A frog among princes

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Times Staff Writer

The cast of Stephen Sondheim’s “The Frogs” has assembled at the edge of a Lincoln Center stage. They are preparing to rehearse a new song for the show’s finale that Sondheim has just faxed over. The master himself is not in the theater, but his near-mystical authority is felt.

While the others, including the star of the show, Nathan Lane, anxiously mutter new verses to themselves, only funnyman Chris Kattan seems not to be paying attention. He should be figuring out how he’ll crunch the word “con-sci-en-tious” into three notes during his solo. Instead he’s fidgeting, looking around, pushing his cap back and forth -- and chewing. In fact, he’s been eating throughout the afternoon rehearsal, pulling pieces of a Power Bar out of his baggy pants pocket and popping them in his mouth, like a Pekingese dog gobbling treats.

Eventually, director-choreographer Susan Stroman calls to attention the cast of the musical, which is based on Aristophanes’ classic. Even though they’re performing before paid audiences in previews, the show is still undergoing major changes. But Stroman wants the new song performed that night. “We are not out of town in Philadelphia,” she says, coolly.


For the next half-hour the cast struggles through it. Finally, there is a break, and out of nowhere Kattan, his legs dangling off the end of the stage, blurts out lyrics from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

“You know that?” Stroman says in a tone more surprised than condescending.

“Yeah,” Kattan admits a little shyly. “I even know a bit from ‘Oliver.’ ”

As it turns out Kattan, a comedic pinup in television and film, won’t make it to Thursday’s opening night on that stage at Lincoln Center. Last Sunday morning, he received a phone call from Stroman informing him that he was being replaced by Roger Bart, whom both she and Lane had worked with in “The Producers.”

Kattan was told, he says, that his “articulation” on stage wasn’t clear and, more importantly, that he “didn’t speak the language of the theater.”

By Monday morning, before he’d had a chance to retrieve his belongings, they were delivered to his apartment in a paper bag marked “Mr. Kattan.” “At least when you leave prison,” he says, “they give you your stuff in Ziploc bags.”


Caught off guard

The departure of Chris Kattan from “The Frogs” could be turned into a sort of morality tale -- or fraught disaster movie.

After all, what could have been more promising and foolproof than to be summoned, as he was, from Hollywood to Broadway by some of its most dazzling citizenry -- multi-Tony winners Stroman and Lane, not to mention Sondheim? They invited him to take his first role on the stage.


In a phone interview early last week, Kattan insisted he had no hint he was about to be dismissed nor that Bart had attended a preview to scope out whether he’d be interested in joining the show.

“Usually before you get the divorce papers you have a discussion about the problems of the relationship,” Kattan says. “There was never a sit-down, let’s-talk-about-it session. It was just over.”

However, he acknowledges there were problems -- in his performance, in his pairing with Lane and in the production overall. He simply didn’t think it would come to an abrupt breakup.

In fact, his role had been continually reduced and marginalized during the weeks of rehearsals and previews, as the script was honed to keep the story line moving. Kattan was cast as Xanthias, the mutinous slave who is dragged along by his master, Dionysos, the god of drama and wine, on a perilous trip to Hades to bring back a dead writer who could save mankind.

The production is an adaptation of an oddball musical staged only eight times in 1974 by the Yale Repertory Theatre in and around the university’s swimming pool. That “Frogs,” which included then-unknowns Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang, was the creation of Sondheim and the late writer Burt Shevelove. The Aristophanes classic focuses on a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine who is the better artist to save mankind. In lieu of the ancients, the Yale production had a dialogue between George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare and a spicy 1960s political sensibility.

The new production has six additional Sondheim songs, spectacular Cirque du Soleil-like choreographed numbers and a lot of anti-Bush politics. But the basic 405 BC plot survives.


Lane not only headlines the show as Dionysos, he also adapted the 1974 libretto, a first-time experience for the veteran Broadway actor. Many of the jokes Lane scripted for the slave-sidekick were well-received by preview audiences. (Example: “My parents sold me into slavery because they desperately needed the money. They opened the first adult novelty shop in [Athens],” Xanthias says. “Basically, they sold condoms to the Trojans.”) But Kattan and Lane never seemed to establish an onstage chemistry. And the more Lane was focused on his role as writer -- or relentless rewriter, as the case may be -- the more Kattan “stopped having fun.”

“I thought I was being invited to do a Crosby and Hope, road-to-Hades-type show with lots of playful back-and-forth bits,” he says. “But by the end, it was more about Crosby than Hope.”

Even after so many of the “bits” Kattan liked were dropped, he says, he didn’t really complain. “This is not my world; this is Nathan’s baby, his stuff .... Everybody was saying how good I was about not speaking my mind,” he says. “Probably if I spoke up, I would have been gone sooner.”

It had never been a dream of the 33-year-old actor to appear on Broadway. But he came, and he was unprepared, by his own admission, when he ran headlong into the routine practice of the theater in which scripts, songs, monologues and even characters are tampered with -- often up to opening night. Though he was not in a position to challenge his more experienced colleagues, Kattan found the whole unremitting process, in his word, “unfair,” and certainly not altogether rational.

“I didn’t know this world, and now I do,” he says. “I had a great experience, and it’s not going to hurt my career. But to work in theater it helps to have been trained as a theater actor.”

Over the last several years television audiences have gotten to know Kattan for his stint on “Saturday Night Live.” As a cast member from 1996 to 2003, he built a career creating such signature characters as the ambi-sexual male stripper Mango, monkey-boy Mr. Peepers and one of the head-bopping Butabi brothers that evolved (or some might say devolved) into the feature film “A Night at the Roxbury.” And although Kattan did start in legit theater with the celebrated Los Angeles improvisational troupe the Groundlings, he made his name in front of a camera.


So it was difficult to understand what this recruit was doing on a Playbill with such Brahmans of Broadway as Sondheim, Stroman and Lane. But Broadway and London’s West End have long attempted to infuse themselves with fresh talent from television, movies and, more recently, hip-hop with Sean “Puffy” Combs performing in “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Some have the gift and make the leap easily into the new medium. Others such as Madonna and Farrah Fawcett, who each fled the stage after bombing in short-lived performances, find themselves out of their element. Still others end up in already-troubled shows and have to contend not only with their inexperience but with difficulties around them. Last year, Ashley Judd had to continue to perform in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with a costar who publicly questioned her ability. Stage veteran Ned Beatty told the local paper that while Judd was a nice-enough person she was not up to the challenge of acting on Broadway.

Indeed, Kattan seemed like an odd choice to put on a stage for two-plus hours, eight performances a week, in front of 1,200 people who, at least initially, would be quintessential high-culture New Yorkers -- the Lincoln Center subscribers.

But in an interview before she took him out of the show, Stroman had defended the casting of the young comic, saying his contrasting style to Lane’s and impressive improvisational skills, which come in handy in any comedic pairing, were exactly what made him perfect for the part.

Stroman and Lane had considered more-experienced New York comedians for the role. But at the suggestion of a casting director, Kattan was flown in from Los Angeles in December for a tryout. He sang the opening number (admittedly not very well), then read a scene with Lane. They did a wonderful job “tossing the lines back and forth,” Stroman said.

“Chris’ rough edges add to his character as the slave,” she said. “Nathan performs with that upper-class English diction, and Chris has the flat American voice. This whole play is about the importance of language, of our leaders to understand the power of their words, and this contrast sets up the theme.”


However, she also hinted that Kattan had been struggling, if not valiantly, to understand the culture of the theater. (She declined, through a spokesman, to be reinterviewed after she had dismissed Kattan. Lane also declined to be interviewed for the story.)

“He’s like my Eliza Doolittle,” she had said with a laugh. “He will now be able to apply ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain’ to everything he does in the rest of his career.”

Kattan admits the most difficult part of his learning curve was understanding how to broaden his performance to reach an audience spread around and above him.

“You have to connect to those people in the balcony and let them know you’re performing for them,” he says. “We have to let them eavesdrop on our scene. It can’t be so intimate, the way it is with a camera.”


The urge to improvise

The uncertainties of performing on Broadway -- and reinventing his image -- were precisely what initially attracted Kattan to “The Frogs.” “You can only do so many ‘Wayne’s Worlds’ and Mangos,” he says. After doing three-minute “SNL” skits, he had the time on stage to “breathe. And the audience can breathe with me,” he said during rehearsals. “That’s what I really love. This shows I really am a performer.”

Still, the transition was trying, even for a physical comedian as skilled as Kattan. The role had forced him to enter the completely alien universe of musical theater. And not only couldn’t he sing, he knew nothing of the etiquette of the stage -- like the fact that nobody eats during rehearsals and that it was important to show up not a minute late. Early on, Stroman had advised him “to lay off the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” once previews started. It was a concern far from necessary, he said, but he understood why she had stereotyped him. “If anyone in this cast was going to be that guy, it was me,” Kattan says.


Though his improvisational training distinguished him from the many Tony winners and Broadway traditionalists in the cast, his background also made sticking to the script a challenge. “I know my lines and I say them, but sometimes it’s nice to put a little relish around the hot dog,” he said. He seemed astounded that every time he forgot or changed a line, he had to rehearse the whole scene top to bottom the next day.

When asked if he’d perhaps added too much “relish” to some performances, a possible explanation for why he was replaced, Kattan laughed.

“Nooooo,” he says. “Listen, if I had done something terrible on stage -- if I had started being Martin Lawrence in a sketch and tore up a picture of the pope -- then I could understand why I got bagged. But I didn’t.”

A few scenes did call for Kattan to improvise. During the opening song, “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” a catchy number that has gone through several incarnations, Lane sang while Kattan mimed along. In one verse, the audience is implored not to use cellphones. Of course, Kattan, playing the naughty slave, had one in his pocket and, of course, it started ringing. At each performance, Kattan took a “call” from a different person. One night, it was the Olsen twins. Nobody laughed. But on another night, the theater cracked up when the caller turned out to be Bill Clinton, and Xanthias thanked him for sending over his new book so nicely wrapped. “In my world,” Kattan says, “they’d have laughed at the Olsens.”

Not only did Kattan have to figure out how to get comfortable -- really to fit in -- with such an august audience and Broadway crew, he also had to take instructions from perhaps the most prized and analyzed composer of the 20th century. There was only so much guidance Sondheim could offer Kattan on how to carry a tune. “I sang one song and Sondheim turned to me and said, ‘You know, just speak that part.’ I said, ‘Like Richard Burton in “Camelot?” ’ He said ‘No. Just speak it.’ ”


Moving on

Ultimately, Kattan seemed not only embarrassed by losing his role but upset about losing the opportunity to work around so many immensely talented people. And even though he was not happy with how Stroman dismissed him -- by phone instead of in person -- he talked about how “amazing” it was to observe the celebrated choreographer working, particularly with the show’s dancers, and referred to her as a “sweetheart.” He’d also someday like to join up again with Lane, he says.


But he remains skeptical of how audiences will receive “The Frogs,” especially if changes and rewriting continue to occur. Before he returns to Los Angeles this week, he plans to attend a performance to watch his replacement transform into what had been his role because “I’m curious how he’ll do the part.”

“I know he does a lot of gay characters, and I was not playing Xanthias gay,” Kattan says of Bart, who received a Tony nomination for playing the gay assistant Carmen Ghia in “The Producers” and received positive notices for his role as a cynical gay partner who turns robotic in the film “The Stepford Wives.”

Early on, Kattan says, the script contained a couple of gay innuendos. “I wanted to be different from that and [Stroman and Lane] knew that coming in,” says Kattan, who has not only been eager to shed flamboyant characters like Mango but also false rumors that he is gay.

Kattan’s flameout on Broadway has clearly made him eager to get back to Hollywood. He has written a screenplay titled “El Romantico” with former “SNL” writer Matt Piedmont that has been bought by Fox Searchlight. He also has a deal with Fox to do a television series.

“I’m sad about leaving ‘The Frogs’ because of all the people,” he says. “But I’m also kind of relieved. Who knows, this week I would have gotten another note saying something was cut again, that bit that got the laughs.

“Now I can go back to doing my stuff and being funny and physical and not have to speak the language of the theater.”



Geraldine Baum can be contacted at