Nathan Lane On The Return Of His Sondheim Collaboration ‘The Frogs’

As he prepares for a two-night concert of the Sondheim musical 'The Frogs,' the actor explains how what started with a chance bookstore encounter grew to a collaboration that involved seven new songs and a Broadway revival.

Nathan Lane Luke Fontana

One fine fall day in 1979, Nathan Lane ambled into a favorite haunt, the old Drama Book Store on West 52nd St., and picked up a copy of The Frogs, Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim’s radical rewrite of Aristophanes’ comic fable, and it is still keeping him hopping. On November 3 and 4 he’ll be singing it with the MasterVoices choral ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. 

“I knew the authors,” Lane tells Observer of why he reached for The Frogs that day in 1979. Sondheim and Shevelove had already collaborated on 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “So I braced myself for something along the order of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Parthenon. Instead, I found a very odd piece, with all these choral numbers.” 

Douglas Sills, Nathan Lane, Greg Paladino, and Ted Sperling (from) in rehearsal for the MasterVoices performance of The Frogs. Mike Meaney

Those were Greek choruses. Sondheim and Shevelove had taken Aristophanes and — well adapted may be too limited a word. Their version involved Dionysos traveling to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw in order to save the theater world. The Yale Rep staged it in 1975—in a swimming pool—and it hardly made great waves. “It wasn’t as funny as I thought that it should be, and yet I was sorta fascinated by it,” says Lane (who’s currently appearing in the second season of The Gilded Age on HBO). “That copy of it I kept through the years. I would read it and write little notes and jokes in the margin whenever they would occur to me.”

All that changed in 2000, when Sondheim turned 70. There was a birthday celebration of him at the Library of Congress, and Lane was asked to host. Part of the program was devoted to songs Sondheim wished he had written and ones he had. But the first half of the show was a concert version of The Frogs.

Shevelove had passed away in 1982, so the book was left without an update. Lane made of it what he could, subtly debuting as a playwright by ad-libbing. “When we were rehearsing The Frogs, I improvised something as Dionysos, and Steve said, ‘Where did that come from?’” Lane remembers. “I said, ‘Oh, I just made it up.’ And he said, ‘That was very much in Burt’s style. He would have liked that.’”

He continues, “Eventually, we did a recording of The Frogs in concert, and I was listening to it after 9/11, wondering whether this piece from 405 B.C. could speak to a contemporary audience. Dionysos has this romantic notion that the arts can affect change in society, so he goes to Hades to bring back this great writer who’ll speak to us and inspire us. We didn’t have that in George Bush. He was inarticulate, entering into a war with Iraq, alleging weapons of mass destruction.”

Peter Bartlett as Pluto (left) and Nathan Lane as Dionysos in The Frogs, at dress rehearsal, June 19, 2004. Photo by ©Paul Kolnik

Lane’s first stop in expanding The Frogs was director Susan Stroman. “We wondered if Steve would write individual numbers for the characters, so we approached him—nervously—and he said yes, even though it was, in a way, going back to a style of writing he’d long ago abandoned.” With seven new songs from Sondheim, as well as Lane’s digs at George W. and direction and choreography from Stroman, a revival opened in 2004 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. 

Lane’s contemporary political commentary was in keeping with the Aristophanes original, he explains. “There’s low comedy and high comedy, and then they stop and do what’s called the parabasis, where Aristophanes would, through the chorus, speak to the audience and give them his political point of view and how we needed to put ‘men of worth’ in charge.” In in 405 BC, when Aristophanes presented The Frogs at an Athenian drama competition (it won), the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was in its 27th year. “The death count was in the hundreds of thousands,” Lane says. “It was not a happy time in Athens. Then their idea of satirizing the god Dionysos was to make him like Frasier or Tony Randall in The Odd Couple—sort of an effete fuss-budget. The Greeks thought that was hilarious. They made a lot of gay jokes about Dionysus. They made jokes about his weight. A lot of crude dick jokes and bodily function jokes—and then there would be the political stuff and there would be a debate.  There’s nothing like that today. I guess it’s sorta like Saturday Night Live in tunics.”

At the Rose Theater, Lane is playing host and narrator for the evening but is relinquishing, with no regrets, his role as Dionysus to Douglas Sills. “I had no interest in doing it again, but I’m thrilled MasterVoices and conductor-director Ted Sperling wanted to do it,” he says. “They have a 20-piece orchestra and chorus of 130 people, all these wonderful talented seasoned pros going on all cylinders.”

A crackerjack team of comic actors got corralled for the occasion: Kevin Chamberlain as Xanthias, Marc Kudisch as Heracles, Chuck Cooper as Charon, Peter Bartlett as Pluto, Dylan Baker as George Bernard Shaw, Jordan Donica as William Shakespeare, and Candice Corbin as Ariadne.

Lane has given the prim and proper Bartlett a line you never expect to hear coming from his mouth: “Get outta town.” It was actually a pet expression Lane got from Sondheim. “Steve would scream with laughter every time Peter said it. He pretty much brings the house down.”

This is not Lane’s first time at the Sondheim rodeo. “We had worked together many times before, but we had never worked together before as writers. It was a thrill. He was a great collaborator and very supportive. I would say things and he could make more of them.”

On of those things was “I Love to Travel,” a new song in the 2004 revival for Lane’s Dionysos and Roger Bart’s Xanthias. Lane explains its genesis: “There’s a choral thing where the god Dionysos and his servant Xanthias head out on their journey and they’re singing a little thing, ‘March, march, trudge, trudge,’ etc. I said to Steve, ‘You know, I’ll write a scene around this, but it would be great if there were a number about how Dionysus loves to travel and Xanthias hates to travel because he has to do all the work.’ Steve looked at me, blankly, and said ‘Okay—but what’s the number about?’ I said, ‘Dionysos loves to travel, and Xanthias doesn’t.’ He looked skeptical, then went off and wrote a delightful tune.

“I can’t believe it has been almost 20 years ago that we did this. I’m still amazed that I wrote a musical with Stephen Sondheim, and that these ideas of mine were made into songs.”

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Nathan Lane On The Return Of His Sondheim Collaboration ‘The Frogs’