It’s a good time to be a Sondheim fan in New York. On Broadway, you’ve got major revivals of Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along, both with A-list casts. Off-Broadway, the master’s final musical is getting a posthumous world premiere with Here We Are at The Shed. And uptown a few blocks at Jazz at Lincoln Center, we’re about to get a concert of The Frogs courtesy of Nathan Lane and choral ensemble MasterVoices, set for November 3 and 4.
Even the most passionate Sondheim fan could be forgiven for not knowing The Frogs. Tony Award-winning Broadway legend Nathan Lane, who penned the revised edition of the piece that MasterVoices is presenting, calls it “a rare bird indeed.” Lane’s version played a brief Broadway run in 2004, but the work’s origins make it one of Sondheim’s more curious titles. Originally co-written by Sondheim and his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum co-book writer Burt Shevelove, the work debuted in 1974. At that time, on Broadway, Sondheim had just opened Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, the beginning of a string of musicals that would redefine the art form throughout the decade.
The Frogs, on the other hand, was a student-produced musical at Yale, performed in their swimming pool and starring the swim team. Oh, and also then-Yale Drama students like Meryl Streep, Christopher Durang, and Sigourney Weaver. Two-time Tony winner Michael Yeargan, then also a Yale student, designed the set. Shevelove, a Yale alum, had been invited back to re-stage his own student production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, an ancient Greek comedy that premiered in 405 B.C. Shevelove decided to up the ante and get his pal Steve Sondheim to pen some songs.
When you go to Yale, it's ostensibly normal for a Tony winner and household name to write your student musical?
Lane became fascinated with the work when he discovered a copy of the script at the old Drama Book Shop shortly after moving to New York City in the early ‘70s. “Being a fan of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I thought this was going to be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Parthenon,” remembers Lane, speaking to us over the phone while working on the concert adaptation for MasterVoices’ upcoming performances. “It turned out to be a very different animal altogether.”
Lane calls the Artistophanes play “the Greek version of Saturday Night Live in tunics.” The plot follows the god Dionysus and his servant Xanthias as they travel to Hades to bring back then-recently deceased playwright Euripides to save the art form of the theatrical tragedy. Once there, a debate emerges between Euripedes and fellow deceased playwright Aeschylus over who is the better tragedian. In the end, the latter wins due to his ability to help save the city of Athens, then in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, with his work.
If that’s all Greek to you, it can more or less be boiled down to: Art matters, as does taking an active part in the continued evolution of society. But with jokes!
Shevelove’s version retained the spirit of Aristophanes but anachronistically modernized things a bit, with his Dionysus seeking to bring back George Bernard Shaw and eventually coming home with William Shakespeare. When Lane found it, its score of eight or so songs was unrecorded, which no doubt added to its mystique. As it turns out, they were every bit as unique as you’d want an unheard Sondheim score to be.
“The Frogs has wonderful, complex writing for the chorus, maybe the most complex choral writing in any of the Sondheim pieces,” says Ted Sperling, the Tony-winning musician who’s directing and leading MasterVoices’ concerts from the podium. “And he actually wrote the choral arrangements himself, which is not always the case.”
Sperling is right. The original score, most of which is written for a Greek chorus rather than individual characters, sounds as if Sondheim had decided to become a somewhat avant-garde choral composer. His better-known work isn’t without choral moments, but they're not Sondheim’s hallmark. What choral writing is in his major scores never really approaches the level of contrapuntal complexity in The Frogs. Sperling knows that firsthand, having been on the music team for the original production of Sunday in the Park With George. The finale to that show, “Sunday,” is probably the best example of Sondheim's choral writing for a major score. “I saw that number take shape,” he shares. “It was very much a melody that then got fleshed out in rehearsal. I believe The Frogs was really written into a choral arrangement from the get-go.”
That gives the songs a unique quality of having all of Sondheim’s trademark rhythmic complexity but realized for a large group. And that means it can be extremely tricky. “It really has bass parts, which you almost never hear in the theatre,” says Sperling. “And there’s very high soprano writing, and complex counterpoint. In the title song, there’s a place where there are seven different melodies being sung simultaneously.” Sperling says rising to the challenge has made for some tough rehearsals. “We spent two and a half hours on just the title song. It wasn’t our first go at it. And it won’t be our last.”
And like any good Sondheim material, the work involved pays off. “People have this idea that it was a college show because it was produced at a college, but it was not written when Steve was in college. It was written at the height of his glory,” Sperling says of the score. “He had just written Company, Follies, Night Music, and was about to write Pacific Overtures and Sweeney. I think you can hear all of those in this piece. Some of it even reminds me of Merrily, to be honest.”
Also of note to Sondheim fans, The Frogs contains a rare Sondheim trunk song moment. The evening’s first song, “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” is one of several discarded opening numbers for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It’s also probably the only place you’ll hear a high-brow Pulitzer winner rhyming “fart” with “art.”
The original student production of The Frogs wasn’t a breakout hit, running just eight performances at the Connecticut institution. Sondheim has been quoted as saying that the swimming pool’s acoustics made the experience “like putting on a show in a men's urinal.” No open-ended run. No cast recording. Just an obscure Sondheim curiosity for particularly fervent theatre nerds to wonder about.
And thus The Frogs became a favorite for devout theatre fan Lane, who hung on to his copy of the script and would occasionally write notes in the margin as he thought about it. “It was this holy rescue dog I fell in love with,” he says.
Flash forward a decade or two and Sondheim’s 70th birthday was being celebrated at The Library of Congress, with a concert version of The Frogs starring Lane. His casting didn’t just come from his love of the material. He’d won a Tony Award a few years prior starring as Pseudolous in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, making him a natural choice for Dionysus in The Frogs. Well-versed in Shevelove’s wit with words, Lane inserted some ad-libs into his performance, which Sondheim noticed and loved. He later told Lane that Shevelove (who died in 1982) would have liked them, too. “I was very touched by that,” Lane remembers.
That 2000 concert performance ended up getting recorded—the score’s first-ever complete recording beyond a few one-offs of individual songs. “I was listening to it and wondering if this piece from 405 B.C. and 1974 could speak to a contemporary audience,” Lane recalls thinking. Perhaps because of those ad libs, Sondheim soon thereafter signed on to work with Lane on a new revision of The Frogs that would modernize it further and expand the score somewhat, as well. This version opened on Broadway via Lincoln Center Theater in 2004, with Lane again starring (as well as writing the new book).
As Shevelove had, Lane worked to retain the spirit of Aristophanes in his version of the show. And not just the comedy. According to Lane, The Frogs has always been salient political commentary. “As the original play was a reaction to the Peloponnesian War, mine was a reaction to the Iraq War and the, let’s call it, lack of eloquence on the part of George W. Bush.” And so art’s importance is timeless, after all.
Lane says one thing he focused on with his take was the titular frogs. In the Aristophanes play, the animals serenade Dionysus and Xanthias on their journey to Hades but otherwise served very little purpose. “I decided to make the frogs something to be feared,” explains Lane. “Their attitude towards everything is that we should leave well enough alone. Don’t rock the boat. They don’t want change. They don’t like new ideas. They just like things the way they are. They’re a threat to Dionysus, and they’re trying to stop him from bringing back a great writer to speak to the ills of society and inspire us to action.”
Working together with the revised version’s director-choreographer Susan Stroman (the two were reuniting after setting Broadway on fire with The Producers just two years earlier), Lane’s frogs became bungy jumping horrors, “with a surprisingly innate sense of rhythm,” as his Dionysus remarks.
And that score expansion meant six songs being added to the setlist for the evening. This puts Lane’s version of The Frogs amongst the last works that Sondheim ever wrote for Broadway (all eyes on the potential for a Broadway bow for Here We Are, of course). “They’re wildly funny and quite ambitious in scope,” Sperling says of the newest material. “It’s a significant score, and interesting that it spans from the mid-‘70s to the mid-aughts, and encompasses all his different influences and styles from those periods.”
Delightful new Sondheim songs aside, Lane says he wasn’t fully pleased with the Broadway iteration. “I think we expanded it too much,” he admits. “I could tell it was bursting at the seams. I wanted to cut it back down to a one act, but the powers that be didn’t want to do that at that point.”
Critical reception was mixed, and the production didn’t extend beyond its Lincoln Center Theater subscription run. “It certainly had its flaws, but I was very happy that we did it, and very proud of it in that we tried to do something political in a very politically divisive time. The fact that I got to write a musical with Steve Sondheim was one of the high points of my career.”
And thus even now with a Broadway debut to its name and two separate recordings (a Broadway cast album was released as well), The Frogs has more or less remained a seldom performed Sondheim curiosity. But Lane isn’t done with it quite yet. He’s starring once again, now as the narrator for MasterVoices’ upcoming concerts. And he finally got his way and has been making trims to his book.
“It will be a lean version of the show, which I think will probably be the best so far,” Sperling reveals. “We’re not going to be bungee jumping, but I think you’ll feel like you saw The Frogs at its very best. The reason to come see it is to appreciate the great writing.”
The star of the show will be MasterVoices' 130-member choral ensemble. But the group has assembled an A-list of actors to play the roles too, including Douglas Sills, Kevin Chamberlin, Peter Bartlett, Dylan Baker, Chuck Cooper, Marc Kudisch, Jordan Donica, and Candice Corbin.
And of course, just was it was in 405 B.C., 1974, and 2004, The Frogs is coming back in a politically divisive time. Though, as Lane wonders rhetorically, "When aren't we in a politically divisive time?" He then adds, "There's still, sadly, many things that resonate still. It's about, don't just sit back and watch. Take action. Get involved. Vote. I'm very happy that we did it and very proud of it in that."
Tickets for MasterVoices' upcoming concerts are available at MasterVoices.org.