I’m in The Wall Street Journal this morning, writing about The Frogs, the new Nathan Lane-Stephen Sondheim musical, greatly expanded from Burt Shevelove’s original 1974 adaptation and choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman. The buzz was bad, and as so often is the case, it was accurate:
Unfortunately, Mr. Lane and his collaborators have forgotten the Iron Law of Modern Musical Comedy, which is that no musical, no matter how good its songs may be, can succeed without a bulletproof book. What works in a straight play does not necessarily supply enough emotional energy to propel a musical. As rewritten by Shevelove and bulked up by Mr. Lane, the largely plotless “Frogs” is driven by its one- and two-liners, which aren’t even close to funny enough to keep the show afloat: “What kind of a god are you? “The kind with lower back problems.”…
So what works? Pretty much everything else. Ms. Stroman’s spectacular staging of the title number, in which evil right-wing frogs fly through the air on bungee cords, is one of her happiest choreographic inspirations. The set and costumes, by Giles Cadle and the peerless William Ivey Long, are unimprovably good. Mr. Sondheim’s score includes three first-class songs, two old and one new. The new one, “Ariadne,” is a spare, elegiac ballad of regret sung by Mr. Lane (limply, I’m afraid, though he does his best). From the original “Frogs” come “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” a raucous curtain-going-up prelude, and “Fear No More,” a tender setting of Shakespeare’s poignant lyric from “Cymbeline.” It’s the only time Mr. Sondheim has set another man’s words, and the results are exquisite–one of his most haunting musical inspirations.
You’d think a show with so much going for it would soar like a skyrocket. Instead, “The Frogs,” which runs through Oct. 10, stumbles through the first act and fizzles out at the end, all because of an ill-crafted book. It’s an object lesson in Musical Comedy 101. Too bad it cost the students so much to sign up for the class.
I also wrote about Broadway: The Golden Age Rick McKay’s marvelous documentary, which you will find in the Top Five module of the right-hand column. Some additional details from this morning’s review:
Mr. McKay knows when to ease back on the throttle and simply let his subjects talk. And talk they do, often amusingly and always movingly, about what it was like to work alongside such near-forgotten giants as Laurette Taylor (who is seen in her Hollywood screen test, the only sound film she ever made) and Kim Stanley (where on earth did Mr. McKay dredge up what looks like a kinescope of a live performance of “Bus Stop”?). You’ll weep–I did–to hear them share their fond memories of crummy apartments, Automat meals and big breaks.
Produced and marketed on half a shoestring, this one-man labor of love is slowly making its way across America, one screen at a time. At present it’s playing in Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, with additional openings scheduled for Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Diego, Washington, and other cities. (Go to www.broadwaythemovie.com for further information.) If it’s not coming to an art house near you, call and complain. A DVD will be released in due course, but “Broadway: The Golden Age,” like the performers to whom it pays unforgettably eloquent tribute, deserves to be seen in a theater–even one that sells popcorn.
No link–the Journal expects you to pay for your pleasures. To read the whole thing, buy this morning’s paper and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, where you’ll find me, Joe Morgenstern on film, and lots and lots of other irresistibly readable things.