Easygoing Frog and worrywart Toad, who first appeared in the late Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad Are Friends (Harper & Row, 1970), are two of the most enduring characters in children's books. The affable amphibians earned Lobel a 1971 Caldecott Honor and went on to star in numerous stories. At the time, Lobel's daughter, Adrianne, never imagined that her own childhood fascination with frogs and toads would be an impetus for her father's work, but it was, as she has recounted over the years.

It's only fitting, then, that the green-hued duo should find new life in A Year with Frog and Toad, a stage dramatization of Frog and Toad stories that was spearheaded by Adrianne, an accomplished scenic designer who has worked on Broadway and in theaters around the world.

"It had been in my head for a long time to do a musical based on the books," Lobel said of her inspiration for adapting her father's works. "I'd say it really began percolating about 10 years ago." But it wasn't until she attended a performance at the refurbished New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City's revitalized, family-friendly Times Square in the mid-'90s that Lobel's vision for a Frog and Toad stage production began to gel.

Freshly inspired by the New Victory's look, and its dedication to children's and family productions, Lobel began to enlist a stellar roster of friends and colleagues to help Frog and Toad reach the footlights. First, she approached brothers Willie (an acclaimed writer) and Rob (noted composer) Reale, both friends she has worked with in the past, about creating a Frog and Toad adaptation. As founder of the 52nd Street Project, an organization that pairs inner-city children with professional theater artists to create original productions, Willie Reale already had an appreciation for children's theater. "He's very witty and never condescending to children, which is an important ingredient in my father's work," said Lobel.

The three of them met "in the evenings, whenever schedules allowed," for about a year and a half, Lobel recalled. "I wanted it to be very pure theater," she noted, "in the tradition of vaudeville. I always saw Frog and Toad as some great comedy team, like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello. And I wanted it to have the sound of jazz from the 1930s and '40s, like old Fred Astaire and Louis Armstrong songs. My father loved all that stuff; it's something he shared with me. Frog and Toad were born from that. You might say I was going back to the source of the source."

By the summer of 2000, Lobel had a script and a demo CD (which she produced) containing four songs from the show. "Many of the stories didn't make it in, but a lot of my favorites did," she said. On stage, a series of Frog and Toad tales are linked by "the simple idea of the seasons passing," Lobel explained. "It was fun to physicalize some of the aspects of the stories, like 'Kite' and 'Sled.' And we knew we wanted to have 'Cookies' at the end of the first act, so that the audience could enjoy cookies at intermission," she said with a laugh.

Also that summer, A Year with Frog and Toad was workshopped at Vassar College by New York Stage & Film, a theater company that Lobel's husband, actor Mark-Linn Baker, co-founded and runs. "We did it with just five actors, rough staging, no scenery or costumes," said Lobel. "But children who saw the show in that form loved it. We learned a lot from them. They showed us how simple the production could really be."

Following the workshop, Lobel sent a revised Frog and Toad script, a tape of the workshop and the demo CD to a number of major children's theater companies. Within days, she received strong interest from Peter Brosius, artistic director of the esteemed Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Lobel also received a commitment from Cora Cahan of the New Victory Theater to stage the production.

"We spent months and months working out a deal that was contingent on bringing the show to New York and using a creative staff from New York [including director David Petrarca]," Lobel noted. Everyone involved was agreeable, but such conditions, which increased costs beyond those of a typical children's production, required bringing in commercial producer Bob Boyette. By the end of 2000, Lobel said, the show was moving "full speed ahead," and she began to create set designs by studying her father's thumbnail drawings. "It was fun for me to see something so familiar to children translated into something new," she said. "It was also very moving."

A "Very Wonderful Year"

A Year with Frog and Toad made its official debut on August 23 in Minneapolis, where it played to enthusiastic audiences and received warm reviews. The run ended November 1 and then the show headed to the New Victory for a sold-out engagement from November 15 to December 1.

"I have to say that in New York I received the best reviews I've ever gotten," said Lobel. "It was a very tough ticket; people who worked on the show couldn't even get their friends in. I guess it's true that nobody doesn't like Frog and Toad."

Clearly, "nobody" includes Lobel's own family. "My brother, Adam, and his family saw it and loved it, and my mother loved it," Lobel said. "It would have been hard for me if a family member had not loved the show."

And what of the family member who started it all? "I think my father would be thrilled," Lobel said. "He was a big theater fan and somewhat of a frustrated actor himself. I was scared at first that I might be selling his soul down the river. But I have to admit that this [production] is so charming. I really think he'd be pleased."

Lobel believes that her father would approve of her casting choice, too. "My husband and I both attended the Yale School of Drama in the late '70s," she explained. "My parents came to see everything when I was there, and often saw Mark perform. My father frequently said, 'That kid's got talent.' He would be thrilled to know that Mark not only became my husband, but that he became Toad. My husband was always Toad. It's a very sentimental thing for me."

Based on the show's reception, Lobel said that A Year with Frog and Toad will definitely live on. "Right now it's in a storage truck in Connecticut, waiting for its next life," she said. "There was such a big demand to see the show that it won't be difficult to move it somewhere else. We want to do it soon."

In the meantime, Lobel can reflect on what she calls "a very wonderful year for us." In addition to Frog and Toad, Lobel gave birth to hers and Baker's first child, Ruby, in February. "She's been right along with us the whole time, all through rehearsals in Minnesota, with her toys spread out in the theater's lobby," Lobel said. "She thinks the world is a musical comedy." And many people would agree that's not such a bad viewpoint. --Shannon Maughan