PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Merrily [Very] The Frogs Goes to Hell

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Merrily [Very] The Frogs Goes to Hell
 
A funny thing happened on the way to Hades (several things, in fact, on the way to and in) July 22 when The Frogs leapt with bungee-like buoyancy onto the stage of the Vivian Beaumont. But you never knew which Nathan Lane to thank—the actor or the author—or the host of second-bananas who delivered his lines in Lane's laser-like italics.
From Top: Susan Stroman and Nathan Lane, Roger Bart, Matthew Broderick, Burke Moses, Peter Bartlett (left), John Byner, and Daniel Davis, and A.R. Gurney
From Top: Susan Stroman and Nathan Lane, Roger Bart, Matthew Broderick, Burke Moses, Peter Bartlett (left), John Byner, and Daniel Davis, and A.R. Gurney Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"That's a good thing," he decreed when somebody threw that compliment at him as he arrived for the wing-ding wind-down at Tavern on the Green, looking very much like the man who'd just crossed the finish line after four years of pedaling as fast as he could. His weariness was almost giddy with relief. "It's been tough doing both," he allowed, "but it has been very rewarding, and I have had some pretty terrific people to work with on this."

"Pretty terrific," as he defines it, means the pair of S.S. hyphenates he owes his first (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and second (The Producers) Tonys to: composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director-choreographer Susan Stroman. They don't get much more terrific. "I've worked with Sondheim before as an actor," he said, counting the first workshop of Bounce as well, "but this was a really unique experience."

He plays Dionysos, the frog-phobic god of wine and drama, who forges the River Stix with his relatively faithful servant, Xanthias (Greek for "second banana"), to fetch a dead playwright who will speak to the world of today with more authority than its designated leaders. "The time is the present. The place is Ancient Greece," notes the program.

To find the proper candidate, Dionysos referees the Battle of The Beard and The Bard—a war of words between Shaw and Shakespeare—in which the two titans square off and spew their best-shot views on "Man," "Woman," "Love," "Death" at each other. In the end, Dionysos chooses heart over head, the eloquent poet over the intellectual socialist.

A soul-soothing love of Shakespeare comes across in the piece, to which Lane pleads guilty as charged—although he did inherit the Shaw vs. Shakespeare polemic from the late Burt Shevelove's 1974 show, itself an update of the Aeschylus vs. Euripides contest that Aristophanes devised in 405 B.C. The work has those kinds of roots. Bringing all of this into the 21st century was not so much a matter of polishing as it was of sandblasting. But Lane's advanced sense of merriment rules the evening, occasionally making space for serious reflections. "Hopefully, people will have a good time with this show and still be touched by it," Lane said. "I ordinarily don't have opportunities to show off my love of Shakespeare, but I have it. In fact, I even got an award in 1984 for Measure for Measure from some little obscure Shakespeare society. And, of course, I did the Love's Labour's Lost film for Kenneth Branagh a few years ago. So, yes, I have done Shakespeare."

Cast met the press, as usual, in the little anteroom off the entrance of Tavern—and interviews were conducted hastily there so the actors could enjoy their well-earned meals.

Sondheim, it goes without saying, sailed blithely by the pressroom and moved among the firefly-lighting of the main dining room very much an island unto himself—photographers and reporters have been conditioned by this point to let him be—and, eventually, he settled at a table with his attorney, John Breglio. For the record, S.S. seemed pleased and social.

Lane lighted at the Roger Bart table, relinquishing his own to friends and family. At his left was his Producers pal, Matthew Broderick (sans son and wife, whom he said he was joining the following day in the Hamptons). "I certainly laughed a lot," Broderick said, wickedly postscripting a mock understatement: "That guy Lane shows potential."

The two of them, along with Bart, will reconvene in March for the movie version of The Producers, which Stroman will direct and choreograph. (Nicole Kidman and Will Farrell have added their movie names to the project.) Broderick expects to spend some quality time with his family until then. The Frogs will keep Lane hopping at least until October and maybe longer if it proves to be the Grecian earner that Lincoln Center Theatre (Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, to name names) hopes it to be. Stroman will next put Richard Dreyfuss into the London version of The Producers and then get busy on that movie. She says she's "thinking big—like Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon." One bit of business will have Broderick dancing on the ceiling a la Fred Astaire.

Bart, who replaced Chris Kattan as Lane's slave-sidekick eight days before opening (!), managed miraculously to seem over-rehearsed, coming at the part like manic monkeys out of a barrel. "It helped, of course, having already spent all that time in The Producers working with Susan and Nathan," he conceded, "but, boy, is she tough! She started me off Sunday morning and wanted me to work Monday night. It was dizzying." But it was time well-spent. His chemistry with Lane, which reportedly never kicked in with Kattan, was practically palpable. And, too, both comics were cooking at the same Fahrenheit.

Peter Bartlett—he of the broad, broad, broad gesture—fitted right into the proceedings as the majestically effete Pluto who lords over the underworld where Shaw and Shakespeare are twirling away eternity on a spigot. "Nathan and I have never worked together before, but he specifically asked for me," said Bartlett. "He has really been so generously to all of us. Everybody would be taking a lunch break, and there would be Nathan, rewriting."

The part permits Bartlett, never a retiring type, to make The Entrance of Entrances. Set designer Giles Cadle concocted a Stairway to Heaven-type set that rolls out from the back of the stage for him to descend. "Originally, my first scene took place around a dinner table. Then, I saw them working a gigantic staircase model, and I thought, `How could that have anything to do with me?' But, by golly, they did it—and it's wonderful to work every night. Tonight, for an opening night present, Giles gave me that scale model."

Lincoln Center's casting director Daniel Swee would seem to have Daniel Davis' number: "Irish playwrights, a specialty." Swee cast him as Oscar Wilde in The Invention of Love and now as Bernard Shaw in The Frogs. "I really enjoy playing these kinds of grand individuals," Davis admitted, "and there may be more where they came from. Jack O'Brien just left for London to confer with Tom Stoppard about The Coast of Utopia, which he'll direct next season at Lincoln Center, and I said to him, `Isn't Turgenev a character in that?' Just planting the seed." (For the record, Davis is an Arkansas native you probably took for British when he butlered for "The Nanny" television series.)

An authentic Brit held up Shakespeare's end, and it was still a heavy load, according to Michael Siberry. Captain Von Trapp in Broadway's last The Sound of Music, Siberry gets to sing one of The Frogs' best-known numbers, "Fear No More." He really makes Shakespeare sing, too. "Doing those excerpts and sonnets in the debate is the real reason that I wanted to do this part," he admitted. (Predictably, he does them beautifully.)

The show's testosterone is rather centrally located in the character of Herakles, which a buff Burke Moses flexes out with no problem at all, but, just to humanize the perfect specimen a bit, he adds more than a dollop of vainglorious. "It's my stock in trade, isn't it?" grins Moses, who strutted out a Tony-nominated Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. The new man on the Broadway block is John Byner, who, in a better late-than-never debut, comes on as twin graybeards, Charon and Aeakos, the boatman and gateman to Hades. "I'm having a blast," he said, "I really am. I think I might just do this again."

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