A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Missouri Arts Council

New Line Theatre was recently awarded a bigger-than-usual grant from the Missouri Arts Council (MAC) for its coming 2023-2024 season -- a generous $25,000.

Soon to open our 32nd season of alternative musical theatre, the increased MAC grant was very welcome, particularly in this time when every nonprofit theatre in America is still struggling so badly, and so many are closing down permanently. Just this past week, the famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago announced they are laying off one-eighth of their staff.

But then... A plot twist!

Even as theatres across America fail, MAC Executive Director Michael Donovan decided this is the time to change the rules, to make it harder to access grant money, to make it tougher on struggling nonprofits like New Line Theatre -- even though Donovan's new rules violate the contract he and I as New Line Artistic Director both signed just weeks ago. The result is that New Line can't currently access the majority of its grant, which the company desperately needs, particularly in these very challenging times.

The timing could not be worse for us.

According to London's Guardian newspaper, "America’s love affair with the stage is on the rocks. From coast to coast, the regional theatre movement is facing the biggest crisis in its 75-year history. An estimated 25% to 30% of audiences have not returned since the shutdown enforced by the coronavirus pandemic." And instead of stepping up to help, MAC is now making it harder on the New Liners.

Here's the bizarre and ridiculous story behind the problem...

In accepting the MAC grant, New Line agreed as it does every year to match the grant amount with spending, dollar for dollar. Donovan's dispute with New Line centers on the definition of "incurred expenses" in the contract and what funds can be used to match the MAC grant.

The contract says "The Council agrees to pay the Grantee funds up to the amount stated in Section 3 of this Grant Agreement upon receipt of a duly executed invoice(s) evidencing Project costs incurred in accordance with the Project Proposal" (section 12). [Emphasis added.]

An "incurred expense" is an expense committed to, but not necessarily paid yet. And Donovan knows that. But now he insists instead that the money must already be spent to be used for the match, despite the contract he signed. Donovan claims a sentence immediately following section 12 in the contract says exactly the opposite of it.

That sentence says, "Spent the money for the approved Council-funded project between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024." Donovan's issue this time is whether the dates in the sentence describe the project or the spending. To be clear, the contract does not say, "Spent the money between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024, for the approved Council-funded project." In context, the meaning should be clear.

And seriously, even if there are two ways to read that sentence, which choice makes more sense -- to read it as consistent with the section before it; or to read it as completely contradictory to the section before it? The answer should be obvious, especially in a contract.

Or is MAC claiming they knowingly ask hundreds of Missouri nonprofits to sign a self-contradictory contract every year?

For the last thirty seasons, MAC accepted New Line's match of incurred expenses, exactly as the contract describes and as past MAC staff had explained it to the New Liners; but not this year.

Despite the contract's clear language, Donovan now maintains that incurred expenses can no longer be used to make the match, pretending that section 12 of the contract doesn't exist -- which means New Line can't get most of their grant money now. Though New Line continues to struggle, though theatres are closing across the country every day, Donovan has chosen to keep New Line from accessing most of their awarded grant until much later in the season -- and to force our small company to continue its current struggles.

In addition to all that, as a "punishment" for New Line challenging Donovan's new rules, Donovan has demanded that our company now submit receipts to him personally for every single expense -- something other grantees are not required to do. 

Yes, that's right, he both takes back our grant money and then also gives us more work to do. I honestly don't understand why he's doing any of this, particularly right now! MAC has never treated us like this before.

We need help, not hassle.

The MAC website says, "The Missouri Arts Council is the state agency dedicated—as public leader, partner, and catalyst—to broadening the growth, availability, and appreciation of the arts in Missouri and fostering the diversity, vitality, and excellence of Missouri’s communities, economy, and cultural heritage. The grants we award make possible quality arts programming to communities both large and small throughout the state."

Nothing about punishment, nothing about bookkeeping intricacies. It shouldn't have to be said, but the Missouri Arts Council was not created to bully and punish defenseless artists and small, struggling arts organizations.

Clearly, the struggle is still not over. And the people who should be helping us the most, aren't.

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

Dramatical Cats

(An excerpt from my new book Rescuing Cats: The Musical That's Better Than You Think)

I’m a musical theatre snob.

I admit it. I just don’t enjoy a mediocre, conventional musical anymore – or even worse, a mindlessly conventional production of a rich, complex, unconventional musical. But I’m no knee-jerk snob. It’s just that I love what’s amazing. And truthfully, there’s a lot of it.

While it’s true that many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s later shows are not my cup o’ tea, I honestly think that Jesus Christ Superstar is a brilliant, audacious piece of musical storytelling that is too often treated like a shallow church pageant. (Spoiler Alert: It’s not.) And I think that Evita is a masterwork, in fact, much richer, more nuanced than Hal Prince’s original production and Patti LuPone’s original performance led us to believe (as much as I revere Hal Prince and La LuPone). Evita is a dark, morally complex, seductively charming, double love story; it’s not a Brechtian horror show about an ice queen.

And I will also admit I love Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. No, it’s not a masterwork. But let’s be honest, it’s relentlessly clever, endearingly smartass, and it’s chock full of catchy songs. Hating on Joseph is like hating on Hello, Dolly! And while we’re here, I’ll also admit I really love Song and Dance. The first half of that show, the one-act Tell Me on a Sunday is a serious, complicated character study of a deeply damaged woman who has no self-awareness; that’s tricky to dramatize, but the show really works. And the music for the second half of Song and Dance, Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” for cello, is one of my favorite pieces of instrumental music. It’s so inventive, so playful, and it does what Lloyd Webber does best, straddling confidently the worlds and vocabularies of classical music, pop, jazz, and theatre music.

And then there’s Cats.

It seems so easy to make fun of it, parody it, “pee on it,” so to speak. Everybody seems to love it or hate it, and both positions often seem irrational to me. (Then again, how someone responds to a piece of art is subjective, right?) Maybe it’s the strangely intense vitriol, the passionate, enraged loathing of this musical, that all seems so weird to me. It’s like people are mad at the whole idea of the show, which again is baffling. It’s just a musical, after all. No one is claiming it’s the next Dianetics.

I first encountered the show through the Broadway cast recording (on LP!), right after it was released, and I fell in love with the score. The lyrics revealed more depth and more comic ambiguity each time I listened to them – and more humanity – in their wonderful mashup of real cat behavior mixed with hilariously real human personalities. I’ve never understood why some people hate Cats so fiercely.

Not long ago, I got the idea to write a book of poems modeled on Eliot’s cat poems; but while Eliot lovingly satirized human behavior through the comic lens of cat behavior, my book, Theatre Cats: The Old Producer’s Book of Dramatical Cats, lovingly satirizes the behavior of theatre people, through the lens of some unusually artsy cats. Writing these pieces was fun for me on several levels, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation for everything Eliot did in those original poems. I also wrote a short story, “Night of the Festival,” for my Weird Fiction anthology, Night of the Living Show Tunes, in which the narrator wakes up at the Jellicle Ball transformed into a cat, and he slowly loses his humanity as he becomes part of the ritual. Again, it was a fun project that got me thinking about the musical in new ways.

John Rockwell wrote about Lloyd Webber in The New York Times in 1987, “Depending upon your source, the following passionately held opinions will be proffered at the mere mention of his name: He is the savior and regenerator of the very genre of the musical. He is the pioneer of the rock musical. He is a barely disguised opera composer. More than anyone, he has tipped the musical's creative locus from New York to London. He is the instigator of the current penchant for glitzy spectacle on Broadway. He is a composer of melodic genius and telling theatrical savvy. He is a cheap panderer to the lowest common denominator, derivative and faceless.”

Many critics predicted the only real appeal of Cats would be the spectacle, the show-bizzy glitz and eye candy. But that’s simply not true. People don’t go to the theatre for eye candy; they go for connection. Through these poems, T.S. Eliot created this crazy, vaguely familiar universe that is both our human world and a secret cat world at the same time, occupying the same space, living with all the same moral ambiguities. These characters and their stories all exist in this fantastical double-reality. And part of the “running joke” (if I can apply that term to T.S. Eliot) is our unavoidable awareness that while this isn’t our Real World, it sure reveals our Real World – and us – to us.

But it wasn’t just Eliot’s text that grabbed me. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music for Cats is so playful, and in real ways reflects both the sly, satirical humor of Eliot’s text and also a fully alternate cat world, where musical styles leap from one to another, songs gets interrupted, melodies cavort, and rhythms behave as erratically as cats.

The wild 13/8 time signature of “Skimbleshanks” (breathlessly counted 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2) gives us a palpable sense of movement, energy, busyness, painting a rich aural portrait of Skimbleshanks’ workplace. In a similar manner, the constantly shifting, irregular time signatures of “Memory” echo Grizabella’s scattered, broken thoughts. There are examples like this throughout the Cats score. We already knew that Lloyd Webber has an extraordinary gift for melody, but the bonus here is the beautiful melodies even in the instrumental music, not just the usual reworkings of the vocal melody, but often entirely new themes, as in “The Gumbie Cat” dance break.

Rockwell wrote in that same New York Times article, “What Lloyd Webber achieved was the expansion of the musical-theater composer's resources to include rock, at a time when most American writers for the musical theater continued to resist it. Born into the rock era, he was, along with Tim Rice, a true pop fan, and found it both natural and necessary to use rock music in a theatrical context.” He went on, “It was Cats that was Lloyd Webber's real declaration of independence from Rice – the partnership had dissolved after Evita, the victim of a mounting friction of egos – as well as his first project to make him real money. It is the key musical in his career, the show that defined him on his own, established the very idea of a new English musical and crystallized the controversy that has swirled around him ever since.”

Some people complain that Cats doesn’t have a plot. They are wrong. It has a narrative story, with a beginning, middle, and end, centered on the choice of the cat to go to the Heaviside Layer at the end. The show even observes Aristotle’s dramatic unities, of time, place, and action.

Though most of the time theatre tells us linear narrative stories – that’s what we’re used to – theatre is also about ritual. And while Cats does tell us a linear story, it’s even more about the sacred ritual behind that story. T.S. Eliot famously wrote in a review in 1923, “All art emulates the condition of ritual. That is what it comes from and to that it must return for nourishment.” Eliot always felt a strong obligation to tradition, to culture and heritage, and ritual was always a part of that. Significantly, throughout history and still today most religious services closely resemble theatre performances, both in the physical space (with “stage” and “audience”) and in the structure of the content.

But almost everyone has misunderstood Cats from the start, trying to cram it into preexisting categories and conventions and styles. Cats is musical theatre as ritual. It’s not a revue. It’s not a song cycle.

Cats is very much like Hair. Yet the critics and the musical theatre snobs forever yammer on about how it’s all production design and no plot, or has only “a thin plot.” The truth is that just like Hair has a linear dramatic throughline, so does Cats. Just as any ritual does. Hair, Celebration, and Godspell all experimented with ritual as musical theatre, all three in different ways, and later, The Gospel at Colonus did too. And that’s what Cats is, a ritual, beginning with the summoning and gathering of the tribe. This community of individuals isn’t here to tell us a story this time; they’re here to remind themselves – and us – who we are.

One of the things that drew me to Cats was that I knew these personality types – the clueless snob, the bully, the rock and roll rebel, the passive-aggressive control freak, the shit disturbers, the faded beauty. Eliot’s great stunt was illuminating with loving insight some truths about human behavior, through the shockingly sharp lens of observed cat behavior. But that was only half his trick. The other half was allowing us to see, to our delight, where the two intertwine and overlap.

I love this show. Here’s why.

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim and Rescuing Catsclick here.

The Theatre's Certainly Not What It Was

Is the theatre dying?

Yes and No. 

Theatre as we've practiced it for thousands of years is not dying. Theatre as its practiced today in the United States (and elsewhere) might be. It looks like big commercial theatre -- in other words, Broadway -- must either die or evolve.

Nationally, theatre attendance is down 20-30% since the pandemic. That's a lot!

My personal bet is that Broadway will become less and less theatre, and more and more theme park. Just look at Back to the Future, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Beetlejuice, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, and others. Some of these shows are returning to the Ziegfeld model -- lots of eye candy, just a dollop of content.

And let's remember, theatre has been called The Fabulous Invalid for almost a century. Wikipedia tells us:
The Fabulous Invalid is a 1938 stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart following the oscillating fortunes of a fictitious Broadway theater, the Alexandria, in the period between 1900 and 1930. The play's title has since entered the vernacular as a synonym for the theater.

Or as Tom Stoppard puts it in Shakespeare in Love:
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Fennyman: So what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

It's a joke but it's also a terrible truth. It really is a mystery most of the time, and that makes long-term planning -- any planning, really -- very difficult. And the nature of this beast is that those obstacles and that disaster are more or less continuous and seemingly random.

As as example, New Line has had financial trouble now and then over the years, but we've always found our way back to stability. In one of my life's greatest ironies, in March 2020, we had finally managed to get New Line in a really stable place financially. We had no debt, the shows ahead were guaranteed sellers (Head Over Heels and Urinetown), and we were planning a killer 2020-2021 season, opening with Something Rotten! New Line was going to be on solid ground again for a long time to come.

And then the Plague hit and all the theatres got shut down.
Eerily like Shakespeare in Love.

Since New Line returned to the stage in fall 2021, it has been a real struggle. Our audiences are slowly returning to their previous levels, but slowly. Of the first four shows we produced after the pandemic, all four had to cancel some performances because of Covid. We were determined to pay everyone their full amount anyway, even though we lost audience revenue; but that put New Line back into financial struggle.

Meanwhile, every day now there's another item in the news about a regional theatre canceling a show, cancelling a season, or in many cases, shutting down for good. It's terrifying. New Line will soon open its 32nd season; and in June 2025 we'll produce our 100th show. We hope. The possibility that New Line could be forced to shut down -- especially over money -- just seems so depressing.

It feels like we reputedly take two steps forward, and then one step back.

Luckily, the New Line donors have been extremely generous through this whole ordeal, and still now as we struggle to come back.

The other good news is that, as commentators and pundits discuss the current state of the American theatre, two things are true. First, more new musicals are being produced across the country than ever before in history; and there is a young and growing fan base for musicals, like never before. Second, the model that most experts suggest for regional theatres to adopt is pretty much the same model New Line is built on. So it seems we're in better shape than some to weather this storm.

But that doesn't mean it's easy.

And my personal opinion, especially after studying and writing about theatre for so long, is that American theatre will not die; but it will become something else. The 1990s brought us a revolution in the art form, as quirkier, more personal, more artistic musicals finally had a place to find an audience in the New Regional Theatre movement. And New Line was born right in the middle of that movement. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her outstanding book Directors and the New Musical Drama:
After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.

Maybe the 2020s will be another revolution in American theatre, ignited by the necessities of the pandemic. Maybe we'll return to the basics, as we have periodically in the past. Designer Robert Edmond Jones wrote in his brilliant book, The Dramatic Imagination:
The only theatre worth saving, the only theatre worth having, is a theatre motion pictures cannot touch. When we succeed in eliminating from it every trace of the photographic attitude of mind, when we succeed in making a production that is the exact antithesis of a motion picture, a production that is everything a motion picture is not and nothing a motion picture is, the old lost magic will return once more. The realistic theatre, we may remember, is less than a hundred years old. But the theatre – great theatre, world theatre – is far older than that, so many centuries older that by comparison it makes our little candid-camera theatre seem like something that was thought up only the day before yesterday.

In 1973, producer-director Joseph Papp wrote about The New York Shakespeare Festival in the New York Times:
Our artistic style is defined in every production on our stages: forthrightness, vigor, and the direct search for the meaning of man in his family and in society are the common characteristics. It is the social conscience of this theatre which distinguishes it from other theatres. We constantly reflect, and react to, the shifting societal scene and attempt to articulate this shift in terms of theatre workers, plays, and audiences. Our long-range artistic plans, therefore, evolve from a recognition of the need for humanity, intelligence, and feeling in a fast changing world. We will address ourselves to these needs in the year ahead and welcome the thrill of that challenge.

He easily could have been writing about New Line in the 21st century. Even further back in 1962, Broadway composer Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, She Loves Me) predicted something which is only now finally happening:
Shortly it will happen. The American musical will shed its present polished state and become an untidy, adventurous something else. Shortly it will exchange its current neatness and professional grooming for a less manicured appearance, for a more peculiar profile. It will swell beyond or shrink from the finesse that regulates it now. It will poke around. It will hunt for. It will wander and wonder. It will try and trip. But at least it will be moving again, off the treadmill, out of the safety zone, crossing not at the green, but in between...

Bock went on:
The new musical may not take place between 41st and 54th street east or west of Broadway. That is, not at first. It may start in San Francisco or Chicago or Minneapolis. Or Lincoln Center. It may come from London or Paris or Rome or Johannesburg. Or the Village. It will probably be viewed and noted with greater interest. We will be less provincial about protecting the American-Broadway-musical-image. We will eliminate the high tariff against vigorous ideas not coming from The Street. We will join the common market of the theatrical world. Our eyes will stray, our ears will sharpen. And what we see and hear from everywhere will prepare us, will help us make our own new statement. Broadway may become one of many alternatives. It may, along with the musical, change its spots. And we may desert it now and then in search of something else. It won’t mesmerize as much. Nor will it strangle. Its monopoly days are numbered. Nothing more exciting in the theatre will happen than this new musical.

That's nothing to be afraid of, as long as we remember that commercial theatre is an historical anomaly. Storytelling is an essential basic need of humans. Commercializing it -- monetizing it -- is literally a perversion of nature. Humans are evolved to communicate nearly everything through storytelling, so to make access to storytelling dependent on disposable wealth is arguably an abomination.

The reason theatres like New Line are legally "nonprofit" and exempt from taxation, is because we as a society believe that storytelling is as vital to a community's well-being as education and healthcare. The reason people send us donations is because they believe that what we do is essential and they are investing in their community. If our ticket prices covered the actual expenses of our shows, they'd cost $70-80 each. The structure of our nonprofit status allows for donations and grants to subsidize that ticket price so that we can charge a lot less.

Otherwise, our audience would be priced out, or we'd have to pay our artists nothing. And we don't pay anyone particularly well even in flush times!

Even more good news. Most of the theatres that are shutting down (though not all!) are huge organizations with huge staffs, huge overhead, huge production costs, dozens of union contracts, and often, a physical theatre to maintain and operate. New Line is largely free from all that, in part thanks to the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, who built us an artistic home in the Marcelle.

Thankfully, in the grand scheme of things, New Line is pretty small. While some theatres have multi-million dollar budgets, our annual budget in normal times is about $120.000, even less these days. And during our last "normal" season, about 80% of our budget went directly to producing shows. Our minimal overhead costs are part of what lets us survive through all this.

After all, it ain't over till the big-boned lady sings.

Or to paraphrase The Unsinkable Molly Brown, we ain't down yet!

On the other hand, we ain't exactly up either. The Gods of the Theatre have smiled on us; though I wish they'd smile a bit bigger...

As we have for thirty years, we depend on you. New Line belongs to you. To subscribe to our awesome coming season, click here. To make a generous donation, click here. And meanwhile, help us spread the word!

Thank you, St. Louis. We've made it this far. We ain't down yet. You need us and we need you!

Long Live the Musical! And the Theatre!

P. S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim; and Rescuing Cats: The Musical That's Better Than You Thinkclick here.

Another Op'nin', Another Show

We work with such incredibly talented theatre artists, but New Line only produces three shows a season, so the New Liners are often off having cool adventures with other local companies, even more than usual over the next few months.

In this coming season, New Line's stoner Christmas musical doesn't open till the end of November, two months later than our usual fall slot, but the New Liners have found lots of cool shows around town to work on in the meantime.

Check out the New Liners at Large!

July 14-16 – The Wizard of Oz, St. Gabriel Archangel Players
Featuring New Liners Chris Strawhun and Brittany Kohl Hester

July 27, Aug. 2, Aug. 9 – You Made Me Love You, Blue Strawberry
Featuring New Liner Jennelle Gilreath Owens

July 27-30 – Sondheim Tribute Revue, Over Due Theatre Co.
Featuring New Liners Tiélere Cheatem and Kathleen Dwyer

July 28-Aug. 6 – The Color Purple, Hawthorne Players
Featuring New Liner Victoria Pines

July 28-Aug. 12 – Caroline, or Change, Fly North Theatricals
Featuring New Liners Mara Bollini, Kent Coffel, and Kimmie Kidd-Booker

Aug. 3-26 – Godspell, Stray Dog Theatre
Featuring New Liners Chris Moore, Kevin Corpuz, Sarah Gene Dowling, Stephen Henley, Grace Langford, and Dawn Schmid

Aug. 17-27 – Kinky Boots, Tesseract Theatre
Featuring New Liners Tiélere Cheatem, Kent Coffel, Marshall Jennings, Chelsie Johnston, Sarah Lueken, Michelle Sauer, and Carrie Wenos

Aug. 18-26 – Ragtime, Union Avenue Opera
Featuring New Liners Cole Gutmann, Brett Hanna, and Melissa Sharon Harris

Sept. 15-24 – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Monroe Actors Stage Company
Featuring New Liner Gillian Pieper

Sept. 29-Oct. 7 – tick... tick... BOOM!, Take Two Productions
Featuring New Liners Brittany Kohl Hester and Clayton Humburg

Oct. 5-28 – Saturday Night Fever, Stray Dog Theatre
Featuring New Liners Kay Love and Maggie Nold

Nov. 3-12 – Daddy Long Legs, Hawthorne Players
Featuring New Liner Cole Gutmann

Nov. 3-12 – The Mad Ones, Tesseract Theatre
Featuring New Liners Melissa Felps, Sarah Gene Dowling, and Grace Langford

Nov. 30-Dec. 17 - Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
Featuring New Liner Sarah Wilkinson

We're all very lucky that this town has such a vibrant and active theatre scene! Now more than ever, all our local companies need our support. Theatres are shutting down all across the country, and we need to make sure that doesn't happen here. 

Meanwhile, season tickets are on sale now for New Line's 32nd Season, featuring the world premiere of Jesus and Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas, the regional premiere of Sweet Potato Queens, and Dracula. Just click here for more info.

If you want one of our "Go See a Musical" bumper stickers, click here.

And make sure to check in on social media when you go to theatre, so all your friends can see what an amazing, eclectic theatre scene we have here in the St. Louis region.

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

Tumblers! Grumblers! Fumblers! Bumblers!

Working on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is such fun, partly because it's a wild, rowdy, knockabout comedy; but also because at the same time, it's a Sondheim show. It's vulgar and silly and irreverent, and yet there's amazing craft and artistry in every moment of the show.

Forum was only Sondheim's second full score as an adult, and it's the first that was actually produced. He had written lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, but here we could see for the first time the way Sondheim combines his words and music. In a lot of ways, Sondheim was still a novice, and Forum was a very strange experiment. Even this early in his career, Sondheim was already challenging himself.

The writing of Forum was a pivotal moment for Sondheim as a young composer and lyricist. To his death, he bemoaned the fact that the Forum script and score “didn’t go together,” but that’s the whole point of a mashup, taking two elements that shouldn’t work together and seeing how they do work together – look at Head Over Heels or Return to the Forbidden Planet.

And yet despite Sondheim’s struggle, his craft here is exceptional. Notice all the different kinds of rhymes Sondheim uses in this opening number, the aggressive wordplay, letting the audience know the show will be playing around with language all night. There are the expected perfect rhymes, of course:
Nothing that’s formal,
Nothing that’s normal.

But Sondheim also uses other kinds of rhyme, like chain rhymes, multiples of the same rhyme, all in a row. One famous example is the end of “On the Steps of the Palace” in Sondheim’s Into the Woods score. There are also examples in “Comedy Tonight.”

There are also interior rhymes, within a line:
Stunning surprises,
Cunning disguises…

There are head rhymes, another name for alliteration, in “Love, I Hear”:
I pine. I blush. I squeak. I squawk.
Today I woke too weak to walk.

Notice that the w sounds in “squeak” and “squawk,” nicely set up the alliteration in the following line. And notice that the words “woke,” “weak,” and “walk,” all start with the same consonant but also they all end with the same consonant. No matter how many Sondheim shows I work on, no matter how much I analyze and write about them, I am forever finding new treasure.

It's important to remember that "prefect" rhymes aren't the only kind of rhymes. A rhyme is just a relationship between two words. There are lots of different ways to explore that relationship. Here’s another great example of head rhymes or alliteration, from  the Forum song “Pretty Little Picture”:
The sand and the sea and the stars in the sky,
And the sound of a soft little satisfied sigh.

There are slant or imperfect rhymes in Forum's opening number:
Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone, a comedy tonight.
Something appealing,
Something appalling…

There are multisyllabic rhymes:
Something convulsive,
Something repulsive…

There are apocopated rhymes, one word rhyming with a just part of another:
Frenzy and frolic,
Strictly symbolic.

and also…
Something that’s gaudy,
Something that’s bawdy,
Something for everybawdy…

This second example is also a transformative rhyme, which conspicuously and comically alters the pronunciation of a word to make the rhyme work. This kind of thyme is found all through Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas, and in the lyrics of Yip Harburg, who co-wrote the Wizard of Oz score.

There are lots of examples in Forum of consonance, a kind of alliteration inside words (also used, to great comic effect, in the song “Gary, Indiana” in The Music Man). We see a great example in the Forum song, “Free”:
It’s the necessary essence
Of Democracy!

There's also assonance in the opening, the repetition of vowel sounds, regardless of the consonants:
She plays Medea
Later this week.

And it’s not just the long e sound here, but also the long a sound in “plays” and “later.”

And the audience doesn’t know it yet, but the phrase “tragedy tomorrow” in the opening song is a sly set-up for a joke that won’t payoff till the finale, when Senex describes his redeemed marriage as “tragedy tonight.”

In interviews, in correspondence, Sondheim always came across as a very serious, very intense, very intellectual guy. And yet he could write a bawdy joke as well as anybody. Just look at his song "I Never Do Anything Twice," written for the film The Seven Percent Solution; or "Can That Boy Foxtrot," cut from Follies

Oscar Hammerstein believed the audience shouldn't be aware of the lyricist, that they should hear those words as coming from the character. That's true to some extent, but the audience knows they're watching a musical and they know somebody wrote these lyrics.

Hammerstein's method isn't the only way to think about writing theatre lyrics. Some of the art form's great lyricists -- Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and others -- didn't worry about that stuff. They just wrote fun songs that fit the moment. When you hear "You're the Top" in Anything Goes, it's impossible to ignore Cole Porter's playful touch.

It's very cool to see that young Sondheim, having been taught to write lyrics by Hammerstein, could switch to a completely different way of working and writing -- and do it so well!

This is the eighth Sondheim show I've directed. Uncle Steve is no longer with us, but he left us so much to explore!

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your tickets for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forumclick here.

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

Pretty Little Picture

Even when Stephen Sondheim writes a lightweight comedy, there's buried treasure everywhere you look.

It's been fun to dive into the Sondheim's score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Nearly all the songs in the score foreshadow the even more confident Sondheim still to come, with as much musicplay as wordplay.

He places “wrong note” dissonances all over the score, in “Love I Hear,” “Free,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and other songs, as well as in Miles Gloriosus’ trumpet fanfare. All these “wrong notes” tell us that this world is off balance; things are amiss and need fixing, that Pseudolus’ schemes are all lies, secrets, manipulations, and misdirections, and they can only end in chaos.

And nearly all the songs are ironic.

“Love I Hear” deconstructs the musical comedy love song, by Hero singing not to his love or to himself in an R&H “interior monologue,” but explicitly singing to the audience, even asking their forgiveness. It also subtly tells us that Hero is a virgin; all he knows about sex is hearsay. And the song does one other thing, by satirizing that staple of rock and roll, the “I’m so in love, I’m sick” song, like “Great Balls of Fire.”

Sondheim fully rejects the Rodgers and Hammerstein model at the end of the song:
Forgive me if I shout…
Forgive me if I crow…
I’ve only just found out,
And well, I thought you ought to know.

"You" is the audience! This is almost a traditional “I Want” song, in which the protagonist literally tells us what they want. But this one breaks most of the rules – well, the mid-century Rodgers & Hammerstein rules, anyway – by acknowledging that he just literally told us, the audience, what he wants. In an R&H show, the characters still tell us this stuff, but the writers, actors, directors – and audiences – pretend the characters don’t know they’re telling us this stuff, that they’re just thinking out loud or something, and the song is an “interior monologue.” Nonsense.

Here, Sondheim has pulled aside the curtain. Not only is the Fourth Wall gone, but the first two songs both use direct address to the audience. Sondheim is setting the rules for the evening.

And setting the tone. Irony abounds throughout Sondheim's score.

In “Free,” Pseudolus fantasizes about buying women and other slaves, even as he seeks his own freedom from slavery. In “The House of Marcus Lycus,” the women are commodities, and yet it appears that any of them could kick Pseudolus’ ass. And though in the 21st century we well might find this scene uncomfortably sexist, its underlying irony – that Pseudolus doesn’t really intend to buy a courtesan; he just wants to find the girl Hero loves – gives it a funnier and less troubling vibe.

In “Lovely,” a love song to superficiality, the two young lovers, Hero and Philia, are quite serious, but we hear this content as cringe-worthy. Philia has been raised to be beautiful, and nothing else. In her world, beauty isn’t an attribute; it’s a job. This is an upside-down love song, in which the lovers sing only about her appearance, subtly satirizing all the Love-At-First-Sight songs in traditional musical comedies. Even though the characters are aware of one level, the audience is aware of both levels. And the song will return in Act II to be hilariously deconstructed even more.

And even in the relatively straightforward song, “Pretty Little Picture,” we in the audience know that Pseudolus is acting entirely out of self-interest, and the dream he paints is just another manipulation. In “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the accumulating singers are talking about cleaning duties, but we know they’re really talking about sex.

And of course, the song "I'm Calm” is anything but.

Sondheim reprises “Lovely” in Act II, and though most mid-century songwriters would feel obligated to write new lyrics for this repeat of a song, Sondheim found a smarter and funnier tack, not to change the lyric at all, but instead drastically change the circumstance and the players. Here, instead of young lovers, now Pseudolus is trying to convince Hysterium to dress in drag and portray the “dead” Philia. And halfway through this reprise, Hysterium suddenly feels beautiful for the first time in his life, and he begins to sing about his own loveliness. It’s an unexpectedly sweet, if wacky, moment.

Significantly, Hysterium’s name ends with a neuter suffix (-um), which subtly brands him as neither male nor female. This starts as a running gag in Act I, but it pays off as a significant plot point late in this show.

Throughout the show, the irony of the songs demonstrates the mad confusion and chaos of love. In “That’ll Show Him,” a passionate beguine, Philia plans her revenge against Miles Gloriosus by vowing to have sex with him, but only while thinking of Hero. In the bluesy torch song, “That Dirty Old Man,” Domina complains about how awful her husband is, and how desperately she wants him. Both songs are funny, but also poignant. We feel for these women in a way we don’t expect in such a wild farce. It’s Sondheim adding psychology and nuance to Plautus.

I really love this show and I'm so glad we finally get a chance to work on it. We open next week! Come see us!

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your tickets for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, click here.

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

Man in His Madness

Some people call the Rodgers and Hammerstein era of the Broadway musical, "The Golden Age," usually defined by the opening of Oklahoma! (1943) through to the opening of Fiddler on the Roof (1964). But as you know if you read my blog, I don't think it was a Golden Age. It was just the R&H years.

Early on in the creation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, bookwriter Burt Shevelove had to help composer Stephen Sondheim let go of those conventions.

Sondheim struggled with un-learning all Oscar Hammerstein had taught him. Sondheim said, “Next to Merrily We Roll Along, it was the hardest score I ever had to write.” The Rodgers & Hammerstein model dictated that every theatre song must advance plot or characterization, and that “serious” musicals adhere to the faux naturalistic Fourth Wall, pretending the audience is not there and the action is not taking place on a stage – requiring the audience to “suspend their disbelief,” or in other words, to pretend the actors aren’t pretending.

Let's be honest. It’s a silly conceit.

Rodgers & Hammerstein made the big and surprisingly obvious mistake of trying to make musical theatre naturalistic. Though the R&H shows were mostly realistic (i.e., dealing with real world issues, rather than fantasy), they were never naturalistic (i.e., seeming natural, seeming like reality rather than a performance). Musicals can’t be naturalistic since people in the real world don’t spontaneously break into song – that peculiar convention is a storytelling language, not reality.

Previous to Oscar and Dick, musicals didn’t try to “fool” the audience into believing the story was real. There was no Fourth Wall. The characters often confided in the audience. The legendary “suspension of disbelief” didn’t apply – everyone involved knew that the audience knew that this was a performance, that actors were telling them a story. But Sondheim had been taught – and believed in – Oscar’s model.

Shevelove said to Sondheim, “There’s a whole other way to write songs, the way the Greeks did it and the Romans did it, and the way Shakespeare did it, which is to savor the moment.” Instead of a theatre song functioning as a little one-act play, as Oscar advocated, a song could also take one idea and play with it, play with language, play with meaning. That’s what Cole Porter and Irving Berlin did, in large part. And it’s also how songs were used in Roman comedies like Pseudolus and The Haunted House.

Alongside his other artistic iconoclasm, Sondheim came to realize that Oscar’s other core belief, that songs should erupt only when the emotions get too big for words, also doesn’t always make sense.

Larry Gelbart wrote in his introduction to the published Forum script, “Broadway, in its development of musical comedy, had improved the quality of the former at the expense of a good deal of the latter.” Sondheim wrote in his collection of lyrics, Finishing the Hat, that:
I don’t think that farces can be translated into musicals without damage – at least, not good musicals. The tighter the plotting the better the farce, but the better the farce, the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains: musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going. That’s why the songs in Forum are bunched together in the first half of the first act, where there is more exposition than action, and then become scarcer and scarcer, until eventually in the last twenty minutes before the finale, there are no songs at all.

Forum was an early Sondheim experiment in what forms the musical theatre could explore. Like Company a decade later, the songs could be removed from Forum without missing any plot elements. Usually that would be considered bad (or at least ineffective) writing. The whole point of musical theatre is to tell stories through songs, right?

Yes, but what that meant was changing as Sondheim experimented in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

By design, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was populated by stock characters, types so old they were already clichés when Shakespeare played with them. As Peter Smith writes in his introduction to the collection Plautus: Three Comedies, “For the most part the Hellenistic stage was peopled with down-to-earth types, many of whom were given a memorable dramatic individuality. It was a comic society of courtesans, pimps, and lovers, of soldiers, slaves, and parasites – a cosmopolitan demimonde.”

Smith later writes, “We see characters motivated by youthful love, senile lust, selfless loyalty, selfish greed, affection, fear, modesty, vanity. Although farce abounds, it is super-imposed on plays of basically sound construction and good characterizations, and it is balanced by a sparkling gift of wit. If one quality above all others that can be taken as Plautus’ hallmark, it is his delight in language, manifested in constant puns, word coinages, alliteration, and assonance. Although the diction is colloquial, the comic idiom is enriched by countless rhetorical figures and is disciplined by Plautus’ demanding verse forms. His rhythmical sense made him highly skillful in versification; in the cantica or lyric portions of his comedies, Plautus develops complex and sophisticated metrical patterns. His is an obtrusive style, seldom muted or subtle in its effect, but the undisguised verbal exuberance has been a strong feature in his perennial appeal.”

By the way, the cantica were meant to be sung, as solos, duets, and trios. Before Plautus, these lyric sections were not songs; after Plautus they were. He invented musical comedy.

So much of that quote from Smith could be describing Sondheim. Or Shakespeare. Forum is often dismissed as simple farce, but it’s so much more than that. What’s different here are the songs. Adding musical comedy songs changes those stock characters into real people, because the songs in a musical explore emotions and psychology and hidden motivations that just don’t exist in stock characters. Now these ancient clichés become complicated by these new inner lives. Domina seems to be a predictable stock character until she sings “That Dirty Old Man,” after which suddenly we know her. She’s in a crappy marriage but she still loves her husband. She’s no longer a stock character. Pseudolus seems like a stock character until he sings “Free,” and we find out he’s got dreams, plans for a future. And we can’t help but fall in love with Philia when she sings “That’ll Show Him.”

The songs in Forum are pauses in the action, reflections, rather than moving the action forward; but the score is deceptively unified. Almost every song plays with ideas of restraint and release, another common Plautus theme, and that theme emerges throughout the show, in terms of slavery, but also sexual impulse, marriage, parenting, contracts, danger, sorrow.

As Smith writes about Plautus’s theatre, “Many conventions can be explained by the tendency to adopt a thoroughly self-conscious attitude toward dramatic performance. The illusion of reality is not the ultimate goal in a theatre that relishes interaction between actor and audience, a theatre where glorious comic effects can be achieved by a deliberate violation of the supposedly invisible Fourth Wall.”

Forum is a complete rejection of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, even though (because?) Oscar Hammerstein had been Sondheim’s mentor. By eliminating the (arguably ridiculous) Fourth Wall and speaking/singing directly to the audience, the eventual opening number, “Comedy Tonight” opened the era of the Concept Musical, shows in which the central idea is as important (or more important) than the plot. Just a few years later, Jerome Robbins would open Fiddler on the Roof with the very conceptual song, “Tradition.”

Nothing that's formal, nothing that's normal...

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your tickets for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, click here.

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

My Daughter a Eunuch?

Stephen Sondheim's early meta-musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is largely based on three plays by the Roman playwright Plautus, but also steals some details from two other of his plays. And then the musical mashes it all together with the comic conventions of American vaudeville. And all the while, the show continually acknowledges itself and refers to itself and to the audience.

Which is completely in tune with Plautus, by the way.

Plautus wrote about 130 plays but we have only twenty of them surviving today. He was the first professional playwright, the first to make his living from writing plays; and like Shakespeare, Molière, and many others after him, his plays were intentionally commercial, meant for the masses, for all social classes.

And he was very successful commercially. Most of his plays included songs, and in many ways, Plautus was writing an early prototypal form of American musical comedy. We can tell he was learning how to use songs in these plays as he wrote them -- the later the play, the more songs it contains.

Translator and writer Erich Segal says, “Not since Aristophanes had an audience heard such vivacious verbal abandon. What a language Plautus’ characters speak! Unlike the simple, forthright (good old Roman) style championed by his conservative contemporary Cato, the dialogue is purple, but not blue; it is racy, but not dirty. Plautus is repetitive, mock-elegant, mock-heroic, mock-everything. He invents all sorts of delicious new words.” Just like Shakespeare.

Scholar Eric Handley says, “Plautus likes his colors strong, his staging more obvious, his comedy more comic.” Scholar George Duckworth says, “Plautus never uses one phrase if three or six will be more effective.” Plautus also loved playing with meta jokes, a theatrical self-consciousness, in which the actors would refer to themselves as actors and the play as a play. In his play Poenulus, one of the actors says to another, “Be brief, the audience is thirsty!”

The Greeks invented comedy, first as the crazy, naughty, supernatural comedies of Aristophanes and his peers; then later it evolved into something edging closer to what we now think of as old-school musical comedy. Plautus often used Greek comedies as source material, but he loaded on the sight gags, puns, double-entendres, mistaken identities, malapropisms, etc. He translated Greek oration into Latin song. His plays were frequently about sacred “Roman values” being subverted, violated, overthrown.

All of this also describes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Roman comedies, like those of Plautus, were always set in front of one, two, or three houses; Forum plays out in front of three. Any of these three doors onstage could portray the home of a citizen, a courtesan, or a temple.

Theatre performances were held in various locations around Athens, including the Palatine, the most important of the Seven Hills of Rome, in the forum, or as part of the funeral rites for an aristocrat.

While the early Greek dramas had only three actors on stage, by the time Plautus was writing Roman comedies, they were using casts of ten or more, and scenes involving four or five characters at once, in addition to others onstage.

He used several stock character types, many of them subversive and chaos-causing, and we see them all in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: the greedy pimp (Marcus Lycus), bitchy wives (Domina), silly old codgers (Erronius), senile Romeos (Senex), and the clever slave and “agent of chaos” (Pseudolus). So many of Plautus’ plays inspired later works. Miles Gloriosus foreshadows Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Plautus’ comedy The Brothers Menaechman is an obvious source for Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors as well as the musicals The Boys from Syracuse and The Bomb-itty of Errors. Plautus’ play The Pot of Gold is a source for Molière’s comedy The Miser.

Sondheim said, “Plautus was the first person to domesticize comedy. All comedy, Aristophanes, for instance, was about gods and goddesses. Nobody had ever written about husbands and wives, daughters and maids. Plautus is responsible for the situation comedy.”

It's so much fun working (indirectly) on Plautus and on Sondheim at the same time. The more we run the show, the more everything falls into place, the funnier and funnier it gets.

And of course, Sondheim and his collaborators can't help but throw in some subtle but sharp satire underneath the wild plot.

I've had a blast living in this silly but smart world, and I can't wait to share it with our audiences. As is often the case, I think the fierce up-close-ness of our theatre will make everything feel even crazier and wilder.

The adventure continues. Next week is Hell Week!

Long Live the Musical! 

To buy your tickets for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, click here.

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

Brek-kek-kek, Koax, Koax!

When I decided back in 2020 to write a new analysis book, tackling all of Stephen Sondheim's shows, it didn't occur to me at first that I'd have to learn a lot more about the opening of Japan to the West, about Roman comedy and Greek comedy, the "midnight sun," Ziegfeld, and so much more. And I didn't think a new writing project would lead me to producing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at long last (ticket info here).

I had studied and written in my earlier books about several of Sondheim's shows, but there were quite a few that I hadn't really studied at all. The idea seemed like a fun adventure, and one I should take. The end result of this mammoth undertaking is He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim; and in a way, it's as much for me as it is for my readers.

One of the things that struck me as I dove into each show, was how smart all his choices were, how informed they were, how right they were. The Frogs is one prime example, one of those shows that proves Sondheim's Cardinal Rule: Content Dictates Form.

Here's an excerpt about The Frogs from He Never Did Anything Twice.

When Nathan Lane rewrote The Frogs and turned it into a musical comedy in 2004, he didn't understand that, as interesting as it may be, it’s not a musical in any conventional sense; it’s ritual. Like Hair, The Frogs is not meant to be experienced the same way as Company or Sweeney Todd. Aristophanes’ original production was part of the theatre competition at the Lenaia, one of the annual Festivals of Dionysus in Athens, a religious ritual.

When Sondheim wrote songs for the show, he didn’t write conventional songs. Her wrote lengthy ritual numbers that don’t conform to the conventions of theatre songs, in terms of structure, language, length, or purpose. All six songs in the original are named for corresponding songs in Aristophanes’ theatre:
Prologus (“Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”)
Parodos (“The Frogs”)
Hymnos (“Evoe!”)
Parabasis (“It’s Only a Play”)
Paean (“Evoe for the Dead”)
Exodos (“The Sound of Poets”)

In “The Sound of Poets” (expanded for the revival) we have to wonder if we hear Sondheim’s own voice:
Bring the sound of poets
In a blaze of words to a heedless earth.
Bring the taste of wisdom
In a feast of words to a hungry earth.
Bring a sense of purpose,
Bring the taste of words,
Bring the sound of wit,
Bring the feel of passion,
Bring the glow of thought
To the darkening earth.

There are also two short pieces beyond these, including a choral “Invocation to the Muses,” and the Frogs’ “Traveling Music.” Sondheim’s now famous setting of Shakespeare’s existential, “Fear No More,” is how Shakespeare wins the contest or agon, the Greek word for struggle, conflict, or debate. Sondheim also wrote the Paean, “Evoe for The Dead,” after the first production, comically beginning with “They do an awful lot of dancing, The Dead.”

The Prologus is a prologue, setting up the rules and topic for the evening. The Parados (parade) is the grand entrance of the chorus (in this case, the Frogs), and it’s the first time the chorus sings; and it’s often a climactic moment in terms of action. Will the chorus (the Frogs) help or hinder our heroes? The crazy nonsense syllables (“brek-kek-kek, koax, koax”) come straight from Aristophanes; but Sondheim’s frogs also cheekily quote bits of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Get Happy,” and the Yale fight song. The Hymnos is a hymn that both worships and praises one of the gods, here a tribute to Dionysus. The word “Evoe” is a Roman borrow of the Greek word that’s an exclamation of frenzied joy at the Festival of Bacchus (the Roman parallel to Dionysus).

The Parabasis is a song during which all of the actors leave the stage and the chorus is left to talk (sing) directly to the audience. The chorus may partially or completely abandons its dramatic role, to step forward and engage the audience on a topic completely irrelevant to the subject of the play. In Sondheim’s Frogs, this song is the chorus’ political indictment of the apathy of the audience, ironically (not) comforting them with “Besides, it’s only a play.”
It doesn’t really matter.
Don’t worry, relax.
What can one person do?
After all, you’re only human.
And it’s all been said before,
And you’ve got enough to think about.
It’s only a play.
. . .
Let the leaders raise your voices for you.
Let the critics make your choices for you.
Somewhere somebody rejoices for you:
The dead.
And a leader’s useful to curse,
And the state of things could be worse.
And besides,
It’s only a play.

Following that, the Paean is a prayer for thanksgiving, in this case to The Dead. The Exodus is the last song, in which the chorus passes on a lesson or moral to the audience, before exiting. This is no musical comedy.

Mel Gussow at The New York Times reviewed the $35,000 production at Yale, writing, “As a theatrical event, the Yale Repertory Theater production of The Frogs is spectacular. It opened last night, in, of all places, the Yale swimming pool, which looks like an Olympic ocean next to the Yale Rep’s usual churchmouse of a home. On and off pool, there is a cast of 86, including a 21-actor frog chorus. In some of the steeply inclined seats – 1,600 of them are reserved for the audience – sit members of the Yale University Band. In ambition, this cross‐century collaboration between Aristophanes and Burt Shevelove is breathtaking. Not satisfied merely to do to the Greeks what he did to the Romans (in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Mr. Shevelove has created an extravaganza that might stir the shades of [producers] Billy Rose and Mike Todd.”

In addition to the actors, swimmers, and musicians, there were also thirty-five people working “backstage.” To approximate an authentic sound, Tunick orchestrated the score for just woodwinds, harp and percussion, to parallel the original accompaniment of flute, lyre, and Greek percussion instruments.

I doubt that New Line would ever produce The Frogs (and I'm not sure if we even could get rights to the original version), but it sure is interesting! And it sure is fun sharing what I've learned. In this age of mashup, it's huge fun working on Forum and its mashup of Plautus, vaudeville, and musical comedy. It might well be that fun producing The Frogs. I'm just not sure it would be all that much fun for a lot of the people sitting and watching it...

Then again, I've learned to never say never.

Long Live the Musical!