When producer/designer Adrianne Lobel arrives at Children’s Theatre for Friday’s revival of the Broadway musical “A Year With Frog and Toad,” it will revive memories she describes as “magical.”
Based on stories by her late father, beloved children’s author Arnold Lobel, the show first premiered at CTC in the summer of 2002, when Adrianne Lobel was a new mom. Her husband then, actor Mark Linn-Baker, starred as Toad. The rehearsal room at CTC served as a kind of nursery for their 4-month-old daughter, Ruby, who was fascinated by such characters as Mouse, Frog and Snail in their oversized costumes.
“There was endless music and fun,” said Lobel. “She sat up for the first time in rehearsal and got a standing ovation!”
CTC hopes that both magic and ovations will be rekindled this weekend. “Frog and Toad” holds a special place in the theater’s history. After bowing in Minneapolis, it moved to New York in 2003, nabbing three Tony nominations. CTC also won the regional-theater Tony that year, becoming the first company for youth and families to be so honored.
The company revived “Frog and Toad” in 2004 with the original cast, and in 2007 with Bradley Greenwald and Reed Sigmund in the title roles. They return for this production, directed by Peter Rothstein and featuring Adrianne Lobel’s set from the Broadway staging, constructed by CTC artisans.
For Lobel, everything about the show was “charmed.” She grew up in an artistic household — her artist parents had met at Pratt Institute. And she had always imagined the characters from her father’s children’s books — characters that she knew as he sketched at home — onstage.
“I’d always thought of the stories in the realm of a vaudeville musical,” she said by phone from New York, where she grew up and lives. “My father loved Bing Crosby. We watched a lot of Fred Astaire movies and sang Gershwin songs around the piano in our household. Frog was the dashing Fred Astaire figure.”
In the late 1990s, she pitched the idea to Willie Reale, a friend who had founded the 52nd Street Project, which creates shows by and about children. Reale, who would write the musical’s book and lyrics, brought his composer brother Rob along.
“We’d meet every two to three weeks, then listen to stuff,” Lobel, 61, said. “We’d talk about structure. Rob would play some music. He tried a little bluegrass. I said no. It has to be Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart.”
After things progressed sufficiently, the creative team had a workshop in upstate New York in 2000 at a theater run by Linn-Baker. It was an instructive experiment. Musicals, in general, are often heaving behemoths, with big casts and creative teams.
“We did [it] with five actors and three instruments in the cast for an urban audience that had never been to the theater before,” she recalled. “They loved it so much, they rushed the stage at the end and asked everyone for autographs.”
Taking a trip
She took a recording from that workshop and sent it to CTC artistic director Peter Brosius, who invited her to Minneapolis.
The rest, she said, is pleasant history.
“Frog and Toad” has extended the legacy of her father, who died in 1987.
“We were able to translate the books into a different and new art form,” she said. “I’m sorry he missed seeing the ads for ‘Frog and Toad’ on every bus in Manhattan when it was on Broadway.”
The show also spoiled her. Lobel has been keen to do another musical from her father’s estate. She’s tried other things, but nothing has come close, both onstage and off, to telling the story of codependent, sometimes moody amphibian friends.
“Frankly, I’m no longer married to Toad,” said Lobel.
Even so, the show remains a happy dream. “It’s been hallucinatory,” she said.