On November 3, MasterVoices opens its 2023-24 season at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater with a concert staging of Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove’s The Frogs. Inspired by the eponymous play by the famed playwright of ancient Athens, Aristophanes—known as “the Father of Comedy”—the musical was “freely adapted” by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim in 1974 and “even more freely adapted” by Nathan Lane and Sondheim for its 2004 staging at Lincoln Center Theater. The script has been further adapted by Nathan Lane for MasterVoices’ concert performances.
In the ancient play, Dionysos, god of wine and theater, travels to the underworld with his servant Xanthias to find the world’s best playwright, who will inspire and save mankind. On their journey, the two come across many well-known mythic characters. About the musical adaptation, Nathan Lane writes: “Back in 1974 Burt Shevelove’s Dionysos was driven to do something to revitalize the contemporary theater and he travelled to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw, who eventually debated Shakespeare, and Shakespeare won, as Shakespeare usually does. I thought that made for a terrific pairing, especially since Shaw had written so much criticism on Shakespeare.”
Celebrating his tenth season as MasterVoices’ Artistic Director, Ted Sperling directs and conducts the 120–member MasterVoices chorus, an eighteen-piece orchestra, and an all-star cast. I am thankful that he took the time to answer my questions. I extend my gratitude to Nathan Lane—who will host the performances and provide narration—for sending me a comment on the relevance of the play and the musical today.
Nathan Lane (Photo Courtesy of MasterVoices)
Nathan Lane: Both the original play and the musical were meant to be both theatrical entertainment and a way for Aristophanes to speak to the people in a political way. Whether it’s the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, the Vietnam war in the seventies, the Iraq war in 2004, or the current war in the Middle East, this piece will always try to speak to our better angels to participate in the process and “find men of worth” to guide us in times of trouble. Sadly, times we often find ourselves in.
Ted, how did you decide to open this season with “The Frogs”?
Ted Sperling: The original FROGS was written during a period when Greece was engaged in an existential battle, and the Athenians needed both comic relief and inspiration. I have to pick our repertoire a year in advance, but I had a feeling that this piece would speak to our current situation and mood; boy, was I right! I have a long history of working on Sondheim shows, and this is one I’ve always been fascinated with, but had not had a chance to perform until now.
Ted Sperling (Photo by Laura Marie Duncan)
How do you think the original play and the musical adaptation are relevant to what is happening today in the world? Would you say that the musical adaptation is even more attuned to our times?
The expansion and adaptation that Nathan and Sondheim did in 2004 was very much inspired by the Bush presidency, and the war with Iraq. Today we have the memory of an even more chaotic presidency, and we’re involved with two wars that are rocking the foundation of what we thought the world is now. The play ends with the lyrics, “Don’t shovel what’s uncomfortable underneath the rug. Speak up! Get sore! Do something more than just deplore.” Through a lot of humor, I hope the message of the show will come through.
What do you hope that audiences will get out of these performances? Would you recommend that they read the original play before?
I hope the audience has a lot of fun! And also leaves the theater unexpectedly moved. I don’t think it’s necessary at all to do any research before coming.
How does this opening set the stage for MasterVoices’ 2023-24 season?
Well, we always try to bring pieces to our audiences that wouldn’t be seen or heard otherwise. THE FROGS is definitely in that tradition, it hasn’t been done in NYC for nearly twenty years. It has very sophisticated music and words, and I hope touches both the mind and the heart. We have two very different programs scheduled for later in the season, but I hope that the audiences that come to the FROGS will take the leap (pun intended) and join us for other programs that they might know less about.
The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim , Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane.
November 3 at 8 p.m.
November 4 at 2 p.m.
November 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Top artwork by Owen Gent