(Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
2004 Lincoln Center Cast
PS Classics

Nathan Lane and album producer Tommy Krasker have been to Hell and back. Twice. After testing the waters of the River Styx with a studio cast album featuring the original (shorter) score of The Frogs (Nonesuch, 2001), they're back with the expanded and revised score from last year's Lincoln Center production. For the uninitiated, the frogs in question are near Hades (also the title of one of the six new tunes). The new songs are vintage Sondheim, with all the trademarks of his style. Those who examine the score very carefully may point out familiar sounds, rhythms and attitudes.

As always, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"; the intention here is to make us wake up and smell the poison, but with large doses of broad comedy. Aristophanes' original Greek play (405 B.C.) pointed out the dangers of being complacent during wartime. Burt Shevelove adapted it (twice) a couple thousand years later and asked his friend Stephen Sondheim to add a few songs. Lane (who stars and re-adapted the script), knew the piece would have new relevance during the current war and 2004 election season.

The recording's sound is well balanced and clean. There is nothing murky or muddy with these Frogs. Much of what the star delivers is over the top. However, he also has "Ariadne," a ballad (for Nathan Lane? yes!) performed with subtlety and understated emotion (from Nathan Lane? yes!). As his partner-in-slime, Roger Bart sparkles by using vocal inflections in speech and song, showing his slave character to be bright in energy while dim in the brains department. His insouciance and goofy likeability work well as the two pair up in the opening number and in the snazzy, razzamatazzy new "I Love To Travel" (which incorporates the original "Traveling Music"). In "I Love to Travel," the two are joined by the ensemble singers, who have more of a musical theatre sound, compared to the pristine chorale style of the 2001 recording.

The lyrics proclaim that things are good, but we sense something lurking below the surface (not just amphibians). How do we know? Much credit goes to the orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick who adds bull's-eye accents to the "in" jokes, inner rhymes and inside-out logic. Reliable Paul Gemignani is on board as musical director. The dissonance, the relentless increases in tempi, and the frequent use of counterpoint are very effective and complex. All may not be right with the underworld, but Sondheim fans will be in heaven.

A Documentary Film
On DVD, Zeitgeist Video

Like The Frogs, The Fantasticks had its beginning as a non-musical in another century, and its musical version began as a one-act debuting at a college theatre (The Fantasticks at Barnard in 1959 and The Frogs at Yale, in 1974, literally in their pool). From Barnard came a show that would run for 42 years at a small Off-Broadway theatre, breaking records and hearts. This film documents the 17,162nd (and final) performance of the little-show-that-could. Do its participants help us learn why and how it was such a phenomenon? The 56-minute show-and-tell documentary should have had more "show" and more articulate "tell". To use the title of one of the many songs unheard, we need "Much More".

There are snippets of the final performance. Some are very short. Some are very, very short. They are fuzzy - hard to hear clearly and hard to see. What is easy to see is that the people interviewed have remained in love with, and under the spell of, this romantic landmark. It is wonderful to see cast (past and last), fans and the creative team sharing memories from the sublime to the silly. The glimpses of foreign-language productions underline the universality of the piece - a nice touch.

But the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Maybe it's not so simple to explain this famously "simple" production. Those of us who saw and adore the play "get it," but anyone who never saw it may be puzzled. The colorful personality and insights of Lore Note (who remained as producer from the beginning, and was in the cast for years) are sadly missed, as he died a few months after the closing. He is seen just for a moment. Although the creators and the cast initially refused involvement in this film, lyricist/writer Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt - no surprise - are the most articulate, although what is included is 90% the more chatty Jones.

The film's director, Eli Kabillio, says in the liner notes that "hundreds of hours of original footage, hundreds more of archival footage" were available. Some of it had to be more illuminating than what was chosen. Only a few minutes of "bonus material" were thrown in. The 1991 book on the history of the show (The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks: America's Longest-Running Play by Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas, Citadel Press) has more interesting anecdotes and quotes.

Photos on the cover of the DVD of Liza Minnelli, Elliott Gould and Richard Chamberlain, all of whom were in past productions, could lead you to expect footage of those respected actors. Forget it. It is nice to hear from Susan Watson (who originated the only female role at Barnard and came back for the TV version), Rita Gardner and the just-lost Jerry Orbach of the original Off-Broadway cast, and others who played roles over the many years. Alumni include James Cook who played two different characters and was the stage manager for almost twenty years! The affection comes through, but this exquisite musical (also poorly served by the strange film version finally made in the 1990s) deserves a more thorough look back. And while I'm wishing, is it too soon for a revival of this lovely, lovely show?

Speaking of long runs, fans of Mamma Mia! (approaching six years and still going) may want to know about a DVD called ABBA: Super Troupers (Polydor). It is a well-made, two-hour (30 minutes are extras) ABBA-fest. You'll see this internationally successful pop group's concert footage and interviews old and new. You might enjoy seeing them do the songs in their heyday, but those who only care about the theatre piece and its anniversary celebration will abba-solutely be fast-forwarding over most of this.

-- Rob Lester

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