. Suffering from a lack of quality movie scripts for funny black heroines, she then starred in a string of duds — four in 1996 alone: Eddie, Bogus, The Associate, and Ghosts of Mississippi.

Not surprisingly, Goldberg wasn’t the first replacement in mind for Lane; and Forum’s director, Jerry Zaks, composer, Stephen Sondheim, and cowriter, Larry Gelbart, had some doubts when her agent offered her up for the role. ”I said, ‘What?”’ recalls Zaks. ”But after we picked ourselves up off the floor, we concluded that this could still be a story about a slave who wants to be free.” Zaks also insists that ”we had no conversations about her playing it as a man.” Gelbart and Sondheim did nothing but alter some pronouns and two lines in a song to turn Goldberg’s character, Pseudolus, into a girl. Whether Pseudolus seems like a lesbian while cavorting with the chorus girls depends entirely on one’s mind-set.

Though Lane took a more ensemble-friendly approach, Goldberg has gone the egocentric, wacko way of Zero Mostel, who originated the role in 1962 and starred in the 1966 film.Forum is now the Whoopi show, and this is such a good thing that you wonder if she could have done something with Evita.

Sondheim purists may think Goldberg has strayed too far, but Forum, with its bawdy humor and slamming doors, isn’t worthy of such reverence (despite its in-your-face political incorrectness, the revival seemed more stale than saucy when it opened last year). As Goldberg snacks away on Tony Walton’s candy-colored sets, her smile is a 10,000-watt wonder. And audiences are once again smiling with her.

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