The Broadway musical A Year with Frog and Toad is a family show in more ways than one. Based on the beloved children's books by the late Arnold Lobel, the show, which originated at the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis and moved to New York's New Victory Theatre before transferring to Broadway's Cort Theatre, was produced by his daughter, noted set designer Adrianne Lobel, and stars the designer's husband, Mark Linn-Baker, as the lovably cantankerous Toad. A simple story about a year in the life of two very close but very different friends, Frog and Toad may be the best way to introduce young children to Broadway theatre without submitting them to the Disney marketing machine. This is new territory for Lobel, not only because she's known for such adult Broadway fare as Passion and The Diary of Anne Frank, but also because she's wearing a producer's hat for the first time.
David Johnson: Tell me how it came about that you thought your father's books might transfer to the stage.
Adrianne Lobel: It just has always been an inevitable idea. It's one of those ideas that has been in my head for so long that I can't remember where it came from. It just feels like something I always had to do.
DJ: I read somewhere that your father's idea for Frog and Toad came from you in the first place.
AL: When I was a child I was always annoyed that people didn't understand the difference between frogs and toads. My father and I went to a drive-in movie one summer called Frogs. Well, they weren't frogs, they were all toads! And I was beside myself with rage that not only did they use toads in the film, but that the toads weren't credited. Obviously the toads were better actors and were easier to handle, and that's why they used them. I remember being very irate about this. And because it was a bugaboo of mine, my father started to think about the differences between frogs and toads, and because he was such a great storyteller it turned into a relationship between these two characters.
DJ: Tell me about how the role of producer came about for you.
AL: What happened was, I approached Rob and Willie Reale [who wrote the show's music, book, and lyrics] in 2000 and said I want to do this piece as a show; I think I can get the rights pretty easily, and I think it would make a great show for children.
We hired an eight-piece band and recorded four songs we had put together in a studio. At that point I had a CD, a rough script, an outline, and because I was a designer, I could do some rough sketches of what it was going to look like. I brought in [director] David Petrarca at that point; I sent him everything we had.
And then I turned to my husband and said, “You have a theatre company that workshops new shows, let's do Frog and Toad.” That was New York Stage and Film at Vassar. So in the summer of 2000 we did a workshop with five actors cast by Cindy Tolan, except for Mark, who was always Toad — in my mind and in my heart. And in their Powerhouse Theatre we did five or six matinees. We learned a lot, the main thing being how little one needed to get the stories across. I made a tape of it, so we sent that out with the CD, the script, and the sketches to about a dozen children's theatres.
Within three days I heard from Peter Brosius at the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis, who said we're really interested in this; when can you come out? From the start they were my top choice for doing the show, because they have the greatest reputation as far as production is concerned.
DJ: How was the experience of producing?
AL: Certainly, as a producer, every step of the way I thought it was going to collapse. That's what I learned: that you have to expect that feeling. I never really thought it would happen. And yet, every step of the way, it did happen. Finally, once I had a commitment from the Children's Theatre, and a commitment from the New Victory, I went to [producer] Bob Boyett, showed him the designs, and gave him the script and CD. He loved it and said, “How can I help?” He enhanced the Children's Theatre production by helping them house the cast we have now, helped pay for the additional orchestra, and enhanced the scenery.
The Children's Theatre was exactly the place to do the show. They have one of the best prop shops I've ever been in; they have a great technical director. They build all these special things because they're doing it all the time. You don't have to shop anything. And they did a beautiful production, most of which is now onstage; we just brought the set and props over. I have to say that was a smart move for me as a producer, to know that the set that's now on Broadway, which would have cost about $6 million, cost about $200,000 because it was built in regional theatres. That's the way to do it, I'm afraid.
DJ: Let's talk about the design. I assume you didn't have to do a lot of research.
AL: It came out very quickly. I looked at my father's illustrations, obviously, little thumbnail sketches. The fun was in completing the pictures. I've seen illustrators do sets, and since they don't really know what theatre materials do and they don't really know much about volume or space or light, the sets end up looking like big, flat illustrations. Because I am a set designer, I wanted to translate the illustrations into something that was more volumetric, had a scale that was interesting, and could change fluidly — all those things you know how to do as a designer.
DJ: It sounds like you've learned a lot as a producer. What were some of the more important lessons?
AL: An important lesson for me is that I think there's been a longstanding antagonism between management and designers, both in regional theatre and on Broadway. And having to play both roles, I certainly have a greater understanding of what management is and what they do, and that they are very concerned about the product. It doesn't seem that way when you're working as a designer, you feel like you're battling them all the time. So I've softened somewhat on the management issue. It's also a great thing to be in a position of power. I think another problem with designers is that we're not given enough information. And without the information you can't make a decision, you don't know what's going on, and you feel ill-used. With the information you can say, “Oh, I get it; that is a problem. I can help you with that.”
I'm hoping that management is learning a little something from me, which is that artists are not out there to cheat, or gouge, or just get what they want like a child. We are supporters of the theatre, with our entire lives and beings, and they need to trust us more as well.
DJ: Plus, the producer can't cut your set in the middle of rehearsals.
AL: Well, they can. [Laughs.]
DJ: You had to cut your own set?
AL: Oh, of course. It was very funny; we joked about it at meetings. The designer would put on her hat and say, “I have to have it,” and the producer would put on her hat and say, “You can't.”
You feel more responsibility. I do know that Bob Boyett has personally put himself on the line to the tune of quite a bit of money, and I feel responsible for that. I'd like to solve it in a way that's not going to cost him a fortune.
DJ: Would you do it again?
AL: I will do it again. This is it. This is what I want to do. The idea of just being a designer for hire now — depending on the project, of course — is very unsatisfying.
DJ: You know, lighting designer Peter Maradudin is starting to produce shows.
AL: Well, we know a lot about production. Often as a designer I spend a lot of time conceiving what the whole picture's going to be. So it's not that unusual. Now I have more information, I've learned a ton, and I'm also compensated for it. [Laughs.]
Two or Three Things You Might Not Know About Adrianne Lobel:
She has an 18-month-old daughter, Ruby Beatrice, who's spent her whole life around A Year with Frog and Toad and “thinks that life is a musical about amphibians.”
She's planning to produce another show, geared to slightly older children, but hasn't completely given up on the freelance designer life — she's currently researching for a new opera set to premiere at the Met in 2005.