Filichia Features: The Frogs Has Legs

Filichia Features: The Frogs Has Legs

It's the only musical that Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang have done together.

How did I miss that? , you're wondering. Well, you had to be in New Haven during the week of May 20, 1974, when Stephen Sondheim and Bert Shevelove's The Frogs, their maverick musical version of Aristophanes' 405 B.C. hit, had its debut - in and around The Yale University Swimming Pool, no less.

Aristophanes' comedy had Dionysus, The God of Drama and Wine, disgusted with the current state of theater and the world. He believes Euripides would help if he were only still around, so he goes to find him in Hades. (Hades, not heaven? Yet another indictment against the theater!)

What Dionysus doesn't bargain for is that another iconic, ancient dramatist, Aeschylus, is there, too. The two playwrights criticize each other's work as each claims to be the better writer.

For the musical, Shevelove brought the conflict more up-to-date by having George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare do battle. Larry Blyden, a recent Tony-winner for Sondheim and Shevelove's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, played Dionysus, unaware that three chorus members behind him would arguably become better-known than he: Streep, Weaver and Durang, then Yale students, were among the 22 in the singing ensemble.

Three decades later, New York finally saw The Frogs when it hopped to Lincoln Center. Nathan Lane massaged Shevelove's book and did a superb job in delivering low-comedy jokes of the highest order. (The god of perseverance is said to be Viagra.)

Lane would also play Dionysus, who now had additional songs now that Sondheim had more than doubled the six he'd written for Yale. This version is the one available to you. And just as director-choreographer Susan Stroman preferred a stage over a pool, so can you.

That this musical is fanciful is apparent from its first line: "The time is the present. The place is ancient Greece." Sondheim's "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," which he originally wrote as the opener for Forum, is recycled here. Among its many demands to theatergoers is "Don't go 'Oh!' each time you see an actor that you know."

Dionysus tells his slave Xanthias that he can't abide frogs -- not just because they're "slimy, ugly, disgusting nuisances" but also because "They hate change. They hate new ideas. They just like what's good for them." (Yes, "The time is the present," isn't it?)

Dionysus believes Shaw "can speak to the problems of our society and give us comfort." Off they go to fetch him. "I love to travel," Dionysus sings. "A change of venue, a change of menu." Xanthias disagrees: "I hate the change of air. I hate the getting there."

Before they do, they stop by to see Herakles (read: Hercules), Dionysus' half-brother. Herakles' musical advice to the pair before braving Hades is to "Dress Big" for that will "see you through this gig, it's the rig. You dig?"

To reach Hades, Dionysus and Xanthias catch a dinghy, whose boatman takes them to what he (and Sondheim) calls "Club Dead." He and Dionysus trade six puns on the word "hell." Warn your drummer that he'll be busy with rim-shots for these quips and others as well as a game-show parody.

Nathan Lane made room for a ballad, and Sondheim gave him a lovely one in "Ariadne," the wife whom Dionysus remembers fondly. But that's the calm before the frogs.

They don't seem so menacing when singing a Sondheim sextet - until an Audrey II-sized one approaches Dionysus. The god sure looked like frog food to me as Act One ended.

Would any show kill off Nathan Lane before Act Two? Dionysus escapes, and soon he and Xanthias run into an orgy. (A benign one; don't overdo it.) And what's an ancient comedy without mistaken identity and characters pretending to be others? That all happens before another tender melody, "It's Only a Play," which Sondheim wrote long before Terrence McNally penned a comedy by the same name that starred - yes - Nathan Lane.

Once Dionysus finds Shaw, he sings a hellishly clever parody of a My Fair Lady song. Shaw quotes his Greatest Hits ("When a man knows nothing and thinks he knows everything, that clearly points to a political career") just as Shakespeare does ("What a piece of work is a man") in a verbal sparring match.

The Frogs is a solid mixture of jokes that would be home in vaudeville as well as academia. That may sound more like Shakespeare than Shaw, but the musical is more Nathan Lane and Stephen Sondheim. They make it more than "only a play."

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at