Comfort Classics: Alexandra Sills

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Alexandra Sills

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

It’s an adaptation of an ancient source, actually. I have great affection for the Sondheim/Shevelove musical theatre adaptation of Aristophanes’ Frogs.

When did you first come across this adaptation?

I started learning piano at the age of five, and was thankfully good at it. I was lucky enough to have great teachers and a lot of musical after school programmes, so by ten I was a multi instrumentalist in every choir, band and orchestra I had time to take part in. By my teens I was a full blown theatre kid. I performed in musicals and concerts on stage, or joined pit orchestras and generally immersed myself in music because it gave me more of a sense of community than my love of ancient history did. My schools never had ancient history programmes either, so I spent far more time with Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar than I did with the Oresteia or Thesmophoriazusae.

After watching Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the movie of Sweeney Todd back in 2007, I went online to find the soundtrack. The website suggested other Sondheim recordings and among the better known Into the Woods and Company soundtracks, I saw a thumbnail of a frog sitting on a vaguely Greek-looking vase. I was thrilled!

All of these years later and I’m not performing anymore, but I am finally getting to spend some quality time with 5th century dramatists as a mature student. I took a really fantastic Katabasis course last year and listened to the score again with renewed appreciation as I wrote an essay on the play!

Can you tell me a bit about this version and its context?

Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove adapted Aristophanes’ play in 1974. They had already had a smash hit with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the 60s, inspired by the comedies of Plautus. Shevelove had already adapted Frogs as a play in the 40s, and roped in Sondheim to see if they could refashion his script into a musical. It was first performed at Yale, where Shevelove was teaching at the School of Drama. What I really love is that the show was performed in Yale’s swimming pool; Charon really did row Dionysus across the Styx whilst the Yale swim team became the titular frogs. Also, the chorus featured students Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver!

The musical followed the play really closely, with Sondheim writing music and lyrics for songs that corresponded with the songs of the Greek chorus. The main difference is that Euripides is swapped out for George Bernard Shaw and Aeschylus is now replaced with Shakespeare.

In 1979 Nathan Lane found a copy of the libretto in a second hand bookstore and was intrigued. He finally performed the show in concert in 2000 for Sondheim’s 70th birthday, recording it a year later. After 9/11, Lane kept thinking of how the ancient play was so relevant to contemporary America, and wanted to see if he could expand the one act show into a two act musical. Sondheim agreed to write more songs, and the musical opened on Broadway in 2004. It was the recording of Lane’s version that I first discovered.

Whilst most people know snippets of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods, Frogs remains a bit niche and probably won’t ever get a star studded movie adaptation, but it is a hidden treasure.  The most famous number is probably the opening number – Invocation and Instructions for the Audience – that is often used to open concerts of musical theatre favourites, such as this performance at The Royal Albert Hall with Simon Russell Beale and Daniel Evans:

What is it about this adaptation that appeals to you most?

That it’s a genuinely funny musical that I think Aristophanes would genuinely approve of. Reading ancient comedies, particularly for study, can sometimes feel a little dry. Seeing The Frogs on stage makes so much difference, and for me the musical is far funnier than other plays that I’ve seen. It’s so easy to forget that Greek drama had musical accompaniments and songs, and this show demonstrates how comedic a song can be. The show packs in the jokes both in the songs and the libretto. Broadway enthusiasts can appreciate the updated jokes about theatre, but there are still plenty of Classics jokes scattered throughout which I really appreciate. And the frogs still chant brekekekex!

I was lucky enough to see a rare production in 2017 at the Jermyn St Theatre which was a really fantastic show. Charon was a weed-addled ex-rocker and Pluto was a tiny Scottish dominatrix.  Judging by who laughed at which jokes, I’d guess that most people were there for Sondheim over Aristophanes, but the audience were laughing the entire time and gave a standing ovation. I loved that an ancient play was still bringing people joy.

I’ve only read Aristophanes in translation, so any clever wordplay in the original Greek is lost on me; thankfully Sondheim is a modern master of English and his lyrics are virtuosic. He writes the type of songs that get better with repeated listens, as you catch a new rhyme or pun each time. It’s not what I would classify as easy-listening – a friend once described Sondheim musicals as what one graduates to when one grows out of Lloyd Webber – but incredibly rewarding.

That said, my favourite song doesn’t have Sondheim’s lyrics. The agon is all spoken until Shakespeare delivers his final, winning contribution: 

So in this number, we have the plot of Aristophanes, the gorgeous music of Sondheim and Shakespeare’s Fear No More the Heat o’the Sun from Cymbeline, a beautiful blend of a peerless theatrical triumvirate. I often find myself humming it when I visit ancient theatres.

I dream of convincing some of my old AmDram friends to stage a production in a swimming pool, a la the original 1974 show, though admittedly Sondheim complained that the acoustics were akin to singing in a urinal. In the meantime, the soundtrack is available to stream or download pretty much everywhere and includes quite a lot of the dialogue.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I still try to fill life with as much music as possible. I travel as much as I can afford to visit ruins, so I’m dabbling in photography to keep a record of all I get to see. I’m a tour guide by trade, at the moment as a freelancer in the City of London. Writing and leading tours is one of my greatest joys, from research and writing scripts to the adrenaline of a tour itself, which is by nature as much performance and entertainment as educational. A good tour is an amazing adrenaline rush. During lockdown, though, you’ll usually find me watching Mischief Theatre or BBC’s Ghosts on loop with my little girl Imogen, who is startlingly bright and absolutely hilarious. She wants to be an archaeologist.

Alexandra has been a tour guide for nearly twenty years before recently grabbing the chance to formally study the ancient world at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is interested in Greek sport and Roman spectacle, particularly their reception.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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