First, a bit of history, most of which is recounted in the excellent notes by Wendy Wasserstein and Nathan Lane that may be found in the wonderful, photo-laden, 48-page booklet accompanying the new CD. The antecedent of this production was an adaptation of Aristophanes' seminal comedy The Frogs by Burt Shevelove with a handful of songs by Stephen Sondheim, presented in 1974 in the swimming pool (yes, in it!) at Yale University by the Yale Repertory Theater. The cast of that production included the young Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang in the ensemble. In 1979, Nathan Lane found a copy of the script at the Drama Book Shop and was very intrigued by it. When he starred in concert presentation of the original version of the show as part of Stephen Sondheim's 70th birthday celebration at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Lane ad-libbed a line and Sondheim said: "That sounds like Burt. He would have liked that."
This eventually prompted Lane to collaborate with Sondheim and Susan Stroman on an expansion and revision of the piece. The resultant full-length musical opened at Lincoln Center on July 22, 2004 to mixed reviews, with Lane as Dionysos and Roger Bart as his slave, Xanthias. They led a company that included Burke Moses as Herakles, Peter Bartlett as Pluto, John Byner as Charon/Aeakos, Daniel Davis as George Bernard Shaw, and Michael Siberry as William Shakespeare. If you didn't see the show, you may well ask: What are Shaw and Shakespeare doing here? Well, its sort of hard to explain, but at the very beginning of the show (and the recording), Dionysos tells us that "the time is the present, the place is ancient Greece." He then announces: "I, Dionysos, God of drama, am going to travel to the Underworld and bring back a great writer who can speak to the problems of our society and give us comfort, wit, and wisdom." His choice of dead playwright is Shaw, but there is apparently an underworld rivalry between G.B.S. and Shakespeare. The Frogs includes a lengthy contest to decide which of the two can better address the major issues facing humanity by using the words of his own writings.
According to the whimsically worded credits, this version of The Frogs is "a comedy written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes, freely adapted by Burt Shevelove, even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane." There's nothing wrong with the quality of the new book per se, and the new Sondheim songs and musical sequences are mostly terrific. The basic problem with the show was that it had too much script, too much music, and far too much dancing. If director-choreographer Stroman's instincts were as sharp as they're supposed to be, she might have known that it was not a good idea to take the original, one-act version of The Frogs and blow it up out of all proportion. Surely, it would have been wiser to add a few new numbers, some new jokes, and leave it that -- which Lane and Sondheim should also have realized.
So the main reason why the single-disc cast album of the show is more successful than the show itself is that it's smartly edited. Clocking in at just under 57 minutes, the CD removes most of the chaff and leaves us with the wheat. Yes, the title number as recorded is still something of a marathon at seven minutes and 26 seconds. It may not have been edited at all for the album, but it certainly seemed even longer in the theater -- and boy, was it over-choreographed! Mercifully, the disc does not include the deadly dull contest between Shaw and Shakespeare; this and other cuts make listening to it a delight rather than the occasional trial that the show was. The technical quality of the recording is superb, and an 18-piece orchestra sounds marvelous under the direction of Paul Gemignani.
Lane is in top form and is superbly partnered by Bart. These two make quite a team, never more impishly delightful than in their cell-phone bit in the hilarious opening number, "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience." They also have a ball with the best of the new songs, "I Love to Travel" -- one of the bounciest, most joyous numbers that Sondheim has ever written. (What a gift it is to get such a song from the master at this stage of his career!) Lane does a nice job with the ballad "Ariadne," and Bartlett is a corker as he leads the production number "Hades." Moses is perfect for the role of Herakles, sinking his teeth into the witty lyrics of the new song "Dress Big" ("You gotta look messy, not saucy. Less dressy. More bossy, be mussy, not glossy.") Unfortunately, Siberry's singing voice isn't up to the demands of "Fear No More," Sondheim's gorgeous setting of a poem by Shakespeare.
Despite its concision, this fabulously well-produced recording includes lots of humorous dialogue. There is, for example, Xanthias's plea to Dionysos: "I want to see Paris, I want to have a ménage à trois. Is that pastry?" And there's a sidesplitting exchange between Lane and Bartlett. (I won't bother to quote the lines; you've got to hear these guys deliver them.) The Lincoln Center production of The Frogs ran for only about three months at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and did not make the leap to Broadway thereafter. The show itself may not have had (frog) legs, but the cast album is sure to provide hours of repeated listening pleasure.