“You can stop rhyming right there,” the Greek god of wine and drama Dionysos commands his slave Xanthias mid-song in Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of The Frogs, now making its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Sondheim himself has no interest in taking Dionysos’ advice, of course.
Of all Sondheim’s scores, The Frogs, based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same title, is the most overt celebration of the composer-lyricist’s own gifts. The musical’s thin story (Dionysos journeys to the underworld to bring George Bernard Shaw back to life to save the world through art) leaves plenty of room for Sondheim to frolic in his craft (given the show’s explicit focus on pitting artistic geniuses against each other, like Shaw vs. Shakespeare, it registers as an impressive act of self-assurance that Sondheim quotes freely from the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing and Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady throughout his score).
What The Frogs affords then, through this spirited and rare revival, is the singular opportunity to hear Sondheim’s lyrics largely unfettered from the confines of developing characters and accelerating storylines. Even in the most abstract of Sondheim’s collaborations – say, Assassins – he still seems to work overtime to build characters richly through song in whatever space he has available. Here, though, only Dionysos and Xanthius are multi-dimensional (maybe two or two-and-a-half dimensional at best) so Sondheim essentially ends up freestyling deftly on single themes: Herakles’ machismo, hell’s pleasures, Shaw’s wit.
Unsurprisingly, there’s some genuinely brilliant and funny material. In the opening “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” Dionysos pleads, “Please don’t fart/There’s very little air, and this is art.” Later, Herakles offers the snazzy internal rhyme, “It isn’t enough/To be a god/You’ve gotta convey it/With a deity’s façade.” Those are just two examples; many more moments stand out.
But The Frogs reveals just how much Sondheim’s works, at their best, depend upon the chemical reaction of music and text to produce character. Since, in this show, Sondheim is writing for big ideas far more than for real characters, the individuality of his songs tends to get lost. Sondheim writing for fun is very good; only Sondheim writing for the purposes of storytelling and sculpting fully-realized people can be great. Interestingly, by far the most distinctive musical element of the show is the jagged, wordless chant for the frogs that haunt Dionysos in the River Styx.
The Frogs, like its heroes on their underworld journey, followed an unlikely path to its most recent destination. The show premiered in 1974 in Yale University’s swimming pool with (and this is true!) Meryl Streep singing in the chorus. The work languished until Nathan Lane provided a hit-and-miss revision to Burt Shevelove’s original book for a 2004 tepidly received Broadway production (in which Lane also starred). So it’s an unlikely but welcome event to see The Frogs in London at last, shepherded by director Grace Wessels of House on the Hill Productions. (It’s especially intriguing that it follows hot on the heels of another unexpected but spirited Sondheim revival, the infamous flop Anyone Can Whistle, at Southwark’s Union Theatre.) Wessels’ nine-person cast exudes enthusiasm and she makes the most out of the quirky space at the Jermyn Street Theatre.
Musical director Tim Sutton has masterfully reduced Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations to four pieces by musical director Tim Sutton (including an impressively versatile cello which often plays the role of upright bass). Sutton’s choral work with the ensemble glows: they sing Sondheim’s music brightly, boldly, and precisely throughout.
Michael Matus, as Dionysos, pays obvious homage to Lane, and, although he lacks Lane’s natural acerbity, he often conveys a winningly wistful optimism. The breakout star of the production is George Rae, joyously goofy and charmingly clumsy as Dionysos’ unwilling but loyal slave Xanthias. Wessels has also made the inspired choice to re-imagine Pluto (Emma Ralston), an effeminate older man in the Broadway production, as a female dominatrix with a thrilling high belt.
The rather overstated political argument of The Frogs is twofold: art matters, and “do something more than just deplore.” The show makes the former case more successfully than the latter. In a time of divisiveness fueled by anti-elitism, a musical that symbolizes the difference between passivity and meaningful action with a discussion of the merits of Shaw and Shakespeare may be limited in its reach. At the same time, though, the show clearly advocates using the arts themselves as a form of political action. And while The Frogs itself doesn’t quite do that, we should heed the advice – and why not also enjoy the clever rhymes while we still can?
The Frogs is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until April 8.
Photo: David Ovendon