The Frogs is a comedy written by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes in 405 BCE. It tells the story of the god Dionysos – who travels to Hades, accompanied by his slave Xanthias, to bring back Euripides in order to save the city of Athens. While in the underworld, Dionysos stages a contest, pitting the playwright Euripides against the poet Aeschylus to see who is the better writer. Ultimately, Dionysos decides to bring back the poet to save civilization.
Cut to – Yale 1947. The Frogs is a musical “freely adapted" by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim from Aristophanes’ original work. In this version, Dionysus travels to Hades, accompanied by his slave Xanthias, to bring back George Bernard Shaw in order to save civilization. While in the underworld, Dionysos stages a contest, pitting Shaw against William Shakespeare to see who is the better writer. Ultimately, Dionysos decides to bring back the poet to save civilization.
Cut to – The Vivian Beaumont Theater 2004. The Frogs: A New Broadway Musical “even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane.
I got a call from Nathan one day, asking to meet up – “I have an idea I want to put in front of you”. When he said, “The Frogs” I recognized the title right away from the legendary theater tales of its staging in the Yale University swimming pool. But that was all I knew – college kids singing Sondheim in a swimming pool.
Nathan presented me the original Shevelove/Sondheim materials and I was completely taken with how pertinent the story was for the day – this was only a year after September 11th and people were still reeling. In 405 BCE, Athens was facing the same problems that we were grappling with in the present. The Peloponnesian War was devastating their empire and Aristophanes, like Nathan, didn’t feel the leaders of our country were addressing the nation with care.
Nathan said he wanted to take a crack at opening up the book and to also play the title role of Dionysos. As a satirist, Aristophanes used Dionysos as his voice to address the audience with the news of the day. This role was a perfect part for Nathan. I was so excited about all the possibilities.
I knew we would have to ask Sondheim for his permission and to implore him to join us in developing this short one act into a full evening. If he were to say yes, that would mean writing new songs – and you never know if an artist wants to revisit their previous works. Nathan and I bravely called Sondheim and we were immediately invited to his home for lunch. As we sat there discussing the plight of the American theater, Nathan said, “What would you think of revisiting The Frogs?” To our delight and surprise, Sondheim said, “Yes, I’m on board.”
It was thrilling to think we would be collaborating with Sondheim on new music. In the end, he contributed six new songs to the show. He also updated lyrics, like in his wonderfully humorous opening “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”. The song opens with Dionysos and his slave Xanthias – played by Roger Bart – asking the Gods of the Theater to “bless our play and smile on us” before launching into a list of dos and don’ts for the audience:
WHEN THERE’S A PAUSE, PLEASE,
LOTS OF APPLAUSE, PLEASE.
AND WE’D APPRECIATE
YOUR TURNING OFF YOUR CELL PHONES WHILE WE WAIT...
Sondheim and Nathan worked well together as a writing team. One of my favorite moments was witnessing the creation of the song “Ariadne”. Nathan wrote a beautiful monologue about Dionysos’ wife, Ariadne. On their wedding day, Dionysos gives Ariadne a beautiful, jeweled crown. She dies shortly after and he is so distraught that he hurls the crown into the sky, where the jewels break free and become stars, forming the constellation of a crown. Sondheim took Nathan’s writing and wrote a beautiful ballad based on this romantic myth.
SHE WAS YOUNG, SHE WAS SHY
SHE WAS YOUNG, AS WAS I
SURELY, SHE WAS MUCH TOO YOUNG TO DIE
SO I FLUNG HER CROWN HIGH INTO THE SKY
IN A RAGE
WITH A CRY:
The research for The Frogs was inspiring. There was so many historical elements to pull from – Greek theater, Greek myths, Greek relics, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Shaw, frogs.
Dionysos was the god of drama and the god of wine— cults formed around him, indulging in orgiastic celebrations of drinking, dancing, wild ecstasy. Women followed him around, singing and dancing with baskets of food, flowers, playing instruments – imagery you see on Grecian urns.
Sparked by that image, during one scene change the Three Graces descend from the rafters on long flowing silks. Their bodies wrapped in the diaphanous material, the women would roll and twist through the silk as they were lowered to the ground. A company called AntiGravity joined us and taught aerial silks to the dancers. Every night, Meg Gillentine, Naomi Kakuk, and Jessica Howard flew in from above, hanging from delicate and translucent fabric and performing lyrical acrobatics – it was a beautiful moment.
The show is a travelogue, similar to the Hope and Crosby “Road” movies of old. The Grecian set, graceful and transformational and cleverly conceived by Giles Cadle, had to support that idea. A turntable was the solution that allowed Dionysos and Xanthias to journey on foot to the depths of Hades each night. Along their way, they meet several obstacles – one of which is an army of frogs. The frogs represent people who don’t want change, who aren’t interested in moving forward. Just as real frogs seem quite happy with their existence, complacent and satisfied, so do the frogs in the play. They exemplify the boorish, apathetic, anti-intellectuals. Their goal is to stop Dionysos from succeeding.
I was excited about choreographing for the dancers who were playing frogs. They were all athletic and could leap and bound with the agility of a real frog. I wanted to incorporate bungee jumping into the show and, to my surprise, Nathan wanted to learn, too. So off we went to a sports center in New Jersey to learn how to bungee jump, with AntiGravity once again lending their expertise. It was definitely a lot of fun and another technique to add to our special skills resumés. There was nothing quite like hooking Nathan Lane up to a bungee, holding him down, then releasing him to fly high into the air screaming! No one can say he’s not fearless!
In the production number “The Frogs”, two of the dancers dressed as fire-bellied frogs – Luke Longacre and Rod Harrelson – bungeed in and out the vomitorium of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, soaring above the stage. Frogs appeared from everywhere, scaring and taunting Dionysos, who does his best to avoid their clutches. The dancers were dressed head to toe in amazing William Ivey Long costumes. William’s frog research was evident on every piece of spandex. There was the red-eyed tree frog, the blue poison dart frog, the golden frog, the leopard frog, the tomato frog – just to name a few.
The show was blessed with real comedians. Besides Nathan, there was Roger Bart as Xanthias, Peter Bartlett as Pluto, and John Byner as Caron. When they walked onstage, you knew you were in good comic hands. Their timing was impeccable. Those actors all possess a talent you really can’t teach – making people laugh. It was like they invited the audience to a party every night.
Burke Moses was magnificent as the strong and statuesque Herakles and a great foil to Nathan’s Dionysos. Burke played it straight and true, and his size alone, against Nathan’s, made for many natural sight gags.
The characters of Shaw and Shakespeare were played by Daniel Davis and Michael Siberry, respectively. The climax of the show is the verbal sparring match between Shaw and Shakespeare. They battle by quoting the best passages from their works, while Dionysos calls out the topics like “Man,” “Woman,” and finally “Death.” Shaw presents a blunt analysis of Death from Saint Joan. Shakespeare counters and considers the meaning of existence in “Fear No More” about the natural cycle of life. Dionysos, touched and exhilarated by Shakespeare’s words, declares Shakespeare the winner.
FEAR NO MORE THE LIGHTNING-FLASH
NOR TH' ALL DREADED THUNDER-STONE
FEAR NOT SLANDER, CENSURE RASH
THOU HAST FINISH'D JOY AND MOAN
ALL LOVERS YOUNG, ALL LOVERS MUST
CONSIGN TO THIS AND COME TO DUST
This is the only time Sondheim set another writer’s words to music.
For all the humor and the spectacle, The Frogs really celebrates the spoken word. It is about the command of the language. Poetry, logic, and philosophy all play a part in how words can ease the heart – words have power and words have consequences. Sondheim, of course, is known for his thought-provoking lyrics. He is unmatched in his formation of phrase and rhymes. He gathers words together to make people think. He is our Shakespeare of today.
We were lucky to have the great Paul Gemignani to conduct the complicated chorus passages and guide these comics through their music. Songs like “The Frogs”, “Hymn to Dionysus” and “It’s Only a Play” have difficult harmonies and sometimes fluctuates through odd meters. Gemignani taught this score assuredly to these bungee jumping, silk-climbing, dancing, acrobatic comics. Having him at the helm always made you feel safe.
To work with someone like Nathan Lane is a gift – to share ideas and imagine the impossible. The theme for this show meant a great deal to Nathan. He used satire as a means of encouraging today's audiences not to be frogs, passively sitting around while flagrant injustices occur. Sondheim’s poignant lyrics at the ending make the same point:
DON’T JUST SHRUG
CONTENT TO BE A CONSCIENTIOUS SLUG.
SPEAK UP! GET SORE!
DO SOMETHING MORE THAN JUST DEPLORE.
The timing of this new musical seemed ideal for 2004, but I realize this musical seems perfect for right now and the days ahead. Being in the trenches with Nathan, sharing the hopes that art can make a difference, still echoes today. Sondheim’s lyrics in “It’s Only A Play” resonate especially well, encouraging us to be wary of not just the frogs, but dangerous ideas as well.
Funny, isn't it? How we always seem to get the leaders we deserve
LET THE LEADERS RAISE YOUR VOICES FOR YOU
LET THE CRITICS MAKE YOUR CHOICES FOR YOU
SOMEWHERE SOMEBODY REJOICES FOR YOU:
AND A LEADER'S USEFUL TO CURSE
AND THE STATE OF THINGS COULD BE WORSE
IT'S ONLY A PLAY
Is it idealistic to think that art can really make a difference? I’ve spent my whole life believing it can.
Gods of the Theater, smile on us indeed.
A Comedy written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes
Freely Adapted by Burt Shevelove
Even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Giles Cadle
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner
Sound Design by Scott Lehrer
Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani