Brek-kek-kek, Koax, Koax!

When I decided back in 2020 to write a new analysis book, tackling all of Stephen Sondheim's shows, it didn't occur to me at first that I'd have to learn a lot more about the opening of Japan to the West, about Roman comedy and Greek comedy, the "midnight sun," Ziegfeld, and so much more. And I didn't think a new writing project would lead me to producing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at long last (ticket info here).

I had studied and written in my earlier books about several of Sondheim's shows, but there were quite a few that I hadn't really studied at all. The idea seemed like a fun adventure, and one I should take. The end result of this mammoth undertaking is He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim; and in a way, it's as much for me as it is for my readers.

One of the things that struck me as I dove into each show, was how smart all his choices were, how informed they were, how right they were. The Frogs is one prime example, one of those shows that proves Sondheim's Cardinal Rule: Content Dictates Form.

Here's an excerpt about The Frogs from He Never Did Anything Twice.

When Nathan Lane rewrote The Frogs and turned it into a musical comedy in 2004, he didn't understand that, as interesting as it may be, it’s not a musical in any conventional sense; it’s ritual. Like Hair, The Frogs is not meant to be experienced the same way as Company or Sweeney Todd. Aristophanes’ original production was part of the theatre competition at the Lenaia, one of the annual Festivals of Dionysus in Athens, a religious ritual.

When Sondheim wrote songs for the show, he didn’t write conventional songs. Her wrote lengthy ritual numbers that don’t conform to the conventions of theatre songs, in terms of structure, language, length, or purpose. All six songs in the original are named for corresponding songs in Aristophanes’ theatre:
Prologus (“Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”)
Parodos (“The Frogs”)
Hymnos (“Evoe!”)
Parabasis (“It’s Only a Play”)
Paean (“Evoe for the Dead”)
Exodos (“The Sound of Poets”)

In “The Sound of Poets” (expanded for the revival) we have to wonder if we hear Sondheim’s own voice:
Bring the sound of poets
In a blaze of words to a heedless earth.
Bring the taste of wisdom
In a feast of words to a hungry earth.
Bring a sense of purpose,
Bring the taste of words,
Bring the sound of wit,
Bring the feel of passion,
Bring the glow of thought
To the darkening earth.

There are also two short pieces beyond these, including a choral “Invocation to the Muses,” and the Frogs’ “Traveling Music.” Sondheim’s now famous setting of Shakespeare’s existential, “Fear No More,” is how Shakespeare wins the contest or agon, the Greek word for struggle, conflict, or debate. Sondheim also wrote the Paean, “Evoe for The Dead,” after the first production, comically beginning with “They do an awful lot of dancing, The Dead.”

The Prologus is a prologue, setting up the rules and topic for the evening. The Parados (parade) is the grand entrance of the chorus (in this case, the Frogs), and it’s the first time the chorus sings; and it’s often a climactic moment in terms of action. Will the chorus (the Frogs) help or hinder our heroes? The crazy nonsense syllables (“brek-kek-kek, koax, koax”) come straight from Aristophanes; but Sondheim’s frogs also cheekily quote bits of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Get Happy,” and the Yale fight song. The Hymnos is a hymn that both worships and praises one of the gods, here a tribute to Dionysus. The word “Evoe” is a Roman borrow of the Greek word that’s an exclamation of frenzied joy at the Festival of Bacchus (the Roman parallel to Dionysus).

The Parabasis is a song during which all of the actors leave the stage and the chorus is left to talk (sing) directly to the audience. The chorus may partially or completely abandons its dramatic role, to step forward and engage the audience on a topic completely irrelevant to the subject of the play. In Sondheim’s Frogs, this song is the chorus’ political indictment of the apathy of the audience, ironically (not) comforting them with “Besides, it’s only a play.”
It doesn’t really matter.
Don’t worry, relax.
What can one person do?
After all, you’re only human.
And it’s all been said before,
And you’ve got enough to think about.
It’s only a play.
. . .
Let the leaders raise your voices for you.
Let the critics make your choices for you.
Somewhere somebody rejoices for you:
The dead.
And a leader’s useful to curse,
And the state of things could be worse.
And besides,
It’s only a play.

Following that, the Paean is a prayer for thanksgiving, in this case to The Dead. The Exodus is the last song, in which the chorus passes on a lesson or moral to the audience, before exiting. This is no musical comedy.

Mel Gussow at The New York Times reviewed the $35,000 production at Yale, writing, “As a theatrical event, the Yale Repertory Theater production of The Frogs is spectacular. It opened last night, in, of all places, the Yale swimming pool, which looks like an Olympic ocean next to the Yale Rep’s usual churchmouse of a home. On and off pool, there is a cast of 86, including a 21-actor frog chorus. In some of the steeply inclined seats – 1,600 of them are reserved for the audience – sit members of the Yale University Band. In ambition, this cross‐century collaboration between Aristophanes and Burt Shevelove is breathtaking. Not satisfied merely to do to the Greeks what he did to the Romans (in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Mr. Shevelove has created an extravaganza that might stir the shades of [producers] Billy Rose and Mike Todd.”

In addition to the actors, swimmers, and musicians, there were also thirty-five people working “backstage.” To approximate an authentic sound, Tunick orchestrated the score for just woodwinds, harp and percussion, to parallel the original accompaniment of flute, lyre, and Greek percussion instruments.

I doubt that New Line would ever produce The Frogs (and I'm not sure if we even could get rights to the original version), but it sure is interesting! And it sure is fun sharing what I've learned. In this age of mashup, it's huge fun working on Forum and its mashup of Plautus, vaudeville, and musical comedy. It might well be that fun producing The Frogs. I'm just not sure it would be all that much fun for a lot of the people sitting and watching it...

Then again, I've learned to never say never.

Long Live the Musical!