Stories come with morals attached, right? But if you catch The Princess and the Frog, both the Disney movie based on E.D. Baker’s 2002 novel The Frog Princess, and Lloyd J. Schwartz, Hope Juber and Lawrence Juber’s children’s musical, based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Frog Prince,”you get quite a different picture.
Both renditions in current release (the musical on Saturday afternoons at Theatre West) come saturated in nostalgia, and are somewhat faithful in spirit to their sources, but the sources tell contrary stories.
Baker’s novel, and Disney’s movie, has the princess turn into a frog, joining the prince in the lower depths. Maybe this is an attempt by Disney to speculate, like the producers of Wicked, on the Power of Green. My eyes hit the ceiling with the moral that love is more important than money — that takes some nerve, cramming that into a Disney flick.
In the Grimm Brothers version, there is no kissing, no lips touching slime. The princess is actually a rotten, spoiled personality who attempts to deceive the frog in order to retrieve a golden ball that she accidentally let drop into a well. (Disney’s black princess, by contrast, is virtuous and hard-working, dreaming of opening a restaurant in 1920s New Orleans.) From the watery depths, the frog offers to toss the ball back in her land-bound direction on the condition that he be allowed to spend three nights sleeping in her bed. It’s a deal she agrees to.
But once the horrible child has her golden ball back in hand, she attempts to deceive the frog by giving him the royal brush off. Now that she has what she wanted, he can go play by himself, or with himself, or whatever.
Back at the castle, there’s a knock at the door, and ribbit. The horrid princess acts all scared — there was no fear when she had something to gain from Mr. Green, but now she’s suddenly frog-a-phobic. It’s her father who intervenes and sets the story’s moral compass. You made a deal, you keep it, he tells her. She has no choice but to obey. He’s the king.
(The musical’s closing number is a little ditty nicely sung by Anthony Gruppuso, called “Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep.”)
In the story, after the third night, sans kiss, he transforms into a prince, thereby breaking an unpleasant spell. Judge not by appearances, seems to the be the moral most tethered to the plot. Princely qualities may reside beneath a froggy veneer. Keep your heart more open than your eyes.
The kiss got added later as part of the deal — and is part of this musical — probably because it seems so disgusting. It also viscerally cements the theme of loving someone, warts and all, for who the entirety of who they are. This might seem at odds with the expression, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince,” which, per the Grimm Brothers, implies that the kiss has nothing to do with any kind of transformation. Rather, it’s just part of an endurance test.
Authors Schwartz and Huber turn the saga into a kind of medieval Morality Play, with a fairy named Hyacinth (Mary Garripoli) who croons about “Doin’ Good” — as in collecting canned goods for the poor – versus the vain prince’s (understudy Ian Gray) narcissistic song, “Lookin’ Good.” He even gets kids in the audience to help him hold hand mirrors so he can get a better look at himself.
The production, directed by Barbara Mallory Schwartz, is big on audience interaction, dragging as many little kiddies into the spotlight for cameo appearances as there were little kiddies in the house. The place was packed with them for the show I saw, and they appeared delighted when they weren’t squirming. There’s no middle ground for an audience under 10 years old. It’s either rapt attention or dismissive contempt.
The hand-drawn animation in the movie is a loving throwback to early Disney technique. The film is languorously seductive, with Randy Newman’s wry songs of the South. (It’s the first Disney flick featuring black characters since “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah.”) Nor is there an attempt to bombard the audience with fake action for the sake of action. Yet box office receipts have been less than stellar.
The stage musical, too, plays at a pace and a tone that recalls theater of yore, disconnected from iPhones and YouTube and text messages, while reaching out to an audience that’s being weaned on such devices. After intermission, the King read from a scroll the names of kids who were summoned to participate in Act 2, but he was caught off guard when he had to acknowledge that his wards had fled during intermission. He sings a song called “Even a King Gets Lonely.” Especially in a era when nostalgia just feels old.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG | Book by LLOYD J. SCHWARTZ and HOPE JUBER, lyrics and music by HOPE AND LAWRENCE JUBER | THEATRE WEST, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A. | Sat., 1 p.m.; through Feb. 27 | (323) 851-7977