The Croaking Chorus of the Frogs of . . . Stephen Sondheim

John P. Given III
East Carolina University

With the compilation of The Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama in Oxford, scholars now have an invaluable tool for considering the reception of ancient drama.  While ancient comedies have been performed far more sporadically than their tragic counterparts, the American musical theater has found inspiration in the ancient comedians for several of its landmark productions, such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and (via Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) The Boys from Syracuse.  This paper considers one of the less famous adaptations:  in 1974, Aristophanes’ comedy of 405 b.c. became The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove.  I argue that Sondheim and Shevelove reinvent the Aristophanic tension between comedy and tragedy as a new tension between the musical and the straight play. 

Critics of Aristophanes (e.g., Heiden in Ramus 20 [1991]) have seen that the agon between Aeschylus and Euripides conceals a second contest, a competition between tragedy and comedy for the right to educate the polis.  Sondheim and Shevelove discard Aeschylus and Euripides in favor of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.  The two playwrights, like Aristophanes’ Aeschylus and Euripides, spend the majority of the play contesting the claim to dramatic supremacy.  It is notably an unmusical war of words; music unexpectedly disappears from the musical for approximately 30 minutes.  Its silence, like comedy’s silence in Aristophanes, compels the audience to ask what role music plays in a musical.  In the earlier “Parodos,” the Frogs themselves had quoted the music of Jerome Kern and George Gershwin in order to promote their worldview of complacency and detachment.  Music, they asserted, is a welcome diversion from the world’s problems.  At the end of the show, during the long agon, the fiery Shaw claims to overcome such complacency through didactic theater.  Shakespeare, however, finally triumphs over GBS by reintroducing music.  He sings the enrapturing “Fear No More” from Cymbeline (to Sondheim’s music).  Dionysus praises the Bard for his poetry, but the audience recognizes Shakespeare’s victory as a musical triumph.  The Frogs and Shaw are proved to have underestimated the communicative power of music, which, like Aristophanic comedy, can both entrance and inspire an audience.

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