With Nathan Lane’s Help, Sondheim’s ‘Frogs’ Finally Has Legs

One way to look at ‘The Frogs,’ which is being presented in a two-night run at Jazz at Lincoln Center by Mastervoices, is that this is a story that has required almost two and a half millennia for dramatists to get it right.

Toby Tenenbaum
In rehearsal, Douglas Sills and Kevin Chamberlain are feted by 'The Frogs.' Toby Tenenbaum

‘The Frogs’
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall
Through November 4

Dionysis: “The time is the present. The place is ancient Greece.”

Xanthias: “Already I’m confused.”

The dialog is between the ancient Greek god of drama and wine (“A little wine gets you through a lot of drama” is one of his sayings in this piece) and his slave, Xanthias, who says he prefers the term “personal assistant,” but the place and the period shouldn’t be confusing: “The Frogs” transpires in a kind of null space, beyond the reaches of both time and geography.

One way to look at “The Frogs,” which is being presented in a two-night run at Jazz at Lincoln Center by Mastervoices, is that this is a story that has required almost two and a half millennia for dramatists to get it right. The original incarnation, by Aristophanes, was presented at the Festival of Dionysus in Athens, in 405 b.c. Although at the time plays were usually performed only once, “The Frogs” has had a remarkable afterlife.

“The Frogs” is an example of “old comedy,” which had more to do with gods and goddesses, broad concepts, both political satire and low-brow physical humor. This is as opposed to “new comedy,” which was something more akin to what the later Roman playwrights were doing, such as Terence, whose tales of separated lovers and mistaken identities inspired Shakespeare.  

Perhaps not coincidentally, Stephen Sondheim’s 1974 adaptation of “The Frogs” makes for a fitting companion piece to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962). These are the major two works in the Sondheim canon that are true musical comedies — emphasis on the latter word — all the way though. The two funniest Sondheim shows were both inspired by the pre-Christian world, and both with books by Burt Shevelove.

In the first scene of the musical, Dionysis and Xanthias sing the jolly “I Love to Travel” as they journey to the underworld from the mortal realm. The god’s goal is to help mankind by bringing back a great writer whose poems and plays will rouse the populace from its complacency. In 405 b.c., that writer was Euripides, whose death a season earlier was still on everyone’s mind.

Likewise, the play itself has taken quite a journey. In 1974, Shevelove had the idea of producing a new musical based on “The Frogs,” updating parts of it in a timely, topical fashion, a concept of which Aristophanes would have approved. This time, the writer that Dionysis proposes can save the world is George Bernard Shaw, though the great Irish scribe ultimately loses in a contest to Shakespeare himself.

In his book, “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim describes the 1974 production, which was performed at the “olympic-sized pool” in a gymnasium at Yale — note that both “olympic” and “gymnasium” are concepts from the Greco-Roman world — and was a total disaster. Although he retained a fondness for the work of Shevelove, whom he adored, he charged that the producer had turned the production into a trainwreck. Further, he famously said that the acoustics were like trying to stage a musical “in a men’s urinal.” 

In 2004, a Broadway superstar comic and occasional playwright, Nathan Lane, who had performed part of “The Frogs” in a concert tribute for the composer’s 70th birthday, had the idea of expanding and bringing it to Broadway. To Mr. Lane’s delight, the composer not only approved of the idea but rewrote and expanded his 1974 songs, also adding new ones, while Mr. Lane rewrote the book, maintaining the spirit of both Aristophanes and Shevelove.

The 2004 “Frogs” ran 92 performances — no one was expecting it to be another “Phantom” — and was mostly well-received by nearly everyone except Sondheim himself, who thought the work was too insubstantial to sustain a full two acts: “In Aristophanes’s and Burt’s hands, it had been an hour and a half long. It should have stayed that way.” 

Sondheim would have thus approved of this new version, which is one glorious act, about 100 minutes long, not a second of which is wasted.  Not only is this one of the absolute funniest of Sondheim’s shows, the songs here are some of his most traditionally tuneful. They’re hummable in the same way as songs by such colleagues as Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman, or even Frank Loesser.

Not that they sound like anyone other than Sondheim: the title song, “The Frogs,” a big dance number, is a dark menacing waltz that anticipates “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods.” At the same time, Sondheim employs some 1970s-style power pop chords and tricky time signatures of the kind he had used in “Company,” and which point to his admiration of Burt Bacharach.

The Mastervoices production, which uses a full orchestra — and it comes as a surprise that the Rose Theater has an actual orchestra pit, in which Ted Sperling conducts — and a huge chorus that fully fills the stage and three balconies behind it, is not to be missed. Mr. Lane hosts and narrates with expected aplomb, and Douglas Sills, who most people know from “The Gilded Age” but I remember most fondly from “On the Twentieth Century” and “Mack and Mable,” is the very picture of a traditional leading man.  

Marc Kuddisch plays Herakles, Dionysis’s brother, like a more sympathetic Miles Gloriosus from “Forum,” a swaggering bully boy but with a heart, and Kevin Chamberlain gives us an understated Xanthias, rather like Amos in “Chicago.” Chuck Cooper and Peter Bartlett take full advantage of their memorable parts as Charon and Pluto to chew up what scenery there is and fully steal their scenes.

“The Frogs,” rewritten, then re-rewritten, and now re-re-rewritten, expanded, and then condensed, has finally found its most agreeable form.  The concert version, with costumes for the eight principals (including the characters of Shaw and Shakespeare), could be staged easily around the country. It’s difficult to see why it would need full sets and scenery, though a full orchestra and chorus is a necessity. 

Not to make too much of it: By any standards, “The Frogs” is one of Sondheim’s lesser efforts. At the same time, it’s one of his most easily enjoyable; in that sense, it’s the most like an old-fashioned pre-”Oklahoma!” Broadway show, full of tunes and gags and sexy chorines in frog drag leotards. One can imagine Bert Lahr or Ed Wynn as either Dionysos or Xanthias, or the great pre-war Broadway team of WIlliam Gaxton and Victor Moore as the two of them.

The show also proves that people have been griping about the theater for as long as the drama has existed. In scene one, the servant accuses his master of un-god-like behavior when he states, “You also cry when you go to the theater.” The god of drama responds, “Have you been to the theater lately?” 

Nobody’s crying at “The Frogs,” except for tears of laughter. This frog has legs.


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