Nathan Lane won his first Tony Award in ancient Rome. Now he is back on Broadway, and this time it's ancient Greece.
Lane won that Tony in 1996 as the Roman slave Pseudolus in a revival of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Now he is the Greek god Dionysos in a new, completely revised, full-length, two-act version of Sondheim and Shevelove's The Frogs, based on the Aristophanes play of the same name, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
"Some people think it's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Parthenon," but it's most definitely not, Lane says. He should know, because he also wrote this new version of The Frogs, which is being directed and choreographed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman, and for which Sondheim has composed at least seven new songs.
"I don't know whether we've turned it into a traditional musical comedy," Lane says. "This is a musical whose climax is a debate between George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare. It's demanding. You really have to listen to what they're saying. It's a totally language-driven play." But at the same time, Lane quickly adds, there's a lot of humor, some of it appropriately vulgar and scatological — and, of course, there are the songs by the incomparable Sondheim, who at 74 is still the reigning master of the American musical theatre.
The first musical version of The Frogs, with a score by Sondheim and a book by Shevelove, was staged in 1974 by the Yale Repertory Theatre in a Yale swimming pool. Its cast included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang, who were students at the Yale School of Drama. Larry Blyden was Dionysos. It was about 45 minutes long, and it ran for a week.
At Lincoln Center, Lane is co-starring with Chris Kattan, of "Saturday Night Live" fame, who portrays Xanthias, Dionysos' slave. In the Aristophanes original, Aeschylus and Euripides debated over which of the two was the best tragedian. Shevelove updated the story and replaced the Greek dramatists with Shakespeare and Shaw. Dionysos, whose godly duties include both wine and drama, journeys to Hades to bring back Shaw in an effort to save both the theatre and civilization. A debate soon grows as to who is worthier, Shaw or Shakespeare.
In Lane's version, the concern is more with the state of the world than the state of the theatre — the search is for a writer whose wisdom will help save humanity from destruction.
"I started the whole project," says Lane, fresh from the recent sold-out reprise of his second Tony-winning role, as Max Bialystock in The Producers. "When I first came to New York, I found the libretto of The Frogs in a drama bookstore. I was intrigued, but I never got to do it. Then we did it in a concert at the Library of Congress in 2000 for Steve's 70th birthday, and in 2001 we recorded it for Nonesuch. And when I listened to it, I started to think about how resonant the show seemed to me, regarding what was going on in the country after 9/11. I loved the idea that something that originated in 405 B.C., nearly 2,500 years ago, could be so relevant."
So to adapt Shevelove's adaptation, and to move it from a swimming pool to the Beaumont's stage, he went back and read a dozen translations of the original play and compared it with Shevelove's libretto. "The first thing was that I thought we might be even funnier and more outrageous. Burt had the notation before the play starts that the time is the present and the place is ancient Greece. So that gave me a lot of freedom. There are, even in Burt's version, some anachronisms and contemporary references. But I didn't want to make it on the nose about President Bush and the people in office these days. I wanted it to parallel what was happening in Greece at the time."
When Aristophanes wrote the play, Athens had been at war with Sparta for 26 years. "Things weren't so good," Lane says. "And what moved me was the notion that Dionysos, not unlike Don Quixote, was going off to Hades on a quest in the hope that if he brings back this great writer, and the writer wrote plays again, he could effect some kind of change, that people would listen. It was the idea that in a very troubling time, people would turn to the arts for perspective — that we need a poet. It's the very romantic and idealistic notion that art matters, that it can affect people."
Stroman, whose most recent Tonys were for directing and choreographing The Producers, says that in staging The Frogs, "what's to our advantage is that the Beaumont is shaped like a Greek theatre, with a thrust stage. We'll be using a Greek chorus, and it will also play Dionysian worshipers, frogs and the followers of Shaw and Shakespeare.
"The choreography for the frogs is very athletic," she says. "The frogs represent people who don't want anything to change. When Dionysos makes his journey, he goes to the river Styx, and the frogs pull him out of the boat to try to stop him. I needed actors who were balletically trained and also had strength. Because they also play the chorus and the worshipers, they had to have beauty and stature. And they had to have a sense of humor."
Lane says that "the show opens with a comic journey. It draws you in by entertaining you. And then it starts to ask certain questions. I hope that by the time we get to the end, people will be touched by what we are saying. We've come a long way from 405 B.C., and yet the same problems are going on. Wouldn't it be amazing if this play, which comes from the very origins of theatre, from where it all started, could say something to people today?"