As the years go by, the percentage of Stephen Sondheim's creative output that can be characterized as "unsung" grows smaller and smaller. Performers and presenters have gone to great lengths to root out even the most obscure tidbits from the great composer/lyricist's canon, and these have been gratefully lapped up by Sondheim's extraordinarily devoted acolytes. But there are a few of the master's works that can still be accurately described as arcane, The Frogs and Evening Primrose among them. Happily, if belatedly, both have just been recorded in integral form by Nonesuch--and, because of their brevity, they are contained on one fabulous CD.
There are reasons for the obscurity of these works, but those reasons have nothing to do with quality. Based on a play by Aristophanes, The Frogs was written by Sondheim and Burt Shevelove to be performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre in the university's swimming pool. It had only a one-week run there in a production whose ensemble included three Yale School of Drama students who would be heard from again: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang. The Frogs will probably always be Sondheim's least often produced stage musical (if that's a correct categorization of it) because it really should be done in a pool to make its full effect--and also, perhaps, because it does not contain as many musical sequences as your usual full-length tuner. (I was lucky enough to see a production of the show at NYU in the mid 1980s--performed not in the pool at the gym there, but in a regular, conventional, proscenium theater with low humidity and dry seats.) As you might expect, The Frogs harkens back to Sondheim and Shevelove's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in that both are freely based on B.C. comic classics. (Forum was inspired by the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus.)
Evening Primrose is an hour-long TV musical that was telecast over the ABC network on November 16, 1966. With a teleplay by James Goldman, who would later serve as Sondheim's librettist for Follies, Primrose is about a discontented, blocked poet named Charles Snell who remains in a Manhattan department store after closing time and there discovers--in the words of Frank Rich, who wrote the notes for the Nonesuch recording--"a mysterious nocturnal society of eccentric shut-ins as well as the muse he's been searching for, a sort of modern Rapunzel named Ella." In the ABC telecast, Charles was played by Anthony Perkins. His Ella was Charmian Carr, who had had a major role in the monster hit movie of the previous year: Liesl in The Sound of Music.
It would be difficult to overpraise the Nonesuch recordings of these rich, fascinating, disparate works. The Frogs benefits from the luxury casting of Nathan Lane as the god Dionysos ("an aging juvenile of great charm") and Brian Stokes Mitchell as his slave, Xanthias. The comic chemistry between these two is terrific, never more so than in the droll "Prologos: Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," an earlier version of which had been replaced by "Comedy Tonight" as the opening number of Forum. "Please don't cough, / It tends to throw the actors off," Dionysos begs of the assembled theatergoers, going on to make further requests: "Please refrain / From candy wrapped in cellophane," "Please don't squeak, / We haven't oiled the seats all week," and--most memorably--"Please, don't fart--there's very little air and this is art." In the equally funny title song, the chorus of frogs alternates between froggy noises ("Brek-kek-kek-kek!" "Rib-et rib-et!") and side-splitting self assessment ("Frogs! / We're the frogs, / The adorable frogs! / Not your hoity-toity intellectuals, / Not your hippy-dippy homosexuals...")
The only unconvincing moment of this world premiere recording of The Frogs comes when William Shakespeare shows up in the person of Davis Gaines to sing the gorgeous ballad "Fear No More" (with a text by the Bard himself, from Cymbeline). I have been second to none in my praise of Gaines's thrilling, powerful baritone over the past several years, but he doesn't come across very well at all here--whether because of age, or because the song lies in an uncomfortable range for him, or because he just had a bad day. This is an unexpected disappointment but a relatively minor flaw in a recorded performance that is magnificent overall.
Evening Primrose is known primarily through two of its ballads that have become cabaret and concert favorites: Ella's lovely, touching, nostalgic reminiscence "I Remember" and the almost indescribably gorgeous duet "Take Me To the World." Charles and Ella are sung beautifully here by Neil Patrick Harris (who has lately been a perfect Tobias Ragg in concert performances of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in New York and San Francisco) and Theresa McCarthy (whose credits include Floyd Collins and Titanic). As far as I know, Primrose is not licensed for stage performance, but you can bet your butt that somebody's gonna try it sooner or later--and I want to be there to see and hear it.
These recordings feature the American Theatre Orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani. The CD boasts Nonesuch's typically stunning recorded sound--powerful but not harsh, ambient but not overly reverberant, with enormous dynamic range. This wonderful album was released to stores on October 16, and you should definitely rush out and buy a copy--if your local record store isn't already sold out. Sondheim fans are quick out of the gate!