PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Susan Stroman

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Susan Stroman Director-choreographer Susan Stroman further burnished her already golden reputation in the musical theatre this summer when she added to her resume that rarest of credits: an original Stephen Sondheim musical.
Susan Stroman
Susan Stroman Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Well, sort of original, anyway. With a big assist from neophyte librettist (and star) Nathan Lane and six new songs from lyricist-composer Sondheim, Stroman breathed new life in the composer's 1974 oddity, The Frogs, a show based on an ancient play by Aristophanes and first staged in and around a swimming pool at Yale University. Stroman talked to Playbill On-Line about the Herculean task of taking The Frogs from its watery past to its land-locked present at the Vivian Beaumont, and touched upon her continuing collaborations with Lane (the film of The Producers), Mel Brooks (the stage version of Young Frankenstein) and John Weidman (the film of Contact).

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Was The Frogs your first Sondheim show? Susan Stroman: It's my first original Sondheim. I choreographed A Little Night Music at New York City Opera and again recently in Los Angeles. So I've had brushes with Sondheim. What was wonderful about this was to see Stephen write six new songs.

PBOL: The Frogs you began with — the 1974 source material — and the Frogs that ended up on stage at Lincoln Center are quite different beasts. How did you know where to take your first step during the creation process?
SS: Well, Nathan Lane and I, when we first had the idea of doing The Frogs, we didn't know if Stephen Sondheim would be interested in revisiting that work. But he was very excited about doing it. He was excited not only about collaborating with Nathan, but also the possibility of making a political statement with the show. So much of the play is really about language and the power of language—Dionysos goes down to Hades to get a poet that he thinks might inspire the world. So many of Sondheim's shows are about how art can save us. And no one has better command of the language than Nathan Lane, and no one has better command of words than Stephen Sondheim.

PBOL: The Frogs is such a strange combination of elements. The source material is an ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes, yet Lane's book contains a lot of vaudevillian humor. Then there's Sondheim sophisticated, intellectual score, and on top of it all are political overtones about the times we live in.
SS: Well, that's really based on Aristophanes' play. He practiced a form of playwriting called Old Comedy, in which he talked about the politics of the day.

PBOL: It sounds like the political content of the play was most important to you and Lane and Sondheim. Do you consider yourself a political person?
SS: I do. I am a Democrat and I believe in doing what I can to help affect change. PBOL: Will you be in town for the Republican National Convention, or will you be escaping the city, like many New Yorkers?
SS: [Laughs] No, I won't be in town. But I'll be helping with some Kerry fundraisers in Long Island.

PBOL: I imagine your next project is the film of The Producers.
SS: Yes. I'm going to start pre-production for that in October. Mel has written a screenplay based on the show. What's funny about that is that when Mel first came to me about the musical, he had a screenplay of the original film. And now we're creating a screenplay of the musical version of that original screenplay! He and Tom Meehan have completed the new screenplay and it's very funny. We had to cut it down a bit, because a Broadway musical is too long for a film.

PBOL: Will we lose a few songs?
SS: Just a couple reprises. It'll harken to something like "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Band Wagon." Mel is a great believer in that sort of film.

PBOL: That Comden and Green spirit?
SS: Yes. Very funny and colorful.

PBOL: Will you use a Broadway theatre to film the scenes of the show within-a-show?
SS: We're shooting the whole thing in Steiner Studios, in Brooklyn near the Navy Yards. They've built five giant sound stages there. The whole thing will be shot there, though we'll be doing some location shots around the city.

PBOL: What became of the movie of Contact. Are we still going to get one?
SS: Yes. That had to be pushed back a bit, because The Producers happened so fast. It will happen after. But John Weidman turned in the screenplay. We've got some dream casts in our minds, but nothing's been decided.

PBOL: You had a great success with your first ballet, Double Feature, at New York City Ballet.
SS: Yes, and that's coming back in February. They'll do seven performances.

PBOL: Was there ever any talk of putting the show into a theatre of its own and letting it run?
SS: [Laughs] As much as I'd like that, I don't know if I could get the company to get up on point that often! It's quite a task. I just adored working with that company. We've talked about doing another piece, but my schedule's rather full.

PBOL: I guess the musical version of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein will be put on hold a bit, too, until after the Producers movie.
SS: Yes. But it's quite funny. Mel's written about 10 new songs, and they're working on the script as well. Probably after the movie, we'll do a reading.

PBOL: Kristin Chenoweth is being kept in mind for the Madeline Kahn role, right?
SS: Yes, and we'd love to have Matthew Broderick play young Dr. Frankenstein and Roger Bart play Igor.

PBOL: A nice Producers reunion. You'll have to find a role for Nathan Lane.
SS: [Laughs] Yes.

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