The Stephen Sondheim of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is back, sort of, in The Frogs. Burt Shevelove, who wrote the book for Forum, updated Aristophanes' play, and Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for its first production at Yale in 1974. Thirty years later, Nathan Lane expanded the original story, and Sondheim wrote six new songs for a limited Broadway run of The Frogs. Lane is excellent in the role of Dionysos in this cast recording, and the supporting players are great as well. It starts out as funny and fast-paced as anything in Forum, giving hope to those who don't like the overly serious and intellectual nature of Sondheim's usual work, but it can't seem to sustain that spirit through to the end. It opens in a similar fashion to Forum, in fact using an address directed at the audience that had been tried as the opening to Forum. Then follows the journey of Dionysos and Xanthias as they go to the Hades to find George Bernard Shaw (rather than Euripides), and return with Shakespeare (rather than Aeschylus). A pseudo-ancient-sounding fanfare opens the proceedings, with quirky harmonies that also accompany the snappy repartee in the "Instructions to the Audience." The repartee is quick-witted, at times stinging and sparkling, and carries on through "I Love to Travel," "Dress Big," and "Shaw." The last plays on the song "You Did It" from My Fair Lady and quotes Shaw's epigrams, further layering the referential humor. "Ariadne," one of the new songs, is slower and much more like what is expected from Sondheim, although it is not nearly as emotionally concentrated as his typical narrative ballads, at least as it is sung by Lane. And it is immediately followed by the ingenious chorus of "The Frogs," which combines Aristophanes' original onomatopoeic lyrics, "Row, row, row your boat," and lines from "Old Man River." However, by the end of the play, the more serious-minded Sondheim has returned, philosophical and reproachful, and essentially quashing the humor. True, Aristophanes' original does not have a laugh-a-minute ending either, but as Sondheim tries to match the ending with the beginning, using another address to the audience, the temperament is so opposite that it seems as if it is from a different play altogether.
AllMusic Review by Patsy Morita
|The Frogs, musical play|
|The Frogs, musical play (revised version)|