Stephen Sondheim's version of Aristophanes' "The Frogs" started out 30 years ago as an academic exercise for the Yale Drama School.
A new, expanded version, with help from Nathan Lane and Susan Stroman, turns out to be merely collegiate.
When Sondheim first wrote a few songs for the ancient Greek satire, it was for a production in the university's Olympic-size pool, which turned out to be acoustically catastrophic.
That version, which lasted 45 minutes, was "freely adapted" by Burt Shevelove, with whom Sondheim wrote "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" 12 years earlier.
The production now at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre – 2 ½ hours' worth -was, as the program puts it, "even more freely adapted" by Lane, who also stars as Dionysos, the ancient god of both wine and drama.
He journeys to Hades to bring back a great playwright in the hope that a play with big ideas might illuminate our muddied world.
Dionysos has decided that the man for the job is George Bernard Shaw, perhaps unaware of how fond Shaw was of dictators -he never met one he didn't like.
Before he leaves, Shaw wants to settle once and for all his longstanding battle with Shakespeare over who is the greater playwright. The ensuing debate pits lines from Shaw against speeches from Shakespeare, with Dionysos as judge and color analyst.
This would be perfect as a campus skit. Here it just seems strained and precious. But so does almost everything else, including a brief attempt to be serious, with Dionysos recalling his love for Ariadne.
Some of Sondheim's new songs, like "I Love to Travel," match the jaunty spirit of 30 years ago. Some, like "Ariadne," seem forced. I did admire a sequence in Herakles' song, "Dress Big," in which he follows the line "Too fussy" with "Too Fosse."
The evening is redeemed by some of the comic performances, especially that of Roger Bart, who, astonishingly, took over the role of Dionysos' sidekick barely a week before the opening, when "Saturday Night Live" alum Chris Kattan was fired.
Peter Bartlett is delicious as Pluto, who is a kind of oily lounge emcee. John Byner is similarly hilarious as Charon, the crusty boatman on the River Styx.
Daniel Davis is so perfect as Shaw that you wish he did a whole evening of his work. Alas, Michael Siberry, as his opponent, Shakespeare, doesn't deliver his "own" verse very well. Burke Moses has spirit in the thankless role of Herakles.
Lane, of course, does well with his own material. There is something brave about the way he joins the dancing frogs in a jolly bungee-jumping sequence.
Stroman, who directed as well as choreographed the show, has not made it cogent. A journey to Hades might be unsettling, but it shouldn't be tedious.
The most memorable thing about "The Frogs" may be William Ivey Long's exuberant costumes for the title characters.
It’s here and it's croakin'! But even with the ineffable Nathan Lane as its star, with the tireless Susan Stroman providing athletic backup, "The Frogs" - which opened last night at Lincoln Center - needs all the help it can get.
Spawned in 1974 in Yale University's swimming pool, the Stephen Sondheim-Burt Shevelove musical – a modernization of Aristophanes' 405 BC comedy - now has six new Sondheim songs and Lane's snappy dialogue.
It's also bold, ambitious and very good-looking - British designer Giles Cadle has devised splendidly imaginative settings, William Ivey Long's costumes are a delight and Kenneth Posner's lighting makes the Vivian Beaumont stage a place for magic and miracles.
And while the music isn't top-drawer Sondheim, it will surely be among the best scores of the season, graced as it is with Jonathan Tunick's sensuously swirling orchestrations and Sondheim's piquantly ironic lyrics.
So what didn't go right? It certainly wasn't the performance or Stroman's dance-happy, energized staging.
No, the trouble went deeper - probably as deep as Aristophanes.
The original play the book is based on is neither particularly funny nor especially meaningful. It has Dionysos, God of drama and wine, distressed with the state of the nation -and its burbling, frog-like populace. He decides that what is needed is art: art to set a moral example, art to inspire civic action.
With his sidekick, the slave Xanthias (Roger Bart), he takes a boat trip down the Styx into Hades, to bring a great playwright - either Shakespeare or Shaw - back to earth. (In Aristophanes' original, the choices were Aeschylus or Euripides.)
Apart from Sondheim and the endlessly inventive Stroman (here in a Cirque de Soleil mood), the heavy lifting is done by Bart and Lane.
Bart - who replaced "Saturday Night Live alum Chris Kattan a week and a half before the premiere – is one of those performers from Ethel Merman to Bert Lahr whose souls are stamped "Broadway Bound."
He's marvelous - and he needs to be to stand up against Lane, who could devour co-actors for breakfast and then look around for lunch.
Lane has the timing of a truly great clown, one who can make a phrase like "I think I pulled something" into a hilariously rude image. As a writer ("Viagra, the God of Perseverance") he's also no slouch.
The fault, dear readers, lies in the bare bones of this rather unengaging story.
Our post 9/11 world is certainly in a mess, and the United States seems more divided than united. Perhaps the moral example of Shakespeare might speed our plow and brush up our ethics.
Yet this allegory - clearly intended to be anti-Bush and yet so diffuse it could be also read as anti-Kerry (as Shakespeare might say, "a plague on both your houses") - never for a moment takes fire as theater.
Even the crème de la crème can curdle every now and then. Consider ''The Frogs,'' which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This musical updating of a 1974 adaptation of Aristophanes' 2,400-year-old comedy of gods and playwrights has the highest concentration of blue-ribbon talent of any show now on Broadway.
The show stars Nathan Lane, who helped turn ''The Producers'' into the kind of hit that almost never happens anymore and is the only actor who qualifies as serious royalty in the thinning world of musical comedy. (Hugh Jackman is still a parvenu.) The director and choreographer is Susan Stroman (''The Producers,'' ''Contact''), who already possesses a lifetime supply of Tony Awards. The composer is -- reverent pause, please -- Stephen Sondheim, whose name alone causes acolytes of the American musical to bow their heads. And did I mention that Roger Bart, whose very smile has been known to stop a show, was brought in to replace the television comedian Chris Kattan 10 days before the opening?
After dwelling with such craven procrastination on the fine ingredients that make up ''The Frogs,'' I am forced to concede that what should have been a zesty, airy soufflé is a soggy, lumpy batter that never shows the slightest signs of rising. Staged in 1974 as a publicity-garnering, hourlong novelty by the Yale School of Drama -- around and in the university gymnasium swimming pool, if you please -- this bauble of a show has been reshaped to fill two and a half hours. The results suggest that to stretch something this slight is to shatter it.
It is only fair to point out that ''The Frogs'' aspires to be more than froth. Mr. Lane, who has extensively revised (i.e., piled endless jokes upon) Burt Shevelove's original adaptation, is the moving force behind this latest incarnation of the musical. And he clearly hoped to turn the show into a profound parable for our time, however silly its outer trappings.
Like Aristophanes' comedy, this ''Frogs'' is set in a troubled, war-plagued society, bereft of moral and cultural leadership. Dionysos (Mr. Lane), the god of drama as well as wine, decides to venture into Hades with the aim of returning with a great, long-dead playwright to inspire the corrupt contemporary world. Since all Dionysos does is crack wise or preach piously, he might have done well to seek out a proper character for himself in the underworld as well. As it is, even Mr. Lane and Mr. Bart (who plays Dionysos's servant, Xanthias) can't elude the impression that it's only shtick that's keeping them and the play afloat.
In Aristophanes' account, Dionysos must choose between Aeschylus and Euripides as the playwright to revitalize rotten old Athens. Shevelove, whose first (nonmusical) version of ''The Frogs'' was performed in 1941 when he was an instructor at Yale, subsituted Shaw and Shakespeare. When the show was resurrected in 1974, Shevelove enlisted Mr. Sondheim, with whom he had collaborated on an earlier, happier slice of singing antiquity, ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.''
Though the production, which starred Larry Blyden, ran only a week, it has since acquired a mythic, Brigadoonish haze in the land of showbiz, thanks in part to its exotic (and acoustically disastrous) aquatic setting and a student chorus that included Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and the playwright Christopher Durang. The show was given a concert staging at the Library of Congress four years ago (with Mr. Lane as its master of ceremonies), and its opening number, ''Invocation to the Gods and Instructions to the Audience,'' has had an afterlife in various revues, including ''Putting It Together.''
Mr. Sondheim had originally intended to use a song like ''Invocation'' -- a blithe series of admonitions to the audience on how to behave in the theater -- for ''Funny Thing'' (1962). And along with a new, throwaway piece called ''Dress Big,'' about what to wear in Hades, it is one of the few numbers in this ''Frogs'' that has the old-fashioned Broadway bounciness of ''Funny Thing.'' By 1974, Mr. Sondheim had written ''Company'' and ''Follies,'' and his work had become more intricate and brooding, subverting the up-tempo optimism and aggressively hummable melodies of the mid-century American musical.
Much of the score of ''The Frogs'' exhales this musical complexity. Even many of the choral numbers, with their use of dissonant counterpoint and lonely solo lines, convey somber, barbed introspection. (One of them, ''It's Only a Play,'' is a beauty.) This inwardness unfortunately clashes like cymbals with the flashy outwardness of Ms. Stroman's floor-show staging and of the gag-driven book.
Featuring cleavage-flashing Caesar's Palace-style beauties and a Cirque de Soleilesque corps of dancers, the show suggests a Las Vegas revue tailored to a convention of dirty old academics. The same attitude extends to Giles Cadle's sets, which are big on entrance-making staircases, and William Ivey Long's costumes, which include elaborate chorus-girl-in-hell headdresses that flame up like cigarette lighters.
Ms. Stroman's choregraphy shows little of the wit and individuality she brought to ''The Producers'' and ''Contact.'' There is a lot of posing in the manner of Greek statues (with props like discuses and urns, natch). And for the frogs -- who embody the conformity and complacency that keeps the world from moving forward -- there are high-jumping routines involving bungee cords and stylized games of (I swear) leapfrog.
The idea here, which also applies to much of the script, seems to be that if you pile on enough jokey clichés they take on a delirious momentum. ''The Frogs'' makes a point of invoking every bromide that ever was that uses the word hell, many of which are delivered with welcome deadpan severity by John Byner as Charon, the Boatman of the River Styx. There are easy, laugh-catching allusions to such contemporary phenomena as cellphones and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Throughout the show, you can usually spot the punch lines a good 30 seconds before they arrive.
This groaning burlesque format, which embraces jabs direct and oblique at the Bush adminstration's foreign policy, occupies about two-thirds of the evening. The other third is more reflective, and it chafes against the surrounding glitz and vulgarity.
Mr. Lane's Dionysos turns out to have a strong sentimental streak. (For a hedonist, he's a sad lad, in his lugubrious Buster Brown wig.) He sings a lovely new ballad about his dead wife, ''Ariadne,'' but it registers like a harp in an oompah band. And the climactic debate in hell between Shaw (Daniel Davis) and Shakespeare (Michael Siberry) becomes a middlebrow quote-fest that condenses vast talents into shrink-wrapped platitudes.
The cast also features Burke Moses (the original Gaston in ''Beauty and the Beast''), making appropriate use of his trademark self-parodying he-man persona as Herakles, and Peter Bartlett, making less appropriate use of his trademark self-parodying effete persona as Pluto. As for Mr. Lane and Mr. Bart, they are drowned in their own sea of one-liners. Without being linked to real personalities, like the characters they played in ''The Producers,'' only the mechanics of these men's considerable comic techniques are in evidence.
Early in the show, when Dionysos is explaining his mission to Herakles, his half-brother, he begins a sentence by saying, ''Anyway, to make a long story even more interminable . . . '' Which demonstrates that while ''The Frogs'' may not make it as Attic comedy, it shares an essential trait with Greek tragedy: self-knowledge that changes nothing.
The preface to "The Frogs" - notoriously staged in a Yale swimming pool in 1974, with coeds Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the Greek chorus - had this advice for future productions: "The more sublime and the more ridiculous, the better."
Thirty years later, someone took up the challenge and took another chance on the legendarily lost oddity inspired by Aristophanes' political comedy of 405 B.C., "freely adapted" by Burt Shevelove with a half-dozen songs by Stephen Sondheim. The vision behind the reinvented, expanded "Frogs," which opened last night at Lincoln Center with half again more quality Sondheim, is no less a someone than director-choreographer Susan Stroman. The book has been "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane, seldom far from center stage as Dionysos, god of theater and wine.
Despite the richness of the bloodlines, this "Frogs" is merely a summer lark, more sweet-natured than sublime, more plain silly than deeply ridiculous. Lane clearly cares about the story's seriously satirical streak and the quest for great artists in times of crisis. The line about leaders whose "simplest words" fail was applauded at Tuesday's preview. Dionysos describes a "war we may not be able to win, a war we shouldn't even be in."
The style, which Sondheim and Shevelove also plumbed in 1962's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," is meant to be packed with groaners. We expect Dionysos and his second-banana slave, Xanthias, to toy with propriety while trying to save humanity. But too many unfunny things happen on the way to hell.
Lane and Roger Bart (a late replacement for Chris Kattan of "Saturday Night Live") are pleasant and frenetic on the picaresque journey that takes them through swarms of dangerous frogs singing adorably and concludes with a verbal competition between Shaw (Daniel Davis) and Shakespeare (Michael Siberry). Lane leans more on his sentimental side than on his patented mean streak. He takes a turn on a bungee cord and even has a love ballad for Dionysos' mortal wife. Bart makes what he can from a reportedly diminished role.
But much of the busy funny business is too soft to support the weight of the social accusations. Recycled one-liners about Viagra, an ancient "you really like me" Sally Field reference and even a French crack about frogs keep battling with smart lectures about Shaw and the urgency of the politics.
Then there are those frogs. Although meant to be society's villains of complacency, they are mostly acrobatic and cute in Stroman's physically perilous but emotionally modest production. William Ivey Long has dressed them in fabulousness; they tumble and wiggle their huge fingers and toes on Giles Cadle's understated fantasy sets. The Greek chorus does gymnastic moves that mirror the angular figures on ancient urns. The Three Graces are doomed to kitschy ballet steps. Women hang dangerously from sensuous silks, which would be more extraordinary if it didn't remind us of Cirque du Soleil.
Some of the songs are familiar from Sondheim revues, but they are even more delightful in context. The evening begins with the witty "Instructions to the Audience" by Lane and Bait, playing actors about to play characters who play with our heads. The time is "the present." The place is "ancient Greece."
The score includes haunting suggestions of Sondheim's more-important musicals. The frogs conclude the first act with a happily demented waltz ("not fancy pants humanitarians, not chatty platitudinarians") that foreshadows a melancholy melody from "Sunday in the Park with George." John Byner sings a sardonic "All Aboard" as Hades' deadpan, hippy-dippy boatman, whose boat descends periodically from the ceiling. Burke Moses is endearingly self-interested as Dionysos' pumped-up half- brother, who teaches him to "Dress Big." The remarkable Peter Bastlett seems to breathe enchanted air as Pluto.
"It's Only a Play," an exquisite antiphonal chorus, provides the chilling subtext we miss in this eager-to-please show. As Shaw is quoted here: "All great truths begin as blasphemy." We could have used more of that.
The newly restored musical The Frogs (* * 1/2 out of four), which opened Thursday at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, takes place in a land where, we're told, corrupt and not especially articulate leaders have saddled their people with "a war we shouldn't even be in."
Sound familiar? If not, don't worry: In this updated and expanded version of Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim's 1974 adaptation of Aristophanes' play, the central conceit is beaten over your head so thoroughly you may need an ice pack afterward.
That's a shame, given the dream team of musical-comedy talent involved, which reunites director/choreographer Susan Stroman with two of the most valuable players from The Producers, Nathan Lane and Roger Bart. Lane plays Dionysos, the god of wine and drama, who is so convinced that George Bernard Shaw can save his troubled world that he travels to Hades to dig up the old playwright. Bart – an 11th-hour replacement for Saturday Night Live's Chris Kattan, whose mugging apparently couldn't cut it in a real live venue - is cast as his slave, Xanthias.
Both actors are confined, unfortunately, by a new libretto penned by Lane. It is an awkward marriage of goofy humor and earnest social commentary that includes nods to such contemporary cultural phenomena as The Lion King, Hillary Clinton and "nookie."
Some of Lane's best moments as a comic actor have been reactive ones, where he has proven able to make an obvious or inside joke more appetizing by sewing it with a wry twist. But there are only so many ba-dum-bum moments you can cram into a two-hour script that must also accommodate a semantic duel between Shaw and Shakespeare and a bid to redeem the soul of modern civilization.
Bart, a gifted and immensely likable performer in his own right, is denied an opportunity to scale the heights of inspired wackiness that he reached as the sublimely swishy Carmen Ghia in Producers. The funniest character in this production, in fact, is a similarly flamboyant Pluto, played to droll perfection by Peter Bartlett. He makes Hades, one of several new songs contributed by Sondheim, a hilarious highlight akin to Mel Brooks' Keep It Gay.
Sondheim's extended score, which also features the lovely ballad Ariadne, is vibrantly served by his longtime colleagues, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and musical director Paul Gemignani. Stroman, too, reveals her usual artful exuberance, particularly in the scenes where Frogs' mischievous title characters leap into action.
Still, too often, the creature brought to mind by this show is not a jumping amphibian but a dead horse.
The dramatic question at the heart of this politically pointed musical comedy is, Which playwright would you bring back from hell to save mankind, George Bernard Shaw or William Shakespeare? The answer is Bertolt Brecht (or George S. Kaufman, or whomever you please). And that's the problem with this sweet, earnest appeal to the gods of musical theater to bring a breath of hope to a civilization on the skids. The show doesn't really believe the theater can save mankind, because it hasn't the imagination to look beyond the obvious for playwrights and poets who might actually pull it off.
That the collaborators didn't go deeper into the theatrical vaults is more a pity than a tragedy. But what the creatives do bring to the cause should cheer up theatergoers who have long despaired of seeing anything remotely political from indigenous scribes on stages north of Soho.
Gleefully raiding from the bulging grab-bag of American musical-comedy tradition, Nathan Lane, Stephen Sondheim and Susan Stroman concoct a brash and breezy style covering everything from burlesque and vaudeville to Broadway extravaganza.
While contributing six new songs to this version, Sondheim has wisely retained and smartly updated his hilarious "Instructions to the Audience," warming up the crowd with cheeky lyrics like "When there's a pause, please/Lots of applause, please./And we'd appreciate/Your turning off your cell phones while we wait."
And once the principals make it to the underworld where the Frogs await (in William Ivey Long's gloriously gaudy Day-Glo costumes), helmer Stroman pulls out the stops and delivers a production with so much manic energy and cheerful vulgarity that it should be obvious why the theater crowd is always dying to get into hell.
As the star of his own party piece, Lane makes an endearing top banana. Baggy eyes drooping from the troubles he's seen, corners of his mouth turned up in wistful pursuit of a smile, his eternally optimistic sad-sack clown proves the ideal persona for Dionysos. With his laurel-winning perf of the life-affirming Greek god of theater and wine, Lane skips ahead with what appears to be his master plan to push legit theater into a comic renaissance.
As scribe, Lane gives Dionysos good reason to embark on a trip to the underworld -- to bring back to a world "starved of food for thought" a writer "who can speak to the problems of our society and give us comfort, wit and wisdom -- and also challenge our complacencies." Athens, the heart of the civilized world, is staggering from years of war with Sparta. It's "a war we may not be able to win, a war we shouldn't even be in," he reminds Xanthias, the slave he has recruited to shlep his huge bag of togas and toiletries.
Xanthias, in a shrewd second-banana performance by rubber-faced funnyman Roger Bart (who took over the role from "SNL" veteran Chris Kattan only days before opening night) has the well-honed survival instincts of a canny slave. Although he's too politically unengaged to make much of a foil for Dionysos, he knows enough to wonder what the government might have to say about this unauthorized trip they're taking.
"Have you listened to our leaders?" Dionysos replies. "Words seem to fail them -- even the simplest words."
At this early point, the show is already miles ahead of Burt Shevelove's 1974 farcical treatment of the material, which focused on the theatrical wars of the period (between scrappy nonprofit experimentalists and moribund Broadway) and tried its damnedest to argue that theater was still relevant in an age infatuated with movies and television.
In one key respect, Lane's version also has it all over the antic parody written by Aristophanes himself. When Dionysos is presented with a choice between the great, thundering Aeschylus and the more humane and compassionate Euripides, the Aristophanic choice was the militaristic Aeschylus -- who could fire up the Athenian populace's flagging belief in heroes. (Lane would be flayed alive if he tried that one on the Lincoln Center aud.)
But in keeping Shevelove's updated choice -- between the cerebral pacifist George Bernard Shaw and everyone's favorite poet of the heart, William Shakespeare -- Lane misses his golden opportunity to offer contemporary auds a broader, more provocative field of candidates.
In Daniel Davis' robust and superbly focused perf, Shaw makes an eloquent case for himself, scoring big with Joan of Arc's heart-stopping speech before she is dragged off to the bonfire. But though Will Shakespeare wins passage home with the gorgeous "Fear No More" from "Cymbeline," it's not the palpable hit it should be, in Michael Siberry's perf.
And let's face it, it's a woefully narrow field (even when Pluto, god of the underworld, offers to throw in Ibsen if Dionysos would only take the talky Shaw off his hands). Visionary playwrights like J.M. Synge, Karel Capek and Joan Littlewood certainly would have something to say for themselves, if given the chance.
For his part, Sondheim takes his larky assignment with laudable commitment to its political (if not always singable) intentions. In addition to composing witty ("Dress Big") and romantic ("Ariadne") songs that are appealing in context, he gets off some sharp lyric lines that could play just as strong at a political convention. "Don't just shrug/Content to be a conscientious slug," he urges aud at the end of the show. "Speak up! Get sore!/Do something more than just deplore."
The soggy parts of the show don't really have anything to do with the burlesque style of the comedy, either. There are no flies (or frogs) on John Byner's cackling Charon, who arrives in an airborne boat with a hefty supply of strong weed to escort Dionysos and Xanthias across the River Styx. Peter Bartlett is the perfect host as Pluto, who has turned Hades into a fun spot with gracious dinner parties and endless orgies. Even the muscle-bound and humorless Herakles, who thoughtfully provides his half-brother Dionysos with practical travel tips and a more imposing wardrobe, is a hoot in Burke Moses' straight-faced perf.
This is all funny stuff, but it can't make up for the fact that, once established, the political throughline never becomes integral to the book. There's no pressing need (no time-clock plot device ticking and no villain trying to stop him) for Dionysos' mission and therefore no real urgency to his trip. Consequently, Lane and Bart are under the constraint of being funny just for the sake of being funny.
Once Dionysos gets to Hades, the happy denizens of this Las Vegasy resort have no stake in his quest and no interest in what the idiots back on earth are up to. Lane further neglects to give the playwright contestants a vivid sense of what they will be up against should they care to accept the mission of saving this sorry civilization from ruin. Even the menacing Frogs, who represent the political status quo, are underwritten, their arguments, like those of the Chorus, overwhelmed by the circus antics of the fun-loving hedonists in Hades.
Exhorting auds to speak up and "get sore," as Sondheim puts it, is all very well and good. But a satirist with genuinely subversive intentions (and sharper teeth) -- like Aristophanes -- would put more bite into it.