on The Frogs
Note from Durang:
My last year as a student at Yale (1974), it was announced that this musical adaptation of Aristophanes The Frogs, written by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove, would be presented by the Yale Repertory Theatre though not at their normal theatre but “at the Yale swimming pool.” And the score called for a chorus, and auditions were open to any Yale Drama School and Yale College student.
A big fan of Sondheim’s work, I auditioned and was thrilled to get to learn a new series of Sondheim songs for this show.
The strange setting of the Yale swimming pool was due to the fact that in the Greek original, the main character takes a boat down to Hades, and while he’s in the boat, he’s surrounded by frogs going “brek-kek-kek, brek-kek-kek.”
In this version, Larry Blyden did his opening song (Instructions to the Audience) on a conventional stage space in front of the pool. However, once it was time to go to Hades, he got into a little rowboat in the pool, and was rowed about by actor Charles Levin.
Then after a while one heard those “brek-kek-kek” sounds and suddenly scores of Yale undergraduates in green jock straps and see-through green netting on their bottom halves appeared from all sides, diving into the pool and surrounding the boat, while the Chorus (of me and Sigourney and Meryl and like 25 others) sang and sang this complicated, funny song called “The Frogs” – though most in the audience couldn’t really hear the lyrics, since the theatrical fun of all those frog swimmers was, understandably, taking all the focus, and the acoustics in the swimming pool were far from ideal, not to mention that the swimmers’ splashing was a fairly significant thing to sing against.
However, it was kind of great – a wonderful coup de theatre.
Later on, Sigourney and I got permission to sing “The Frogs” as a nutty duo in our 1980 cabaret Das Lusitania Songspiel.
And in 1994 when I was cast in the Sondheim musical revue “Putting It Together” at Manhattan Theatre Club, I got to start the show singing that same witty and tuneful song “Instructions to the Audience” that I had heard Larry Blyden sing back in the Yale Swimming Pool in 1974.
More on Das Lusitania
Note from Durang:
Sigourney Weaver and I became close friends when we met at Yale School of Drama. It was 1971, and she was in the acting program, and I was in the playwriting program, but we got to know one another because we both had a meal plan at the Yale graduate center and would sometimes have lunch together.
And, more significantly, in December of our first year at Yale, she was in an early play of mine called Better Dead Than Sorry (or Darryl and Carol and Kenny and Jenny), about a “musical comedy family” who were very troubled. Sigourney was cast as sensitive Jenny, who was always having breakdowns; and due to an actor dropping out, I took over the role of Darryl, the serious, worried brother who kept trying to talk sense with Jenny.
Sigourney was wonderful in her role – the high point was her singing the title song “Better Dead Than Sorry” while receiving shock treatments. Sigourney made her own little “shock treatment hat”, which included empty thread spools with little wires coming out of them. And when there would be the sound effect of a shock, Sigourney would stop her singing, and just move her head slightly, as if she was going off to somewhere mysterious and maybe a little disturbing. And then her focus would come back and she’d go on with the song. It was a darkly perverse song, admittedly; and she did it wonderfully.
We went on to be in several other plays at Yale together, as well as to take Elizabeth Parrish’s singing class together. (It was for actors only, but I got special permission to take it.) The class put on a show at the end of the year, and Sigourney and I did a number together. With our marked disparity in height and our similar, somewhat cracked dead pan performing styles, our appearing together seemed to make the school audience laugh.
So I filed away in my head that it would be fun to do an act together sometime.
We both graduated from Yale in 1974. In 1976 Sigourney got her first favorable New York reviews in my one act play Titanic, playing the Captain’s daughter, Lidia.
Titanic moved to off-Broadway. Since it was only an hour long, we needed a curtain raiser. So Sigourney and I decided to write an act for ourselves to begin the evening.
At Yale, we had been saturated in the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, whose most famous collaboration is The Threepenny Opera, though at Yale we had seen the lesser known works The Seven Deadly Sins and the mammoth anticapitalist opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
Their work is wonderful, but it’s also incredibly idiosyncratic and thus fun and easy to parody. So we decided to pretend that we were experts in the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, and that our presentation was to honor him and Weill, and to present little known facts about them. And then we proceeded to have all our facts wrong (on purpose), and have a very silly show.
And because it was on a double bill with Titanic, we decided to drag another boat that sank into the title of our act, and call it Das Lusitania Songspiel.
Das Lus… purported to be an evening celebrating the genius of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Sigourney wore an elegant red evening gown, and I wore tails (that were a trifle big); and with great earnestness we spoke of our admiration for the politically slashing playwright.
However, the evening was mostly an excuse for parodies of current plays and movies, and for more surreal comedy too. We would claim we had just learned by our scholarship that Brecht had actually written the screenplay to Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon, and then we would go into a parody of a scene from that (rather dreary) film, saying “And now Miss Weaver will portray Marissa Berenson, and Mr. Durang will play some British child.” That kind of thing.
The off-off version of Titanic was a cult hit, but when it moved to off-Broadway most critics didn’t like it, though they all liked Sigourney’s performance; and they mostly liked Das Lusitania also, especially Edith Oliver of The New Yorker who gave the show (and even Titanic) a warm notice.
In 1979 we decided to do a second version of Das Lusitania Songspiel. It was presented at the Westside Arts Theatre off-Broadway, Thursday through Saturday at 11 p.m., taking over the stage from Jack Heifner’s hit play Vanities which finished around 10:15 p.m.. Das Lus was produced by Heifner himself and Milton Justice, and was directed by Garland Wright (who also directed Vanities).
The rewritten version had lots of new material, and was more closely a Brechtian parody. For instance, Brecht is famous for wanting his plays to be acted with an “alienation technique” that is meant to keep the audience from over-empathizing with the characters.
Sigourney and I, pretending to great reverence, embraced that “alienation technique” and presented the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene while interrupting the Shakespeare lines with shouts of “Hoi!” and claps and whistles and silly faces, and signs that said “Rich People Treat Their Servants Badly.” (It almost sounds like the Little Rascals putting on Shakespeare. And it felt that way too.)
And a special highlight was a rush through current movies and plays – all supposedly written by Brecht – that landed on a loony marriage of Evita and Sweeney Todd, sung with furious seriousness and bite: “Attend the tale of Eva Person, her rubies glittered, her diamonds shone…perhaps today you were on the phone…with Eva Peron… the demon first lady of Buenos…Aires!”
The show was very silly, and received wildly enthusiastic reviews. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker called it “an unfailingly hilarious cabaret” and wrote amusingly “Miss Weaver is beautiful, and Mr. Durang is rather droll-looking, which is surely a more merciful arrangement than the other way around, and they hurl themselves into their labors with a zest approaching abandon.”
And Frank Rich of the New York Times, in a selected highlights of the season, wrote “For flat-out, falling-on-the-floor laughter, though, nothing came close to Das Lusitania Songspiel. …it takes ruthless satirists to keep our culture honest.”
The show played from late December 1979 through February 1980, at which point Sigourney had to leave the show to make a movie, and I went home to my apartment to watch television.
From time to time, Sigourney and I have done little bits of the show at benefits. And in 1986 when she hosted Saturday Night Live, she requested that I be allowed to co-host. What other movie star host has ever requested she have a playwright friend on with her? I can’t think of any, can you?
Anyway, Saturday Night Live said yes, and agreed to Sigourney’s “condition” that we be allowed to do 5 minutes of Das Lusitania at the end of the show. The rehearsal process was a little harrowing, with many changes and with the musical director not wanting us to do our Das Lus stuff. However, we worked it out with Lorne Michaels and added some Madonna and Mick Jagger stuff to the act to make it more Saturday Night Live-ish. And it went well, and was fun to do live.
Also, it was the first episode of the Dana Carvey/Jan Hooks/Phil Hartman group. And Sigourney and I got to be in the first Dana Carvey Church Lady sketch – I played myself, and the Church Lady asked me who wrote my plays, me or Satan. And then slapped my hand. And Sigourney showed up in her Ghostbusters character, possessed by Zuul. And I also got to be in an Aliens sketch as well, not a very good one, but likeably messy and silly.
Sigourney and I keep talking about updating the show and doing it again, but time keeps ticking, and we keep not doing it. We’ve done little bits of it at benefits. And in 2001 we did a chunk of the show for Stage Blue, a theatrical celebration of the history of Yale performers over a hundred years, presented at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. It was fun to do it on such a large stage rather than a cabaret space, and it was exciting to see that the audience seemed still to find this rather odd comedy act to be funny.
More on The Hotel Play
Note from Durang:
This intriguing Wallace Shawn play is set in the lobby of a play, and much of its action is a series of short scenes as people walk through the lobby, talking, arguing, etc.
Part of the fun of the play is that the parts are played by 50 actors for the 50 different parts. And most of the parts are about a minute long, as characters would enter the lobby briefly, and then leave. Griffin Dunne played the one role that went throughout the whole play (the desk clerk), and Elizabeth McGovern and Maura Moynihan also had significant parts.
The rest of the actors all had quirky walk-ons. I played “the cashier” who had a crazy laugh, and I got to play opposite my friend Alice Playten, whom I met when she was in my play A History of the American Film in L.A. My character tried to befriend her, but had an alarming laugh that kept erupting into the atmosphere.
Also in the cast were Wendy Wasserstein, Linda Hunt, Dominick Dunne, Tom McDermott, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Ann Lange, Ed Bullins, Deborah Rush, Mark Linn-Baker, John Rothman, Michael Murphy, Angela Pietropinto, Deborah Eisenberg, Ann Beattie (!), to name a few. It was lots of fun.
Chris Durang and Dawne
Note from Durang:
I hum a lot. And one day I was walking down the street with my friends John Augustine and Sherry Anderson, unconsciously humming Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song “Bali Hai” when suddenly John and Sherry improvised a silly “ooh ooh ooh” background to the song.
In a week or so, I was supposed to appear at a benefit for Olympia Dukakis’ Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, N.J. (a fine theatre she ran that no longer exists, alas); and the little joke on the street inspired me to think what I could do at the benefit. I decided I’d appear as myself, say I’d been traveling around the country singing at Ramada Inns with my back-up group Dawne, played by John and Sherry. And then we’d do some songs.
(Most of you will get the reference, but in case you don’t, many centuries ago singer Tony Orlando appeared as “Tony Orlando and Dawn”; and “Dawn” was actually two women who shared the one name, as if they were some sort of entity. We added “e” to the spelling of “Dawne,” to differentiate; and this led eventually to John and Sherry singing (to the tune of “Liza with a Z”) “It’s Dawne spelled with an “e,” not Dawn without an “e,” cause Dawn without an “e” goes “Dawn” not “Dawn.”)
Anyway, we did 6 or 7 minutes at the benefit. We started by singing Michael Jackson’s “Bad” song (that was current at the time), and then segued into our inspired-on-the-street song “Bali Hai”. The juxtaposition of those two song styles sounded very nutty. Then I did patter explaining how difficult I’d found playwriting and so I’d taken up lounge singing. And then we ended with a song that saluted the Whole Theatre (in which we claimed that Olympia and her brother Apollo were born of their parents Zeus and Baklava).
The musical director of the benefit was Michael O’Flaherty, and the director was Deborah Lapidus. A few months later Michael was hired to book talent for a new nightclub in New York City, the Criterion Center (in the famous Bond building). For the 8 p.m. show, they booked famous nightclub performers like Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Nell Carter.
But Michael asked us if we would like to expand our 6 minute act to an hour and to be the Criterion Center’s first late night show (at 10:30 p.m.).
So we agreed; Michael was our musical director, Deb Lapidus again was our director; and with John and Sherry, we all put our heads together about how to expand the show and what other songs to choose.
The joke in the act started to boil down to two things: singing rock songs that were wildly inappropriate to my pleasant but very non-rock sounding voice; and singing Broadway songs that suited me fine but were either odd or insane out of context.
So we kept “Bad” (which remained our entrance number for a number of years), came up with a very silly rap version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”; and at one point I tied a bandana around my head and shrieked at the top of my register, articulating every word very clearly, the Guns ‘n’ Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle,” while John and Sherry snapped their heads around and gyrated madly in the background.
As to the “other” joke, the Broadway one, we claimed that we were about to sing our most requested song from audiences around the country, at which point we broke into “Aldonza” from Man of LaMancha, which we sang as a dramatic trio with syncronized movements, shaking our fists in fury at the world.
You have to have seen that show to get the joke. It’s a highly overwrought though effective song sung by the leading lady Aldonza, where she says what hell her entire life has been. It’s not a song anyone in his or her right mind would ever sing out of context, and it makes it worse to sing it as a trio, with the lyrics going from “I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there” to “we were spawned in a ditch by a mother who left us there”.
Our audience tended to be people who were very musical comedy savvy, so our rendition of “Aldonza” actually did become one of our most frequently requested songs.
Other songs included Sondheim’s “A Weekend in the Country” from A Little Night Music, a complicated song meant for many people which the three of us did changing hats and looking pleased every time we remembered something difficult. And we did “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, a lively number meant for 20 teenagers on the phone that we sang with just the three of us frolicking around with plastic phones.
And at one point I explained about the Equity cot – Actors Equity requires that every production has a cot backstage so that there’s an opportunity for an actor to lie down – and “Dawne” then brought the “Equity cot” out onto the stage and I took a nap on it while John and Sherry took over for a while and sang a “Dog” medley (including “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp and “The Barking Song” from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George).
And we finished the evening with a “Ramada Inn medley from hell” – lots of pop songs, but in weird combinations that defined “non sequitor.” (One of my favorite switches was going from “Bibbidity Bobbidity Boo” to “Marat, we’re poor! And the poor stay poor!”)
It took a lot of energy to perform, but was satisfying to do. Our first couple of reviews were not welcoming, but then to my surprise (and relief) when some of the major theatre critics came, the reviews then got favorable and enthusiastic.
Our couple of weeks was extended to a couple of months, and we started to have celebrity audiences too… I particularly remember one show where Carol Channing and Tommy Tune both came back to congratulate us, which was lovely but oddly surreal – they’re both seven feet tall and have enormous smiles, and it was like two Hirschfeld cartoons coming to life and saying hello.
We did the show, or segments of it, at many other places over several years in the 90s. It was a lot of fun.
And a great deal of the fun was playing with my talented friends John Augustine and Sherry Anderson.
It was clear even when we did the first 7 minutes at the Whole Theatre benefit that we three had very clear and distinct personas that meshed intriguingly – I was the straight forward and sincere one, with a good, standard song presentation; John was jazzy and full of hip moves, and was the white boy equivalent of Ben Vereen; and Sherry was taller than both of us, pretty but spacey and off-center, with a nice but soprano-y voice that sounded just nuts on any of the rock sounds. And all three of us always performed with enormous and vaguely inappropriate commitment to whatever silliness we concocted.
The last time we did the show was 1995-96 at the Triad Club in New York City. We won a joint Bistro Award for all three of us for our efforts.
on Putting It Together
Note from Durang:
This show was, frankly, a thrill for me to be in. I’ve been unabashedly impressed and excited by Stephen Sondheim’s work for as long as I’ve been interested in theatre. I was pleased enough to get to meet him over the years, through the Dramatists Guild, through the Young Playwrights Festival. And I was flattered and happy when he came to see both Sigourney and my Das Lusitania Songspiel and laterChris Durang and Dawne.
Anyway, it was because of his seeing me in those two shows that Sondheim (and Cameron Mackintosh) thought of me for Putting It Together. The role was that of a kind of Narrator, but happily for me a singing one. And also as I got to know more about the show, it was clear the part was to be sort of a “Puck,” a mischievous being who’s watching and prodding and causing things to happen… a “provocateur” as they eventually said in rehearsal.
When I was asked to be in the show, I was told that they were looking for a star to play the main woman who had been played by Diana Rigg in London.
Obviously it was an extra thrill – I am sort of a fan agog in all this – when Julie Andrews agreed to be in the show.
It was her first time back on a theatre stage (as opposed to concert stage) since her blockbuster trio of Broadway hits: her debut in The Boy Friend, her indelible appearance in My Fair Lady, and her appearance as Guinevere in President Kennedy’s favorite musical Camelot in 1960. Then she went off, of course, to her highly successful film career. Putting It Together off-Broadway was her first time back on stage since Camelot. (The following year with Victor/Victoria was Julie’s first time back on Broadway itself, directed by her husband Blake Edwards in his adaptation of their smash movie hit of the same name.)
I had two solos in the show. The first was the opening number Instructions to the Audience, which I had watched Larry Blyden sing nightly when I was in the chorus of the Sondheim-Shevelove show The Frogs in 1974 during my Yale days. It was a wonderful song then, and it was exciting for me to think of getting to do it myself twenty years later.
The other solo was to be in Act Two, and in London the person who played my part sang the “Barking Song” from Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim told me that I could choose another song if I wanted, he just needed it to be one of his comic ones.
I came up with a list of possibilities, including taking his song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company and changing the tense to first person, making it be “I Could Drive a Person Crazy.” Sondheim chose to say yes to that possibility.
I had been fortunate enough to see the original production of Company on Broadway. (My college roommates took me to it for my birthday, a memorable present.) It’s one of my favorite shows, and with direction by Hal Prince and a funny book by George Furth, it’s lively and urban smart and funny and touching, and wonderfully non-linear (which I loved… it told a story, but in an unconventional manner).
The show’s lead character is Bobby, who is single and clearly can’t commit to any relationship; and one of the show’s many high points is when three of his current girl friends get together and sing a girl trio of all their complaints about him called “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”
That setting for the song is the perfect one, actually; and my doing it as a solo is best thought of as a quirky but hopefully fun variation. But especially if you know the song from its original context, the “I” version has its charms – the nutty supposed self-awareness of the person singing this litany of bad things about himself, and also the way it sounds when one person sings the “doo doo doo doo” interjections that were originally split among the three girl friends.
Singing the song was like getting on a train that didn’t stop. But I loved doing it; the lyrics are very funny, and the melody just charges along. My being always felt joyful singing it.
In terms of the whole show, though, my first week and a half of rehearsals hit a bit of a scary place. I found I was learning everything slower than the other people, especially harmonies for the group songs and the movements we were given.
And something the director Julia McKenzie said to me the end of the first week and a half let me understand that I was worrying her. And I thought to myself, “oh dear, I’m going to get fired.”
I had a momentary feeling of failure, and wondering if I should actually withdraw. But I thought about what she said (something about wondering if I had the right energy to do the show), and I realized that in all the rehearsals, whenever I’d make a mistake in lyrics or harmony or movement, I’d frown and show my harsh judgment of myself. And I realized that that is all I had been showing Julia for a week: frowns and head shakes, and looking out of synch; no wonder she was feeling worried.
We had our first stumble through of Act One that day; and I also worked with choreographer Bob Avian that morning, who gave me some needed encouragement. And so for the stumble through I made this conscious choice to perform my role, and to stop showing on my face every time I made a mistake. By luck we also had visitors that day to rehearsal, and I started to get laughs (which always relaxes me), and I suddenly got about 100 times better.
Afterward Julia gave me a hug, and I realized I wasn’t going to be fired. I don’t know if that day felt big to anyone else, but in retrospect I was so thrilled I figured out what I had been doing that was sabotaging myself.
I loved working with everyone. Stephen Collins I knew from his being so good in my off-Broadway Beyond Therapy. Michael Rupert I’d never worked with, but had admired him in his many roles, and especially his work in the William Finn Falsettos musicals. Rachel York was new to me, but I thought she was great, and really fun to be around too.
And I almost don’t have any good Julie Andrews stories because she’s just so nice and easy to be around. It became clear she liked being part of a small ensemble; that she didn’t want to think of herself starring in the show, she wanted to be in it with the rest of us.
I could also see her pleasure dealing with the sophistication and depth of Sondheim’s material. My character was left on-stage to watch Julie and Steve Collins do Country House every night, and how impressive it was to watch Julie and Steve do that musicalized domestic argument night after night. (This song is from the London version of Follies and is like a scene of domestic wrangling put to music, very engaging, moving.)
Somewhere in the middle of the run I reached that place that’s an awful lot of fun for a performer – I now knew my part well so the early nerves were gone, and we were no longer rehearsing because opening was behind us, and so I had my “time” back. And I’d sort of dawdle through the day, from time to time being struck with happy expectation, thinking, Oh I get to perform at the theatre later tonight. Sondheim songs, with Julie Andrews. Hmmm, what an unusual playwright’s life I’m leading….