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Frozen Revenge

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In the Sunday, October 31st publication of the New York Times Book Review, the singer-composer, Paul Simon, wrote a front page review of a book by the lyricist-composer, Stephen Sondheim, called Finishing the Hat. It quoted some miffed reactions by Sondheim to a show we did together with Burt Shevelove in 1974 at the Yale Repertory Theatre --Aristophanes' The Frogs. Naturally, I replied to this review, but for some reason, my letter was not published by the New York Times. In the interests of journalistic accuracy (not to mention reflexive self-defensiveness), I am reprinting it here:

They say that revenge is a dish that tastes better cold. Stephen Sondheim's long-delayed recriminations over the thirty-six year old Yale production of The Frogs suggest that this musical giant prefers his revenge frozen. In Paul Simon's review of Finishing the Hat, he cites Sondheim's "delicious" dismissal of me as an "academic amateur," because of the way I produced the show at Yale. If the founding of two repertory theatre companies, and fifty-seven years as an actor, director, and playwright, are not sufficient professional credentials, then I promise to devote my remaining years to supervising high school productions of Our Town. It is true that I was not happy with the 1974 Yale production of The Frogs, for which Sondheim wrote the music (I much preferred the livelier Nathan Lane version and said so in a subsequent New Republic review). But that was because what I had commissioned of Burt Shevelove in 1974 was a version of the Aristophanes adaptation he had done in the Yale swimming pool as an undergraduate in the 20's -- an after-season classic comic lark, not a Broadway musical.

Sondheim's belated participation in our undertaking, by Shevelove's request, turned the whole event into a commercial juggernaut, for which we had neither the funds nor the appetite. By the time we opened, the show had an acting company of eighteen, a singing and dancing chorus of twenty-eight, a swimming chorus of eighteen, an orchestra of twelve, and a backstage support group of thirty-five. Sondheim and Shevelove, moreover, wanted me to fire two key members of our professional acting company, Jeremy Geidt and Anthony Holland, and although replacing actors is a common enough procedure when things get overheated on Broadway, it can be dermoralizing to a collective enterprise built on mutual trust. Shevelove and Sondheim, furthermore, wanted to rehearse our actors on Sunday, the company day off, and were demanding two consecutive twelve-hour days for technical rehearsals when the League of Resident Theatres contract limits resident companies to one.

I regret I didn't have the guts to cancel the whole enterprise, and confessed my remorse, while describing the process that led up to it, in my memoir, Making Scenes (1980). But what was at stake was not a clash between amateurism and professionalism, as Sondheim would have it -- the show was packed with accomplished artists and performers, among them Larry Blyden, Carmen de Lavallade, and Michael ("Got to get the doughnuts") Vale -- not to mention a chorus that included Meryl Streep. Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang, and other gifted students of the drama school. What was at stake was a conflict between two incompatible systems, the commercial and the non-profit, which is going on to this day.