The Frogs is an oddity: a “revisal,” as they’re called nowadays, of a show New York has never really seen. It began in 1941, when writer-director Burt Shevelove adapted and directed Aristophanes’ comedy for Yale’s undergraduate Dramat, attracting wide publicity by staging the farcical piece around and in Yale’s Olympic-size swimming pool. In 1974, he returned to New Haven, reconceiving and restaging the work with a professional cast, again at the pool, for the Yale Rep. This time, he brought along the composer-lyricist who had partnered him on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim, which aroused even wider publicity. Somewhat revised post-production, this version was published in an acting edition and garnered a few subsequent productions. But since few theaters have handy swimming-pool access, the piece largely lay fallow until Nathan Lane persuaded Sondheim to revise it, adding six new songs to a renovated book by Lane himself. Susan Stroman, who shepherded Lane through The Producers, has directed and choreographed the result, which looks, unsurprisingly, as though it had passed through many hands, suffering numerous changes of intention along the way. (Two of the many hands, as it happens, were mine, since as Yale Rep’s literary manager I selected the quotes for the climactic combat scene; I have no involvement with the present version.)
Aristophanes’ carefree play, a loose-jointed, sardonically topical vaudeville that fits what scholars take to be the standard pattern of Athenian “Old Comedy” circa 405 B.C., displays an Athens in which the theater has gotten so bad that Dionysus, god of wine and drama, is forced to descend to Hades with his slave, Xanthias, to bring a dramatist back from the dead; none of the living seem to measure up. His choice is the recently deceased Euripides, but when he gets to Hades, having fought his way past the chorus of cynically apathetic frogs that impedes his journey down the river Styx, his proposal inspires a contest between Euripides and his older rival Aeschylus, who wins by being wiser, graver in tone, more metrically regular, and, most importantly, less politically hotheaded. Dionysus’s initial choice is a joke that must have been evident to Athenians from the beginning, since the subversive, sophistical Euripides was Aristophanes’ bête noire, whom he had already parodied mercilessly in several plays.
Shevelove turned the battle of playwrights into one between Shakespeare and Shaw—audacious of him in 1941, when GBS was still very much alive—and the revisal’s problems begin here, since Shaw, for all his greatness, is much less of a theatrical force today than he was 65 years ago. Given the Lane-Stroman version’s visible efforts to remake the piece as a big-scale Broadway spectacle, complete with fire effects, flying stunts, and a love interest for Dionysus, even Shakespeare seems fairly irrelevant; bringing back Irving Berlin or Cole Porter might be more to the point. And Lane unwisely ups the ante: His Dionysus needs a poet not only to save the theater, but to save the world—a notion that Aristophanes, for all his faith in the political potency of theater, would have hooted down. The grandiose political ambitions mix awkwardly with the Vegas-like displays and the tidbits of vaudeville. Far longer than its Shevelovian source, the show is always stopping and starting, nodding this way and that, often funny but more often lumpishly pallid.
The Vivian Beaumont stage has no pool, and Stroman’s unfocused, often visually unattractive chunks of spectacle don’t compensate for its absence. Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound design seem locked in a losing struggle to shape the Beaumont’s lofty space, and Stroman’s choreography almost aggressively lacks point. The three heavenly choral pieces that Sondheim wrote for the first production, jerkily cut up to fit the new context, sound ragged. There are two droll new patter songs, “I Love to Travel” and “Hades,” but the singing, in new and old numbers alike, is often achingly unmusical. Lane, not the vocalist you’d choose to launch your big romantic aria, gets a lengthy paean to his dead love, “Ariadne” (whom he talks to across the void, like Dolly Levi addressing Ephraim); positively the worst vocal offender is Michael Siberry’s Shakespeare, who turns Sondheim’s sumptuous setting of “Fear No More” into an extended croak. The cast’s most ringing voice, ironically, belongs to Daniel Davis’s Shaw, who gets no song. Roger Bart, a late arrival, has the potential to be a sharply funny Xanthias, and Peter Bartlett makes tender camp as Pluto, king of the underworld. Lane, though always skillful and amusing, seems understandably distracted; besides serving as actor and author, he has built himself a role in which he must be clown, god, lover, taskmaster, and commentator all in one. Even the most appetitive comedian can only ingest so much. His ambition to try something different and difficult deserves praise; the tragedy is that he and Stroman have never decided what, exactly, they were trying.