"THE FROGS" Clarified
I had a Sondheim flashback all my own watching The Frogs recently — S.S.’s rarely produced mini-masterwork, in a revelatory concert staging mounted by maestro Ted Sperling and his MasterVoices ensemble at Lincoln Center Jazz’s Rose Theater.
This show is not easy to perform. Sperling and Co. accomplished it thrillingly.
I first saw The Frogs, as just about everyone did, in its so-called Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center Theater back in 2004, with a book revised by Nathan Lane, who also starred. I first heard The Frogs on a cassette of the original 1974 Yale pool production that Mr. Sondheim shared with me — all echoes and splashes — like listening to a singing swim meet, or as Steve himself said: "putting on a show in a men's urinal."
Mr. S. confessed to loathing the very sound of The Frogs. He’d tackled the project as payback for a favor he owed Burt Shevelove — the guy with whom he’d written A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the early 1960s, kicking off (finally) the Sondheim career as a Broadway composer-lyricist, rather than just lyricist, post-Gypsy and West Side Story.
Stephen Sondheim adored Burt Shevelove personally, and admired him too as a theatrical artisan. In 1973, at Steve’s behest, Shevelove had stepped in to rescue what would become, under his supervision, the first, and still best ever S.S.-in-concert salute — Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. Steve returned the favor the following year by writing new music for Shevelove’s Yale Drama School revival of his own 1941 student take on Aristophanes’ The Frogs — to be staged in the Yale swimming pool with a vast student cast that would famously include Yale Drama students Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang and Meryl Streep.
Whew! Exhausting exposition. I do hope you’re still with me.
Steve spelled all of this out (and more) in his marvelous memoir-masked as a lyric compendium: Finishing the Hat, and I send you there for further details. Despite detesting the Machiavellian machinations of then-Yale Drama School dean, Robert Brustein (who passed recently), Steve being Steve still delivered a succulent score that reflected him at the peak of his powers in 1974, having just written Company and Follies and A Little Night Music. Said score was particularly strong in choral writing — The Frogs, of course, featured a large Greek chorus (also the Yale swim team as those eponymous amphibians).
Under-rehearsed and poorly produced, The Frogs sank its first time out at Yale. (Face it, the show is a pun magnet. I will try to stop now.) Lincoln Center’s subsequent 2004 Nathan Lane production, for which Steve wrote six new songs, didn’t quite work either; the whole thing felt bloated physically, and a bit aimless, though the new songs sounded great.
Ted Sperling, for my money, has solved The Frogs. The key, unsurprisingly, proved to be focusing on musical values above shtick and frolic, allowing Sondheim’s intricate and intriguing music to envelope us. Working directly with Nathan Lane, who served solely as narrator for this occasion, the Sperling version trimmed the script and vastly slimmed the staging, yielding a production that floated on music. (Yes, another pun. But it did!)
The circular environs of the Globe-like Rose Theater became an active character, with a small platoon of MasterVoices positioned onstage surrounded by, what appeared to be a rear-view sold-out house. At the first rap of the Sperling baton, the rear-seated mob rose to its feet, revealing itself as the rest of MasterVoices’ 130-person panoply. Their singing literally brought up the house.
“The Frogs wasn’t really on my radar,” Ted Sperling conceded to me in a conversation days before this first performance. “Not until I was talking to John McWhorter,” [noted Columbia U. linguistics professor, N.Y. Times editorialist, and musical theater maven] “about possible MasterVoices projects, and at the tail end of our conversation he threw out: ‘You know, The Frogs has a lot of chorus.’”
“The Frogs possesses vast choral complexity,” Ted went on. “And Sondheim actually wrote that vocal complexity himself; it’s not the work of a separate vocal arranger. Steve maintained he was no expert at choral writing, except when he was writing counterpoint — vocal lines layered on top of each other. And this score certainly has that.”
The Frogs, as originally written by Aristophanes, and re-written by Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane, follows Dionysos, the Greek god of drama and wine, with his slave, Xanthias, as they make their fraught way to Hades. Dionysos, despairing at the state of the world, seeks to bring back a great dead writer — George Bernard Shaw, he has decided — to rescue the human race through his art. Crossing the River Styx with the ferryman Charon, the pair are attacked by The Frogs — bacchanalian, subterranean creatures who hate change. The Frogs yank Dionysos from Charon’s boat and forcibly make him one of their own. Dionysos escapes The Frogs and reaches Hades, where he informs Pluto of his mission. Pluto agreeably offers Dionysos G.B.S. or Shakespeare as potential saviors. The two writers duel verbally over who is best suited for this job. In the end, Shakespeare wins Dionysos over with the song “Fear No More” (from Cymbeline, as meltingly set by Sondheim). Shaw is a great writer, Dionysos concludes, but Shakespeare is a poet, “and a poet is what we need.”
Fun stuff, chillingly targeted right at the nerve endings, seemingly, of our own deteriorating historical moment. The principal players for this MasterVoices’ production were impeccably cast: a self-knowingly hammy Douglas Sills as Dionysos; a woebegone but lusty Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias; a robust-voiced, however mournful Chuck Cooper as Charon; an ever-flighty Peter Bartlett playing himself as Pluto; a perfectly pompous Dylan Baker as Shaw; and a glorious-voiced Jordan Danica as Shakespeare. The lithe and leaping Frog choreography by Lainie Sakakura was show-stopping; while Nathan Lane’s hilarious narration was…well, Nathan Lane-esque.
As for my flashback, it came to me as The Frogs were leapfrogging about the stage. Suddenly, a memory: My first night as a young guest at Mr. Sondheim’s for drinks. I’d just excused myself for a visit to his handsomely appointed upstairs guest bathroom. There I discovered many traffic-stopping tchotchkes pointedly scattered among the hand soaps, including a group that mesmerized and mystified me: three elegant, crystalline, green glass cubes — dice-shaped and dice-sized — delicately carved, side-by-side-by-side on a sink ledge.
Concluding my business, I returned to my host.
“What are those frogs, Steve? By the sink?”
“Those green glass frogs. Three of them. Leapfrogging?”
“Those aren’t frogs! Go back and look again.”
Definitely not frogs.