ON THE RECORD: The Frogs, Evening Primrose, Subways

News   ON THE RECORD: The Frogs, Evening Primrose, Subways THE FROGS and EVENING PRIMROSE Nonesuch 79638
Asterisked amongst the works of Stephen Sondheim is something called The Frogs, which disappeared after a week in 1974. Burt Shevelove — co-librettist of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — had done an earlier adaptation of the Aristophanes play while at Yale. Shevelove and Sondheim were longtime friends (Shevelove was fifteen years older). A highly theatrical fellow with a keen comic mind, he finally hit it big in 1971 as the adapter/director of the multi-company superhit No, No, Nanette. He decided to revisit The Frogs, inviting Sondheim along for what might have seemed like a Greek equivalent to their Roman comedy Forum. Sondheim and Shevelove's Broadway prominence earned them the most stupendous of venues for this amphibious comedy: the varsity swimming pool at Yale University. (Hence the lyric: "Please don't swim/The theatre is a temple not a gym.")

THE FROGS and EVENING PRIMROSE Nonesuch 79638
Asterisked amongst the works of Stephen Sondheim is something called The Frogs, which disappeared after a week in 1974. Burt Shevelove — co-librettist of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — had done an earlier adaptation of the Aristophanes play while at Yale. Shevelove and Sondheim were longtime friends (Shevelove was fifteen years older). A highly theatrical fellow with a keen comic mind, he finally hit it big in 1971 as the adapter/director of the multi-company superhit No, No, Nanette. He decided to revisit The Frogs, inviting Sondheim along for what might have seemed like a Greek equivalent to their Roman comedy Forum. Sondheim and Shevelove's Broadway prominence earned them the most stupendous of venues for this amphibious comedy: the varsity swimming pool at Yale University. (Hence the lyric: "Please don't swim/The theatre is a temple not a gym.")

Thus, The Frogs was a major event. But the spectacular aspects of the venue — with the inclusion in the cast of twenty swimming Yalies, in the title role(s) — overpowered the work of the authors. The major problem, needless to say, was acoustical; talk about reverb!!! I, for one, could barely make out the spoken words, and the music seemed to bounce all over the Olympic-sized poolhouse. I also suppose that they spent most of their energies working on technical problems, at the expense of the performance. What I remember most is the image of Larry Blyden in a rowboat, being chased by a clutter of frog-men. (Blyden coproduced the wonderful 1972 Broadway revival of Forum, winning a featured actor Tony Award for his Hysterium.) The rest of the large cast included Anthony Holland, Alvin Epstein, Carmen de Lavallade (who also choreographed), and an ensemble of Yale Drama students like Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver.

The Frogs receded from memory, remaining an intriguing footnote until the Library of Congress threw a 70th birthday bash for Mr. Sondheim on May 22, 2000. Featured among the festivities was a concert version of The Frogs — this time performed on a real stage, with Paul Gemignani at the podium and a new set of orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. (The Library of Congress's Mark Horowitz, coproducer of the concert, explained in a program note that Tunick was unhappy with the original orchestrations. "Because the 1974 production was to be performed in and around a swimming pool, Tunick had originally thought that the acoustics would welcome a 'dry' woodwind sound that included no strings. After hearing the performance, he decided he had been wrong.") Tunick revisited The Frogs, and needless to say did a wonderful (and suitably humorous) job. All this, and Nathan Lane too. The concert was revised and edited for this new CD, giving most Sondheim fans their first chance — finally — to hear The Frogs. And guess what? It's remarkable, and worth the 26-year wait. Two of the songs are familiar from various recordings: "Invocation to the Gods and Instructions to the Audience," which was subsequently reused in Putting It Together, and "Fear No More," Sondheim's lovely setting of a passage from Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

These songs have far more power in their original setting, especially in the hands of Lane (on the former) and Davis Gaines (on the latter). Brian Stokes Mitchell is the other principal, and he lends the project his authoritative voice; but Lane has all the flashy material. He is far better than Blyden was, although Blyden was admittedly performing under unsettling circumstances. The CD retains brief stretches of very funny dialogue, abridged from the original but retaining Shevelove's comic sensibility. (Lane: "I am the god of drama." Mitchell: "I thought you were the god of wine." Lane: "That too. A little wine will get you through a lot of drama.")

The surprise here is the rest of the score. There are five other musical sections, which have understandably never been used out of context. But this is not some early college show; Sondheim turned to The Frogs after Follies and A Little Night Music, which is to say that he was already in his artistic prime. (Which is where he remains today, as will become clear when Wise Guys — now retitled Gold — finally gets back on the boards.) Most remarkable, perhaps, is the title song. "The Frogs" is set to something of a martial waltz; it builds to an amazing cacophony of borrowed melody. If you listen closely, you'll hear bits of "Ol' Man River" ("Tote dat barge an' lift that crud! You gets a little drunk an' you lands in mud") and "Who Cares?" ("Who cares if the sky cares to fall in the swamp"). One of Sondheim's many talents is his ability to write complex interwoven vocal parts. This one fits right in with his stunning Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures vocals.

There is wonderful vocal work as well in "Evoe!" Beware, though; you might walk down the street singing the "Dionysos" chant. There's also a wonderfully catchy Mediterranean tango that goes "They do an awful lot of dancing, the dead." Tunick makes this one a holiday of dissonance, and it is great fun.

As if The Frogs in themselves are not enough - they take up only thirty-one minutes of disc time — Nonesuch has added the four songs from Evening Primrose. This was a one-hour television musical that aired Nov, 16, 1966, as part of the short-lived ABC anthology series Stage '67 . Tony Perkins and Charmaine Carr starred; the soundtrack recording was never released commercially, although I understand it will finally appear within the next year. Two of the songs have been recorded fairly frequently, "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World." The latter is usually performed as a female solo; I find it far more effective as originally written, with the man's counterpoint duet ("I have seen the world, and it's mean and ugly").

Considerably less familiar is the opening number, "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here." (The hero is a poet who "lives" in a department store, after closing time.) The A section is slightly unsettling, sixteen brisk measures in an off-kilter 3/4 tempo; this is repeated, with two additional measures at the end. Sondheim then soars into an almost rhapsodic B section — which goes on for forty measures. This is truly liberating — not only for the character (who sings "I Am Free"), but for the songwriter himself. He then repeats the A sections (of 16 and 18 measures) and the B (of 40), and winds up with a modified A of 39. (The last 15 measures of the final A is an extended coda that was reused, pretty closely, in the title song of Company.) So long to traditional song forms; on to Company and Follies, and never look back. What a wonderfully exciting song this is! — and a key step in Sondheim's progression.

This new Evening Primrose is enhanced by luscious new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. (Tunick didn't become Sondheim's orchestrator until 1970; the TV version was arranged and conducted by Norman Paris.) The songs are attractively performed by Neil Patrick Harris (who did such a good job as Tobias in the Los Angeles and New York Sweeney Todd concerts) and Theresa McCarthy (of Nonesuch's Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns).

As is to be suspected given the participation of Sondheim, Tunick, Gemignani, and producer Tommy Krasker, this CD is impeccably recorded. The Frogs/Evening Primrose is indispensable for the Sondheim fan, and most welcome.

SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING Fynsworth Alley FA-001-LE
If Evening Primrose's hero escapes life by fleeing to a department store, he was predated by Tom Bailey, who spends his evenings — "right under your eyes, all around the city" — living out of a briefcase in Subways Are for Sleeping.

After several successful but artistically negligible musicals, producer David Merrick finally came up with the classy Gypsy in 1959. This caused him to form an alliance with composer Jule Styne on four more musicals over the next five years (although Merrick dropped out of the last two before they were produced). Do Re Mi, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, opened on the day after Christmas, 1960. It appeared to be another hit, so Styne, Comden, Green, and Merrick immediately launched into their next show. By the time Subways opened a year and a day later, Do Re Mi was near the end of a disappointing run; so much so that Merrick shunted it to the 54th Street, vacating the desirable St. James for his hoped-for new hit.

Subways was based on a book about New York eccentrics who live on a dime and sleep in "lofts and cellars and fire escapes/car lots, museums and excavations." Comden and Green took individual characters and attempted to tie them together. They also added an undercover reporter as their leading lady, making her fall for the charming head of the drifters — a plot point that I don't suppose the authors believed for a moment.

They apparently intended this to be a madcap musical valentine to New York, like their 1956 hit Bells Are Ringing. (Comden and Green also had On the Town and Wonderful Town under their belts.) Bells had a captivating zaniness to it, with star Judy Holliday at the eye of the cyclone. Subways, though, had a gaping hole at the center. It was one of those shows that was announced and cast and sold to theatre parties before anyone got around to figuring out the plot. Subways underwent continuous rewrites throughout the poorly-received tryout and went down for the count on opening night in New York. The show received the poor reviews it deserved, moving Merrick to run a doctored quote ad. This has been described at great length elsewhere, so I won't go through it all again. In short, Merrick found people with the same names as the critics, plied them with wine, and had them sign their names to superlative quotes. The hoax was only partially successful; Merrick was acknowledging and publicizing the fact that his show received dismal reviews and was pretty bad. But the affair did garner lots of free coverage, helping the show get through a run of six months.

The lackluster stars didn't help. Sydney Chaplin, son of the great Charles, wasn't much of a singer. He charmed his way through Bells Are Ringing and Styne's 1964 Funny Girl, but in both cases there was a larger-than-life leading lady to carry the show. Subways had Carol Lawrence, who was proficient but cold. Following her breakthrough role as Maria in West Side Story (1957), she starred in two "big" musicals: Saratoga (1959) and Subways. Both failed, and she never created a Broadway musical role again.

The Subways original cast album quickly went out of print. Under normal circumstances, that would have been that. The score is unusual, though; while not especially good, it is highly enjoyable. Fans have been clamoring to get this reissued for years and years and years. Now, through a novel licensing arrangement with Sony (which owns the old Columbia label), Fynsworth Alley has been able to release a limited edition CD of Subways. This disc will not be released in stores; it is available online, from www.fynsworthalley.com. Why do we enjoy Subways? Because it sounds like Broadway. Jule Styne wrote rousing scores; rousing, even, when the songs themselves weren't very good. The overture is simply smashing. Styne knew what made an overture exciting; a former bandleader, he expended a great deal of energy working with his music department to get precisely what he wanted. The orchestrator in this case was Phil Lang, who did one of his better jobs on this show; Milton Rosenstock, conductor of many Styne shows, was at the podium. The overture takes off from the start and never lets down; it ends with trumpeter Dick Perry blowing the roof off like he did in Styne's Gypsy overture. (Peter Howard, who did the dance and incidental arrangements for Subways, says they went through six versions with Styne before coming up with this one.) For those interested in what a conductor like Rosenstock and a good pit orchestra can do, compare the original overture to the one recorded by Jack Everly on his collection of Styne overtures. Rosenstock's Broadway version is pure excitement; Everly sounds like he's conducting Orchestra Pits Are for Sleeping.

Other highlights include "Ride Through the Night," a merely adequate song that is given expert treatment by Lang, vocal arranger Buster Davis, and the singers. It's highly evocative and builds so enchantingly that you can't help being charmed. "I'm Just Taking My Time" is a leisurely stroll of a song, but again enchanting (with another good vocal arrangement). "Be a Santa" is a joyous novelty that's loads of fun. Michael Kidd provided an exuberant dance number for a stageful of Salvation Army Santas. (The littlest of them, teenager Michael Bennett, remembered the number when he choreographed his first hit musical Promises! Promises!. He incorporated tipsy Santas into the second act opener, "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing.") "Comes Once in a Lifetime" is the one "good" song in the show; I suppose that it was scuttled, popularity-wise, by that unwieldy title. The melody is infectiously jaunty, the whole thing swings. It builds into an extended number, complete with the French Revolution and a gavotte ancien — the hero is spending the night in the French Wing of the Metropolitan Museum — and it is just delightful. Howard's dance arrangements for both "Lifetime" and "Santa" are expert and exuberant.

There is also a one-of-a-kind showpiece called "I Was a Shoo-In." This is sung by a beauty contest winner from Mississippi; she's stranded in a seedy East Side hotel wearing nothing but a bath towel. (She's sick, she tells the hotel manager through the keyhole, so he can't evict.) Adolph Green's wife Phyllis Newman played the role — call it nepotism — but she did a knockout job with this piece of special material. So special that she snagged a Tony Award, beating out another kooky ingenue in another David Merrick musical, Barbra Streisand of I Can Get It for You Wholesale. I once asked Merrick about Subways and Phyllis Newman. "Talentless bitch," he muttered, and walked out of the room. Whatever that meant.

Fynsworth has added six bonus tracks from demo recordings, the scattershot nature of which demonstrate the trouble the show was in. One of these is of more than passing interest, "A Man with a Plan." In the middle of an otherwise unworkable song, Styne switches into a dynamic, pulsating theme — two measures of alternating notes in 2/2 time, followed by one measure in 1/2. This is then repeated, after which the entire six-measure section is repeated one step up; the lyric starts "Buy her a shoe, maybe two." [Musical crash.] "Buy her a roof, shower-proof." [Crash.] While this might sound complicated, you will instantly recognize it; Styne reused it, artfully, in Funny Girl, where it serves as an interlude heightening the emotional pitch of "I'm the Greatest Star," "Don't Rain on My Parade," and the show in general.

So here, finally, we have Subways. Not an important musical, or a memorable musical, or even a good musical. Just old-fashioned musical comedy fun.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.