THE SUMMER OF FROG – How a grand musical for 35 performers became a better musical for 6.

Version 2

The summer of ’84 I stayed home alone in Berlin while my parents left on vacation.  It was my choice to spend the six week break between my junior and senior high school year spending 8-14 hours every day working on writing the arrangements for a 15 piece orchestra for my musical Once Upon a Frog.  I had been told that without these orchestrations Once Upon a Frog would not be considered as the John F. Kennedy School’s next English language musical production.  I might as well have been told if I managed to pick all the lentils out the ashes I would be allowed to go to the ball.  The promise was an empty one, but I didn’t think about that and sacrificed my summer to write orchestrations that would never be played.

I have already written about growing up in West-Berlin, Germany, loving musicals and participating in the musical productions at the German-American school I attended.  Shortly before my 15th birthday I started writing a musical of my own, Once Upon a Frog.  Within a few months I’d invited our school’s drama director Mr. Bishop and the current music director for school musicals Mr. Poland to my home and, with the help of my opera singer mother, performed some of the songs from Once Upon a Frog for them, in hopes of winning them over to the idea of it being performed on John F. Kennedy School’s main stage, much the same way the high school had put on Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma previously.

I was writing a show suitable for our school stage, with lots of leading solo singing parts (ten, I recall) and a big chorus, to provide students with as many performing opportunities as possible, just as previous musical productions had done.  There tended to be a total of about 35 cast members on stage each time JFKS put on a musical.  High School musical productions were my whole world.  I lived for them, performed in them, made my friends in them.  It was my highest aspiration at the time that a musical I created would be produced at the John F. Kennedy School.

Version 3Mr. Bishop offered to meet with me regularly to help work on the script of Once Upon a Frog.  By the time I had completed a piano/vocal score and libretto I was in 11th grade, and a new teacher had been hired to act as music director for JFK S’ musical productions.  This was Mr. M– .  I would rather not give his full name.

Mr. Bishop told me we would need Mr. M– to agree to put on Once Upon a Frog as the school’s next musical in my senior year.  So I told Mr. M– about my show and offered to play or give him the score.  Mr. M– told me he could not consider doing Once Upon a Frog unless it could be done with the same kind of full orchestra we had just used for our most recent musical production South Pacific.  That had been a 15 piece orchestra: flute, three clarinets, alto saxophone, two trumpets, trombone, percussion, piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass.  Mr. M– told me I would have to provide him with a fully orchestrated score before he could even consider whether to agree to music direct Once Upon a Frog.

Now, can we just sit back and raise our eyebrows at the unreasonableness of this demand?  No Broadway producer, or theatrical professional of any stripe, demands to see a fully orchestrated score to evaluate a musical’s viability.  They look at the script.  They look at a piano/vocal score.  Heck, most Broadway musicals are not even orchestrated by the composers themselves.  Even granting the importance Mr. M– placed on leading a 15 piece orchestra during the high school musical performances, the ethical thing to do would have been to evaluate Once Upon a Frog’s script and songs, make a preliminary yes or no decision and, if it’s a yes, then deal with the issue of orchestrations.

It is now obvious to me that Mr. M– had no intention of music directing a student written musical regardless of its quality.   But he also didn’t want to be the one to say no.  He figured it was highly unlikely a 17 year old would write out orchestrations for a 15 piece orchestra for a full length musical with nearly 20 songs, all by himself.  As unlikely as picking a bowl’s worth of lentils out of a heap of ashes.  I would fail on my own and the question would be moot.  He wouldn’t need to say no.

I should have realized what was going on.  And perhaps deep down in my subconscious I did.  But I hadn’t yet learned to doubt Mr. M– .  He had just started his first year at JFKS and had dazzled everybody with his enthusiasm and charisma; the cracks in his character, that would ultimately disappoint not only me, would reveal themselves over time (and he would ultimately not last long at JFKS, to be succeeded by Mr. McLean).  I don’t even remember if I discussed the specifics of my conversation with Mr. M– with anyone else back then.  What I thought was, I needed to produce a fully orchestrated score, and that would lead to Once Upon a Frog being performed at my school.

So I didn’t go on vacation to Austria with my parents.  I stayed in our home in Berlin and put myself on a work schedule calculated to get me to complete the orchestrations during the six weeks the German school calendar provided for summer recess.  I gave myself two days per song.  I allowed three days for the really long and difficult ones.  Depending on how much I figured I needed to do to stay on schedule I would work up to 14 hours on certain days.  I wrote in pencil in green scoring notebooks I purchased at a local music store.  Writing for instruments like clarinet, alto sax or viola – whose notes must be written in a different key or clef than the “regular” instruments – was tricky, but I figured it out somehow.  I didn’t know yet how to write for percussion, so I left that staff blank for the time being.  But before this reads too much like a woeful litany I should add that I mostly remember it being a rather pleasant summer.  The weather was good and I spent many days working out back in the garden.  I had the house to myself.  I occasionally saw the few friends who also hadn’t left for summer vacation (as most people in Berlin do) so I wasn’t too lonely.  No, the depression wouldn’t hit until later.

Version 2When the new school year arrived and with it Mr. M– ‘s deadline for receiving the orchestrations, I arranged to drop them off at his apartment.  I remember the somewhat nonplussed expression on his face when I handed him a heavy plastic bag with a large stack of green notebooks – the Once Upon a Frog 15 piece orchestra arrangements.  I had done my part of the deal, now he needed to decide whether Once Upon a Frog would be the next English language musical at our school the following March.  But we never agreed upon a date by when this decision would be made.  And we would never speak about Once Upon a Frog again until the end of the school year.

That fall I was cast as the lead in the school production of the German operetta Frau Luna.  Herr Pfeiffer directed, as he did all the German language plays at JFKS.  Mr. M– was music director.  Although we were constantly in close contact, the subject of Once Upon a Frog was never raised between us.  Why did I not actively pester or at least nicely remind him about it? Did I already intuit which way the wind was blowing (over the lentils in the ashes – OK, I’ll stop with that metaphor now…)?   Mr. M– was avoiding me best he could under the circumstances, scheduling music rehearsals with me only when we were working on trios or duets with other cast members, but not working with me on any of my solos.  When I complained about not rehearsing my solos he lost his temper with me.  I wound up learning my solos on my own with my mother’s help.

And I got depressed.  By November 1984 I had lost hope that Mr. M– would okay producing Once Upon a Frog.  Mr. Bishop noticed me moping about the school hallways.  He told me he could see I was very depressed and asked me why.  And for the first time I articulated out loud that I didn’t believe Mr. M– would approve Once Upon a Frog.  Mr. Bishop thought for a moment, then promised me that Once Upon a Frog would be produced at the school this year, one way or another.  My depression lifted almost immediately.

Within a day Mr. Bishop told me Once Upon a Frog would not be the English language school musical that March but that he could give me dates in June to produce the musical then.  He would co-produce, arranging for the auditorium for final rehearsals and performances and for making empty classrooms available for rehearsals until then.  There would also be a small budget for sets and costume rentals and the such.  The rest would be up to me.  No teachers would direct or music direct, this would be for the most part, a student lead production.

Version 2I quickly transitioned into a whole new reality for Once Upon a Frog.  There was no way it was going to be a full-scale show with 10 leads and a large chorus.  That would be too much for me to handle on my own.  I had to rethink the piece.  I could envision myself directing (and music-directing) if I had a small cast and decided that six was a manageable number, three boys, three girls.  Which meant that all cast members would have to play leads, even two or three leads, and double as the chorus as well.  The whole show would have to be rewritten and rescaled from a Once Upon a Mattress kind of big cast musical fairy tale to a smaller group-of-friends-put-on-a-show kind of musical fairy tale like The Fantasticks.

I ended up enlisting six friends of mine to play versions of themselves putting on a show called Once Upon a Frog.  Some songs from the original large cast version got cut, but other songs that were originally written as birthday gifts to two of my friends ended up being added to the score.  I figured I would use only piano accompaniment, but then lamented losing a lot of secondary musical phrases the piano part alone wouldn’t be able to cover.  So new orchestrations for a smaller group of musicians (flute, clarinet, trombone, cello and two violins), were written for most of the score and were also played by students (unlike the US army band members that generally populated the school musical orchestras).  I was helped with the laborious work of writing out the individual instrumental parts by my mother, some school chums and the music teacher Mr. Hepner, who was after all the man who suggested that I turn my children’s book into a musical and thus instigated this whole odyssey in the first place.

Once Upon a Frog now existed on two levels – the performers trying to put on a show, and the fairy tale story of the show within the show – which made this new revised version a more clever, looser, funnier musical.  Actors playing two characters wound up playing dramatic scenes with themselves.  Performers would interrupt scenes they “disapproved of” or insert comical commentary on the story or musicals in general.  Plot twists were forced upon the ensemble because of missing costume pieces (the same actor played the extra-terrestrial Prince Charming and the unsuitable suitor Prince Waldemar; when Charming’s costume goes missing, Princess Marianne is almost forced to marry Waldemar; during one performance a concerned audience member helpfully tried to point out where the crucial costume piece had been mislaid).

Once Upon a Frog turned from charming but superficial fairy tale family musical into an affectionate, multi-leveled love letter to classic musical comedy.  Everything I had learned and loved about musicals got wrapped up in this pocket-sized but much richer version of Once Upon a Frog.

So perhaps I should thank Mr. M– for forcing me to rewrite and thus create this improved version of Once Upon a Frog.

No.  I’ll thank Mr. Bishop for making it possible.  For all I know he would not have wanted to direct the original version of Once Upon a Frog either, but he made a promise to me that the show would go on one way or another and he made sure I had the support I needed to accomplish that goal.  He mentored me while I was writing the libretto and he helped give life to my dream of seeing my musical performed at my school.  And because of that accomplishment, because the project I had worked on for over three years was allowed to come to fruition, I have had the courage to keep on writing and producing musicals.  Mr. Bishop was a great teacher who encouraged a student’s creativity and gave it a platform to grow and flourish.

Mr. M– on the other hand… the next time we had an exchange about Once Upon a Frog was sometime shortly before the performances in June.  I called to arrange to pick up the stack of orchestrations I had dropped off with him at the start of the school year last fall.  These orchestrations for a 15 piece orchestra had long become obsolete, but I wanted them back.  When I arrived he opened the door to his apartment and handed me the plastic bag with the big stack of green music notebooks.  Then without much further ado the door was closed.  I looked at the neat stack in the plastic bag.  It looked just like it had when I gave the orchestrations to Mr. M– many months earlier.  I am absolutely certain that he never even took out and examined one notebook.

One of the first three pages of

One of the first three pages of “Goatface – Rubberball”, one of the Summer ’84 song orchestrations for Once Upon a Frog. I haven’t seen this in over 30 years. My mother found some of the notebooks stashed away in a drawer of old photo albums and emailed me these three photos.

frog 2

frog 3

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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2 Responses to THE SUMMER OF FROG – How a grand musical for 35 performers became a better musical for 6.

  1. earlhilton@aol.com says:

    What a great story! Thanks, Mim

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rebecc1 says:

    Mr. Bishop was a wonderful teacher! I had no talent for acting, but had to take his class to get the extra English credit because of my year abroad, and I still remember how inspiring he was. He spent so much extra out of class time on the various performances, too. Go, Iowa!

    Like

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