Wednesday, May 20, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Sondheim’s “Frogs” Performed in Yale Swimming Pool)

May 20, 1974—In four years, three amazing musicals that turned Broadway upside down. Think Stephen Sondheim could rest after all of that? Not a chance. But in writing the incidental music for a modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy, The Frogs, the songwriter might have bitten off more than even he could chew.

After all, it’s not every day that a play with music is staged in a real, live swimming pool.

Faithful reader, how do you spell “logistical nightmare”? Because in embarking on what might have seemed like a lark on behalf of an old, dear friend, the new toast of Broadway was embarking on an adventure that neither he nor anyone else could forget.

At first, I thought that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. In certain ways, many people might still feel that way, for reasons that I’ll describe shortly. But in reviewing the history of the show, I think it might be better viewed as an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.

A good friend of Sondheim’s, Burt Shevelove, had first conceived the idea of adapting Aristophanes in 1941. Everything went, if you’ll pardon the pun, swimmingly—so much so that there was even talk about transferring the show to Broadway, until Pearl Harbor intervened. Nothing more came of the idea for another 30-plus years.

At this point, Shevelove approached Sondheim requesting two favors. The first was to appear in a show he was doing for PBS’ Theater in America series, a revival of the Ring Lardner-George S. Kaufman comedy, June Moon. Shevelove needed someone who could play a wisecracking piano player.

Sondheim got the piano playing down, as you might expect, but he tended to bite off the punchline. If you watch it today (and you should—besides Jack Cassidy, the cast includes a very young Susan Sarandon as a mantrap), you won’t notice the composer’s discomfort unduly because of a bit of stage business he adopted for the role: a fedora.

Though Sondheim was a bit embarrassed by his acting stint, the next request might have made even him, a man who loved intellectual and theatrical challenges, gasp. Shevelove, fresh from turning No, No, Nanette from a misconceived ‘20s nostalgia sendup into a Broadway triumph, had been approached by the current head of the Yale Repertory Theatre, Robert Brustein, to return to the school to restage his earlier Frogs.

Have you ever known someone who takes a perfectly good idea, then complicates it endlessly? Such was the fate of Frogs. Before long, a show that began with an 18-member company had grown to include:

* a singing-and-dancing chorus of 28;
* a swimming chorus of 18;
* an orchestra of 12; and
* a backstage support group of 35.

Yes, the Yale pool was Olympic-sized—but it needed to be to accommodate these crazy stage arrangements.

Sondheim didn’t realize things were going to get even this crazy—he just knew that Shevelove had pulled together a benefit involving him the year before when it looked like a disaster was in the offing. He owed his friend one, the composer f(who had become the toast of Broadway over the last few years with his musicals Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music) figured.

As he looked around at the cast, Sondheim would have been glad to see that this was one aspect of the show that would be fine. Broadway star Larry Blyden, fresh off a Tony, was the lead. More intriguing were the supporting players: future playwright Christopher Durang, and future film superstars Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. But after that, matters became even more manic.

After all, how would you characterize a production in which:

* Not enough rehearsal time was scheduled, meaning that Sondheim and Shevelove were still revamping songs three days after opening;
* The “frogs” in this show were undergraduate swimmers, who appeared in green mesh and jock straps for their parts;
* When the “frogs” emerged from the pool, they naturally dripped water all over the stage, making the dancers fall;
* With a chorus at one end of the pool and an orchestra at the other, reverberations were nonstop, meaning that much of the play was rendered inaudible. (It was probably just as well for all concerned that an original cast production wasn’t made at this time.)

The show made it through eight performances. Flash forward nearly 30 years later, when The Frogs is one of the few Sondheim theater pieces never recorded. At this point, it finally was, by the Library of Congress, with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Davis Gaines, and Nathan Lane in the cast. (No pool this time—everyone sensibly decided to use the stage directions for an alternate to the pool.)

This story keeps getting better and better. Now Lane decided to take a crack at the play, this time adapting it even more freely than Shevelove.

I wish I could have been in the room when Lane pitched this idea to Sondheim. I had witnessed what this brilliant comic actor could do when he decided to riff on a comedy classic. It came in the middle of the Roundabout Theatre’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, when Lane, as waspish critic Sheridan Whiteside, joked about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby?”

In the post-show “talkback” I attended, two people associated with the comedy’s playwrights—Kitty Carlisle Hart, widow of Moss Hart, and Anne Kaufman Schneider, daughter of George S. Kaufman—related that the line had not been part of the original script, but had been inserted by Lane. He did so despite protests that saying something like this at the time (the 1930s) was the equivalent of touching a third rail. The two women shrugged—there was little they could do, since the reason was the show was being done at all was, precisely, because of its star, who put the fannies in the seats.

I’ve listened to the cast album of the millennial version of Frogs. Compared with much of Sondheim’s other work, it just did not possess magic. But I could only imagine what would have happened to the show once Lane got his hands on it. I doubt if it was pretty.

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