By Steven Suskin
06 Feb 2005
Just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a clever young director at Yale devised a new version of the 2,346-year-old Aristophanes satire, The Frogs. Burton Shevelove's clever conceit, which he was able to pull off, was to have the title characters played by the Yale swimming team, in Yale's Olympic-sized pool.
That was 1941. Shevelove went on to an up-and-down career along Broadway, making his debut in 1948 as director of the revue Small Wonder. Shevelove also served as lyricist, to music by Albert Selden (later co-producer of Man of La Mancha); being a modest fellow, Burt chose to take his songwriter credit under the sly pseudonym "Billings Brown." (Shevelove also selected a first-time choreographer with another unlikely-sounding moniker, Gower Champion.)
The low point of Shevelove's career, I suppose, was A Month of Sundays, a 1951 Nancy Walker vehicle taking place aboard a leaky cruise ship that foundered in Philly. (The musical, not the boat.) Shevelove's high points were two, the first being his 1962 libretto (with Larry Gelbart) for composer Stephen Sondheim's first musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Eight years later, Shevelove was called in to salvage a revival of one of those ill-assembled, creaky old Broadway musicals. The producers, with visions of old Warner Bros. musicals dancing in their eyes like dollar bills, put things in the hands of Busby Berkeley. Berkeley, who hadn't been anywhere near a Broadway theatre since 1930, and whose Hollywood heyday ended in the mid 1940s, proved to be a total creative loss in 1971 (although his name — linked with tap-dancing grandmother Ruby Keeler — provided a certain cachet). Shevelove wrote a new adaptation for the revival of No, No, Nanette, and directed it as well. Nanette was a smash hit, riding the crest of a nostalgia wave; it was also smashing entertainment, thanks in great part to the ministrations of Shevelove.
With multiple road companies drawing adoring crowds across the country, Robert Brustein, director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, invited Shevelove back to campus with his Frogs. This time, it was no mere experimental whimsy but a major theatrical event. Not only was Shevelove a returning, conquering hero; he invited his Forum songsmith along for the fun.
Stephen Sondheim, circa 1974, was celebrated and storied, although not yet the undisputed king of the American musical theatre; there were still quite a few misguided souls, including some major newspaper critics, who insisted that his music was inferior to his lyrics. (The Frogs followed Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. Next up: Pacific Overtures.)
With the participation of Shevelove and (especially) Sondheim, The Frogs was well worth a trip to Yale's Payne-Whitney Gymnasium pool for one of the week's worth of performances. (The show sported a Broadway star, of sorts: Larry Blyden, who won a Tony for his Hysterium in the Shevelove-directed 1972 revival of Forum.) The 1974 Frogs was problematic, the biggest problem being the venue; the reverberating acoustics, and the sound of all those swimmers-a-swimming, combined to make the affair all but inaudible. You couldn't really see much, either; Blyden spent a fair amount of time in a rowboat, surrounded by frog-men, but the dialogue scenes were all played (if I remember correctly) on a small rectangular platform along the far end of the pool. Hidden among the ensemble of 50 were Yalies Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang.
The Frogs went somewhat understandably back on the shelf after Yale; what else could you do with it, anyway? Sondheim's all-but-unheard score had great value, not only as a novelty but for the composer's intriguing exploration of non-traditional musical theatre writing; but it was brief — the whole enterprise lasted only an hour — and not precisely toe-tapping. When the Library of Congress threw a seventieth birthday gala for Sondheim in 2000, The Frogs was heard again.
The concert version, featuring Nathan Lane and Brian Stokes Mitchell, led to a recording. Listening over and over to the CD, Mr. Lane — who was just then breaking all conceivable box-office records as Max Bialystock — determined that he must play The Frogs once more, in a full production. With his Producers director-choreographer Susan Stroman by his side and the promise of a significant amount of new material from Sondheim, the theretofore-unproduceable Frogs was quickly snapped up by Lincoln Center Theater and ticket buyers.
The resulting new-and-improved Frogs, "freely adapted by Burt Shevelove" and "even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane," came to the Vivian Beaumont on July 22, 2004. It proved to be arresting — how could it not be? — yet still somewhat problematic. (This is beside the point, which is the excellence of the new CD, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
The problem, methinks, goes back to the collegiate roots of Shevelove's conceit. ("Brek-kek-kek-kek," the watchcry of these frogs, comes from the old Yale football cheer.) The action of The Frogs builds up to a debate between Shaw and Shakespeare. Aristophanes, for his part, chose to use Aeschylus and Euripides, presumably because Shakespeare was not yet in the public domain. A debate between Shaw and Shakespeare, or Aeschylus and Euripides for that matter, is not the stuff of musical theatre; by its very nature, it is academic. Tom Stoppard could make something out of it, no doubt; but two-thirds of the way through a musical, extended philosophical discourse cannot but help to grind things to a halt. The Frogs played out its allotted slot of 92 performances (plus 34 previews), leaving a hoped for extension unwarranted.
Given the first-rate recording of the Library of Congress version, it is only natural to wonder why one should bother with another, slightly newer, Frogs CD. Especially considering that the very same Nathan Lane is performing the very same role; and given that Nonesuch's Frogs [Nonesuch 79638] also provides three startlingly good songs from Sondheim's all-but-lost 1966 TV musical, "Evening Primrose."
But the Lincoln Center cast album presents a considerably different Frogs. Roughly half the score is new, and the new songs are as successful in the context of the piece as the old. "I Love to Travel," for example. This is derived from the "Traveling Music" of the earlier version, in which the chorus provide a background for the journey of the protagonists. ("Walk walk trudge trudge slog slog travel travel," they drone.) Sondheim uses this chant as a launch pad for a bright-and-cheery and ridiculous duet for Lane and his comic sidekick (Roger Bart). "I love to travel — it's true," Lane sings, "I love a change of venue, a change of menu, the feeling when you meet with something strange." Sondheim's quadruple rhyme is accompanied by a chirpily slippery melody of the "bum-bum-bum-di-dum" variety. (i.e.: A tune you can hum.) "Hades" is a Miranda-ish holiday, or is it Tahiti (as in "trouble in")? No matter, it hits the spot, you might say; to quote Pluto, "everybody comes to Hades, everybody goes to Hell."
Two fine comedy songs, yes, but it's especially gratifying to find Sondheim, in his fifth decade on Broadway, giving us yet another one of those emotionally moving songs that he favors us with from time to time. "Ariadne," it's called, a song of mourning for Lane's character's long-departed wife. We need not go in for song dissection, as the show is about frogs, but this is a tender beauty.
The new material is mated to the similarly satisfying songs from 1974, which were duly saluted in my review of the Nonesuch disc and need no more discussion, though I can't help but signal my admiration for "The Invocation," "The Frogs" and the "Evoe!" for Dionysus. One of the 1974 songs, the underworld tango ("they do an awful lot of dancing, the dead"), has been replaced by the "Hades" fantasia.
Lane is more than ably supported by Roger Bart, who serves as a constant source of welcome and warranted merriment. (Bart, who supported Lane so nobly in The Producers, was a late-preview replacement.) Burke Moses stands out as Herakles in "Think Big," wherein Sondheim favors us with a rhyme that nimbly pays off, two centuries too early, with Fosse. Peter Bartlett glides his way through "Hades," while Michael Siberry sings Shakespeare's song from Cymbeline ("Fear No More," to music by Sondheim). Speaking — but not singing — Shaw is Daniel Davis, who presently can be found singing Herman and speaking Fierstein in a musical revival of a very different sort. ("If we are crude, please, don't come unglued, please," pleads Sondheim's "Invocation." Even so, I shall modestly refrain from a weak stab at frogs in St. Tropez.)
Sondheim is supported, as ever, by his orchestrator Jonathan Tunick (with Paul Gemignani as music director). This is Tunick's third different orchestration for The Frogs. The show was originally scored for the Yale University Band, using 15 players, including three bassoons, a harp and a bass (but no other strings). No matter, as the whole thing was inaudible. (For what it's worth, let me add that the Yale program prominently credits Michael Feingold for selecting and arranging the words of Shakespeare and Shaw — a credit that seems to have disappeared.) The Nonesuch version used about 30 musicians, with a string complement of approximately 15. The new Frogs is back down to 18, including five strings.
If this is a considerably smaller orchestra than the Nonesuch disc, the score sounds — for the first time — theatrical. I suppose this word describes the new recording, in toto. The Frogs is now theatrical, and excitingly so; you feel like you are listening to a Broadway cast album, in the best sense. The score remains highly unusual with its unconventional sections for its Greek chorus. But the new songs, and the presence of Lane and Bart, earns this Frogs an instant place on your Sondheim CD shelf.
—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.