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MasterVoices Puts on a Starry Show With a Shoestring Budget

There’s a lot of Stephen Sondheim in New York at the moment: the premiere staging of his last musical, “Here We Are,” and star-studded revivals of “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway.

And for one weekend this month, there was also one more show of his on: “The Frogs.”

This endearingly weird, Aristophanes-inspired musical — created with Burt Shevelove and famously premiered at a Yale University swimming pool in 1974 — hasn’t been onstage in New York since a heavily revised 2004 revival that Sondheim conceived with Nathan Lane, who also performed the role of Dionysos.

Few local institutions have the skill or interest to pull off “The Frogs” — with its bookish references and ironic-then-impassioned music — but it’s typical, delightful fare for MasterVoices and its artistic director, Ted Sperling, who mounted and conducted a concert staging of the musical at the Rose Theater. (Lane was there, too, now as a host guiding the audience through the show.)

MasterVoices, a nonprofit chorus that mounts theatrical productions of seldom heard repertoire, lends its performances generously sized orchestras, a rarity on Broadway, as well as its chorus, which for “The Frogs” consisted of an all-volunteer group of 130 singers. Sondheim’s ensemble material was in moments gleefully tongue-in-cheek, as when extolling Dionysos with a lightly psychedelic, 1960s-style tune; at others, it sounded genuinely serious about the role of art in wartime.

Nathan Lane, who conceived a revised version of “The Frogs” with Sondheim in the early 2000s, returned to the show with MasterVoices.Credit…Erin Baiano

Sperling had a command of this material befitting his experience: His first professional gig in New York, after college, was as a rehearsal pianist for Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” (He also played synthesizer on the original cast recording: “All that harpsichord-sounding stuff is me,” he said with a self-effacing laugh during a recent interview.)

In that conversation, shortly after the three-performance run of “The Frogs,” Sperling discussed how MasterVoices — previously known as the Collegiate Chorale — approaches its adaptations of rarely heard material.

For starters, this scrappy organization can attract top talent like Lane because “we’re only asking them for two weeks of their time,” Sperling said, “not asking them to commit to a year’s run on Broadway.” As a result, “we are able to present all kinds of pieces that I don’t think other people can right now.”

MasterVoices has independence and pluck: It managed to stay active during the pandemic by producing an online adaptation of Adam Guettel’s cult favorite song cycle “Myths and Hymns.” It has collaborated with the New York Philharmonic, as when it offered a thrilling performance of the Italian modernist Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Il Prigioniero” in 2013.

At New York City Center in 2019, the group and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s put on an intoxicating performance of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s rarely heard “Lady in the Dark.”

That range is a legacy of the original Collegiate Chorale — a group that, at its 1941 founding, was one of the first racially integrated classical ensembles. “Even the very early programs that I’ve been able to take a look at start with Bach and end with a Broadway tune,” Sperling said. “The DNA of the group has always been to try to be the people’s chorus, and something that represented a large swath of our community and that would have a broad appeal.”

In recent seasons, I’ve heard MasterVoices give witty, precise accounts of George Gershwin’s political parody “Let ’Em Eat Cake” and Bizet’s original, comic opera version of “Carmen.” Any organization that can do justice to such a wide range of material has my immediate affection. But I’m far from the only fan: The “Frogs” run was sold out.

But should more people have the opportunity to see them sing? The chorus’s budget for this season — in which they’ll also present Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” next April — stands at a slight $1.9 million. Sperling, who is in his 10th year with the group, has some ideas of what he would do with more money, beyond simply expanding the number of performances.

“I’d love to have a family of young singers who are professionals — and expert — who could be the backbone of our choral sound, and also step out and do smaller solo work,” he said. “And maybe also help us spread the joy of choral singing in our community, by being teaching artists.”

The MasterVoices chorus is made up of volunteer singers, 130 of whom performed in “The Frogs.”Credit…Erin Baiano

Sperling wouldn’t mind a permanent home, either. In recent years, MasterVoices has bounced around from New York City Center to Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center, often renting spaces on its own. For “The Frogs,” Sperling noted, the crew loaded into the Rose Theater on Friday morning, just in time for a performance that evening. “I’d love to have a little more rehearsal time for everything we do,” he said. “It always seems like we’re doing it at the very edge of what we’re capable of.”

Given those constraints, the group’s capability is all the more impressive. The MasterVoices version of Weill’s “Lady” included an updated book by Chris Hart and Kim Kowalke; that version has since been used in a celebrated production of the musical in the Netherlands. And because New York doesn’t have a comic opera company, MasterVoices fills a crucial, consistently entertaining niche. “I love that we can present these pieces that would not sustain a commercial Broadway run,” Sperling said, “or might not even fit in the opera house, necessarily, right now.”

He added that he would like to add more projects to the season, which could raise MasterVoices’ visibility. They wouldn’t have to be at the scale of “The Frogs,” either: “I’d be interested in doing some smaller pieces that are part of that repertoire that I’m so eager to bring back to New York.”

That might include William Bolcom’s early musical “Casino Paradise,” whose original production Sperling worked on. But, given the flexibility and inventiveness of MasterVoices, the possibilities are extensive.

“I feel like there are a lot of operas out there that have been extremely popular around the country but have not found a home in New York yet,” Sperling said. “I’m on a mission to find out which ones of those would be a good fit for us.”

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