By Steven Suskin
18 Oct 2001
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.