Two days before opening night, Stephen Sondheim and Susan Stroman sat down on the Juilliard Theater stage to talk about their latest, “The Frogs.” Playwright John Guare moderated the Lincoln Center Festival symposium.
Not present was the third “Frogs” collaborator, Nathan Lane, who had the good excuse of a critics’ perf that Tuesday night.
It’s not easy being a double threat, Stroman and Sondheim said of their star and book writer.
“As an actor, Nathan can take notes right before he goes onstage,” said Stroman.
Working with him as book writer, it takes a bit longer. “Usually, you’re in the back row with your writer, but Nathan is onstage,” she said. “He can be tired afterwards.”
Sondheim described another “downside” of the actor-writer syndrome. “If a joke doesn’t work, Nathan thinks it’s because he has failed. Like any actor, he is impatient. He wants it to work immediately.
“Sometimes it’s not the actor’s fault a joke doesn’t land. A writer would tell him to sit with it for a couple of performances. I wish every fifth performance Nathan could sit in the audience.”
Lane has done a lot of rewriting.
“Those who saw ‘The Frogs’ two weeks ago, it is a completely different show now,” Stroman said. For one thing, 25 minutes was cut out of the Shaw/Shakespeare dialogue that ends the show.
“I could listen to that debate all night,” Sondheim lamented.
“And you did!” Guare countered.
“The Frogs” developed more of a political consciousness during its previews. Stroman said the line, “It’s a war,” was expanded to, “It’s a war we shouldn’t be in.”
At some perfs, “There are hisses,” she said.
Sondheim said the 1974 production at Yale was considerably less edgy. “It didn’t have a lot of political content,” he recalled. “It was more generalized: how our leaders let us down and how we get the leaders we deserve.”
The composer-lyricist also remembered some good advice from Burt Shevelove, who wrote and directed the Yale preem:
“Burt believed the songs should be a respite from the story. (Otherwise), it would be relentlessly comic, which becomes less funny.”
As Sondheim pointed out, his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, always told him the opposite: “The song must carry the story.”
In “The Frogs,” Dionysos goes to the underworld to find a playwright to galvanize people into action. His initial choice: George Bernard Shaw.
At the Juilliard seminar, Sondheim got asked whom he’d bring back from the underworld to help him write political musical theater.
Sondheim mentioned E.Y. Harburg of “Finian’s Rainbow” fame. But then had a better second thought:”The Gershwins. They wrote ‘Of Thee I Sing.’ Gershwin wrote the best and he wrote everything: operetta, jazz, Gershwin. You need all those colors. If you don’t, you make it a harangue, which is always the danger of a political piece.”
Sondheim said he might add another new song to “The Frogs” during its summer run at Lincoln Center.
Stroman agreed. “There’s a place for it,” she said.
Going back to the 1974 project hasn’t been such a chore for the composer-lyricist, due to the piece’s “free-wheeling style,” he said.
“But to get yourself back into the groove can be hard,” and usually is, he admitted, thinking back to the London version of “Follies.”
“They wanted another song,” Sondheim recalled. “So I tried to get back into the groove and wrote ‘Country House,’ which belonged in ‘Company’ and not ‘Follies.’ ”
CAA has signed composer Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change”) and director Doug Hughes (“Frozen”).
Frank Scheck has taken over for Donald Lyons as second-string theater critic at the New York Post, covering Off Broadway.
Publicist Arlene Kriv replaces Carol Fineman at the Public Theater.