Fear no more, Sondheim fans, two of the composer-lyricist's most obscure and sought-after curiosities — The Frogs and "Evening Primrose" — have been recorded.
Sondheim's little-known musicalization of Aristophanes' The Frogs, written with Burt Shevelove for a production staged in the Yale swimming pool by Yale Repertory Theatre in 1974, gets its first full-length recording release Oct. 16 from Nonesuch. The short, anachronistic comic piece is being paired by the Nonesuch label with "the most complete" recording of the score to "Evening Primrose," the 1966 TV musical Sondheim wrote with James Goldman (who would later write the book to Follies).
In both recordings, listeners can hear the seeds of Sondheim's more famed later work — choral odes suggest Pacific Overtures and the haunted reveries of "Primrose" prefigure the emotionally-haunted people of Follies.
The Frogs features Nathan Lane as Dionysus and Brian Stokes Mitchell as his slave. Davis Gaines also sings. In an effort to restore good playwriting back to earth, Shaw and Shakespeare are brought back to life by Dionysus. The show had a limited one-week run at Yale with future stars Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep in the ensemble (the original New Haven production had a company of more than 100, including swimmers for a water ballet). Sondheim fans know the show's "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" and Sondheim's setting of Shakespeare's "Fear No More" (sung here by Gaines). "Invocation and Instructions" was slightly rewritten and resurfaced in the Sondheim revue, Putting It Together. It was said to be originally written as a possible opening number for Sondheim, Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
In his liner notes for the CD, Frank Rich writes, "The Frogs is no collegiate jape, but the boundaries-testing experiment of a writer who, having conquered Broadway, was getting ready to remake its most indigenous form, the musical, from the ground up." The recording of "Evening Primrose" features Neil Patrick Harris (of the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd and the upcoming Broadway staging of Sondheim's Assassins) as a young poet who escapes to a department store after closing time so he can write. There, he meets a society of eccentric shut-ins and falls in love with a girl named Ella, sung by Theresa McCarthy (Floyd Collins, Titanic). The piece is drawn from a John Collier story. Seen by few, the TV program (originally on "ABC Stage 67") begat a couple of Sondheim standards: "I Remember" and "Take Me to World." Anthony Perkins originally played Charles, the poet. Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters have recorded the same selections of "Evening Primrose" on Patinkin's "Dress Casual" disc but this is being billed as "the most complete recording to date." Orchestrations for both shows are by Jonathan Tunick. Tommy Krasker is the disc's producer.
— By Kenneth Jones