A musical comedy written by Stephen Sondheim, for Burt Shrevelove's adaptation of the Aristophanes original, first performed by the Yale Repertory Theater in 1974. It is written to be staged in an indoor pool, something which ultimately detracts from the acoustics of the piece if the negotiations can be pulled off. The soundtrack is avaliable for purchase on an album which includes the songs from an even lesser-known Sondheim production: a musical made for TV titled Evening Primrose. The original production had a number of Yale students who went on to highly successful careers, including Larry Blyden(who played Dionysus), Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
Sondheim's play is written to deliberately mimic the classical Greek comedy style. The stage opens with Dionysus and Xanthias("It means 'yellow' in Corinthian,") his slave, who begin the play with an exhortation to the audience to obey the rules of the theater, and take care not to distract the actors. After a sign of impatience from the other gods in the theater, Dionysus gets the action going by explaining to Xanthias that nobody on Earth really gets excited about anything, and since he is a god of drama, he is going to wake them up by bringing George Bernard Shaw back to life to give the populace a tongue-lashing.
In order to get into Hades, Dionysus needs to trade on more than his own reputation, and visits Herakles to get some advice and some help. He talks Herakles into letting him borrow his lionskin and club, the marks of the hero. Thus armed, he heads to the river Styx. Charon is willing to give a ride to Herakles, but not to Xanthias, who is forced to go the long way around. On the Styx, they meet a company of frogs who attempt to upset the boat, and once they reach the far shore, Dionysus is obligated to pay two obols to secure his return journey. Dionysus and Xanthias are reunited, and meet the Dionysians, a group of revelers who engage in wild dancing and drinking of wine. From these Dionysus learns that Shaw will be dining with Pluto that evening, and he'll be able to get an interview if he can get into the palace.
He reaches the palace gate and demands that it open in the name of Herakles. It does, but instead of Pluto, he gets Aeakos, the warden and keeper of the keys. This wouldn't be so bad if Aeakos didn't have a grudge against Herakles for killing Cerebus, the three-headed dog that used to guard the gates of Hades. He runs off to get the guards, leaving Dionysus to hastily convince Xanthias, who has been off staring at the Dionysians, to assume the mantle of Herakles for the time being. Xanthias is happy to do so, and even happier when a nymph serving Persephone appears and invites him to return and dally with her and her sisters. He cannot follow up on the invitation, though, because once she leaves Dionysus orders him to give up the mantle. Intending to leave and carry on the dalliance himself, Dionysus is interrupted by another woman--this one an Amazon. At first friendly, she soon assaults Dionysus-as-Herakles and demands that he return the girdle of Ares to Hippolyte. Once she leaves, Dionysus is even more determined to get rid of the lionskin and club. He and Xanthias argue over possession, or lack thereof, until Aeakos returns with the guards.
Surrounded by guards, one holding the club and one holding the lionskin, Dionysus and Xanthias hear out their punishment: since Herakles cannot be punished, being the son of Zeus, his slave will be whipped instead. Since Aeakos is a little hard of hearing, sight, and brains, he cannot tell which is Herakles and which is the slave. So, in order to clear up the situation, he orders the guards to whip them both, on the theory that Herakles would never cry out from pain. After several lashes, and several inventive strategies to keep the guards from seeing how much pain they are in, Dionysus and Xanthias are saved from further punishment by the arrival of Pluto, who recognizes them immediately as being decidedly not Herakles.
After introductions, Pluto is more than happy to invite Dionysus to dinner. When the meal is concluded, Dionysus re-enters talking with George Bernard Shaw, who describes his disgust at the happy, peaceful, inconsequential afterlife he finds himself in. He'd much rather be in a place of substance, even if he has to deal with fools. Their walk brings them to a grove filled with Dionysians, who are listening to William Shakespeare. Shaw is disgusted, but Dionysus is intrigued, and requests a monologue. After Shaw has cut in several times, Dionysus is struck with the idea of a contest between the two, with the winner to ascend with him back to Earth.
Quickly, the books are brought forth, and Dionysus explains the rules: he will say a concept or theme, and the two playwrights are to quote from their works on the subject. Shaw at first wins points for his pointed satire, but after a few subjects, it is clear that his acid prose and pechant for picking the nastiest pieces on a subject are losing him friends, while Shakespeare's choice of thoughtful words meaningful to the human condition makes Dionysus think he's backing the wrong candidate. Since the god wants Shaw to win, he calls for a break and suggests that Shaw use a real knockout--Joan of Arc's famous speech from 'St. Joan.' When he calls "life and death", Shaw reaches for the text, and delivers the speech terrifically, but leaves Shakespeare the rebuttal. Shakespeare delivers two monologues and the song 'Fear No More' from Cymbeline, winning the contest. Pluto, who was more than happy to get rid of Shaw, is a little more hesitant about letting Dionysus take Shakespeare, and Will is a bit leery of leaving. But an impassioned speech from Dionysus convinces them both, and with Pluto's blessing, Charon rows them back across the river.
The play touches on several themes relevant to the modern playgoing audience, but the strongest conflict in the final stages is that between social commentary and social acceptance. Sondheim's final conclusion is that poetry is necessary for the message to get across, that Shakespeare's lyricism is more conductive to making people listen and take action than a direct attack on their values.
Several of the songs from the musical made their way, in whole or in part, into other Sondheim productions; there are recurrent themes in the "Invocation to the Gods and Instructions to the Audience" and the opening number "Comedy Tonight" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and the "Instructions" was updated and put into "Putting it Together."
Songs from the show:
- Prologos: Invocation to the Gods and Instructions to the Audience
- Parados: The Frogs
- Hymnos: Dionysos
- Parabasis: It's Only a Play
- Paen: Evoe for the Dead
- Exodus: The Sound of Poets
- Fear No More
- Travel Music
On a personal note, this noder would like to mention that when she performed this musical at Reed College in 2003, from an original score, the song "Evoe for the Dead" was not included.