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What's New on the Rialto

Interview with Douglas Sills
By Michael Portantiere

Douglas Sills
Photo by Dan Reichert.j
Douglas Sills will always be remembered and beloved by theatre lovers for his bravura performance as the star of the first incarnation of the Frank Wildhorn-Nan Knighton musical The Scarlet Pimpernel. His subsequent Broadway credits include Little Shop of Horrors, Living on Love, and War Paint. Of late, he has been spending time on your TV screen in "The Gilded Age," but his last stage appearance in New York was in the City Center Encores! production of Mack and Mabel in 2020.

So it will be great to have him back this weekend for three concert performances of The Frogs, a free adaptation of the Aristophanes comedy that was originally presented at Yale University–in the swimming pool there!–with a book by Burt Shevelove and songs by Stephen Sondheim, then was revised and expanded for a 2004 Lincoln Center Theater production that boasted Nathan Lane as both star and writing partner. Lane will host and narrate this weekend's presentation at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, featuring the MasterVoices chorus and a glittering cast, with Ted Sperling as director/musical director/conductor. I recently caught up with Douglas to talk Sondheim, etc.

Michael Portantiere:  You were part of the wonderful Sondheim Festival of shows at the Kennedy Center in 2002, as Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music. Now it almost seems like we're in the midst of a mini-Sondheim festival in New York, with Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway, Here We Are Off-Broadway, and The Frogs about to be presented at the Rose Theater. Can you talk a little bit about your previous Sondheim experience?

Douglas Sills:  Well, in college, I did Bobby in Company. Then I was in the first national tour of Into the Woods, and then I was cast as Booth in the very first revival of Assassins in 2001. We were about to go into rehearsals, but then the towers went down. Joe Mantello, the director, wanted to move forward, and I said: "Joe, you're not serious. Doing a show like Assassins right now?" Everyone was rigid with fear and ferocious anger. So they canceled it, and when they put it back up, I was in Little Shop, so I didn't end up doing it. Not that they would have necessarily asked me, I don't know. And then I did A Little Night Music.

MP:  That was such a great production, and I would say very special in that it was part of that amazing festival. Do you think you'll get a chance to see Here We Are?

DS:  Oh, for sure. I have to. I mean, if you're doing this for a living, you have to. But, of course, I also want to. When your colleagues who are so crazy talented are working, you want to see them do their thing, see how it looks, how they're maturing, and get inspiration from them.

MP:  What was your familiarity with The Frogs before you came to be involved with this concert presentation?

DS:  I'd heard of it. I knew it had sort of a bizarre history, and it was one of those pieces that only students of Sondheim or the theatre would be interested in.

MP:  Did you not see the Lincoln Center Theater production?

DS:  No, and I don't remember why not. I must have been out of town at the time.

MP:  You're playing Nathan Lane's role of Dionysus, and he co-wrote the version of the show that you're doing, plus he'll be hosting and narrating your concert. I don't want to use the word "intimidated," but do you feel ...

DS:  Of course! I'm a human being. Wouldn't you be intimidated? But it helps that we already had a friendly connection because of "The Gilded Age." Also, I did the tour of The Addams Family, which Nathan had done on Broadway. So we know each other, and we also have some very good friends in common, like Jerry Zaks. Nathan is so smart. I have such respect for him–as we all do in the business–and he doesn't carry it with any pretense. He's a real pro, and I like to think that I also approach things in a professional way. I knew he wouldn't expect me to "do" him, but to be my own version of the character in a way that's respectful of what he wrote.

The other thing is, since we have so little rehearsal time and only three performances, I don't have time to try things in front of an audience. So of course, I'm going to turn to him and ask, "What were you thinking here, what did you have in mind?" I think he's very aware of what the piece's flaws and strengths are, he has his own thoughts about what he wishes he had had time to do with the other production. But the show has such a wonderful pedigree–Stephen working with Burt Shevelove, and then Nathan coming on to work on a new version of it. Not to mention the original Greek author. So yes, I'm intimidated, but I try to let that go as much as I can.

MP:  I really enjoy one of the new songs that Sondheim wrote for the Lincoln Center production, "I Love to Travel." I think it's so jaunty and delightful, almost a throwback to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

DS:  Yes. And I'm told that the "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" in The Frogs ...

MP:  ... was originally written for ... Forum. Right!

DS:  In The Frogs, you'll hear chords, chord progressions, harmonies that are nobody else's but Stephen Sondheim's. At rehearsal, we've been laughing all the time as we hear things that sound like Company, Forum, and the other shows. It's like looking at a painting you don't know by an artist whose work you love, and you think, "Oh, there's where he does his funny little brush stroke." There's a song called "Ariadne." It's beautiful and challenging as heck, unexpected in the turns that it takes. This show can be sort of like a Hope and Crosby road picture at some points, but then you get to "Ariadne," and it's so passionate.

MP:  I have a friend who went to Yale in the mid-'70s, and he saw the original production there, which had Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang in the chorus.

DS:  And the Yale swim team! That's why college is important and liberal arts programs are important. You can just experiment, you can be crazy.

MP:  Anything else you'd like to share about rehearsing The Frogs?

DS:  Well, I think Ted Sperling has done extraordinary things with MasterVoices. He's really elevated them to doing these very unusual shows. And I want to give credit to my other colleagues. Getting to be on stage with Kevin Chamberlin, doing comedy stuff, and having the chance to kibbitz with Nathan about "Gilded Age" or Addams Family or Guys and Dolls. To be with Chuck Cooper, Marc Kudisch, Jordan Donica, Dylan Baker ... and, I mean, Peter Bartlett? Give me a break! So funny. It's been a joy, mitigated only by the ticking clock, because there's so little rehearsal time.

MP:  Can you talk about whatever direct interaction you had with Sondheim while working on his shows?

DS:  Well, during Into the Woods, he was in the room all the time. Sometimes, on national tours, the creators are really eager to be involved because maybe they didn't have the time to do everything they wanted to do on Broadway, and now they really want to get in there and futz with the show. So yes, Stephen was there all the time, and I remember his brother even came to rehearsal once. Looked just like him. I didn't really know he had a brother. I asked him, "What do you do for a living?"–and, of course, he was a nuclear physicist. Of course!

We got very specific instruction from Stephen for Into the Woods. He would say things like, "Just let the archetype possess you, and the character will be there. But if you start commenting on the archetype–if you're not comfortable with being a prince, and you start commenting on being a prince–that's not what we intended." Also, he was very specific about rhythm, down to a dotted sixteenth note. For Assassins, we only had one reading, and I didn't get to talk with him much that day. But during Night Music, we talked quite a bit. One time, he came into my dressing room and I just started peppering him with every question I'd always wanted to ask him, particularly about that show. I asked him, "Of everything you could pick to musicalize, why Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night? How did you two get together?" I mean, what was that like, Sondheim and Bergman in the same room? My God! We didn't talk about personal things at all; I was too nervous, and I knew our time was limited. I never did progress into his inner circle. I would have liked to, but that was not my destiny.

Doing this show is a great chance to meet Stephen again. The show has wonderful lyrics and twists that give it a very modern sensibility. For the people who come to see it–and it was sold out about a week ago–I think they'll really get a kick out of it.