Before the Tony nominations, before the glowing reviews, the smiling children and parents; before the quietly celebrated Broadway opening; before the sold-out runs at Off-Broadway’s New Victory Theater and in Minnesota—before all that there were the brothers Rob and Willie Reale.
Willie and Rob, its authors, both newly Tony-nominated for the book and score, have been savoring the experience since the show’s inception three years ago.
"For me, the idea of sitting in a dark, empty theatre thinking of what might happen on the stage is as exciting as the idea of walking out onto the perfectly manicured grass of a baseball field and getting ready to play a game. Anything can happen in either place," said Rob.
Frog and Toad was first envisioned by producer and set designer Adrianne Lobel, and inspired by the timeless children’s stories of her father, author Arnold Lobel. "I believe the books are extremely simple to operate and yet the underlying themes are human and sophisticated. It was our job to capture this in a full-blown stage musical," said Willie.
Portraying the ordinary adventures of two amphibian friends (played by Jay Goede and Mark Linn-Baker) during the course of one year, the musical possesses deeply human and engaging characters, clever and whimsical dialogue, and songs that replay in my head. The brothers looked to various sources for inspiration; Willie "always admired E.Y. Harberg's funny and sophisticated lyrics for ‘The Wizard of Oz’," while Rob’s jazzy score was influenced by the Hal Roach Orchestra and old Fred Astaire musicals. These elements have won the show a Best Musical Tony nomination, and also helped bring recognition and the Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theater to The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, where the show originated. But perhaps the show's most impressive quality is its remarkable appeal to audiences of all ages. Rob and Willie have nurtured this accessibility from the start, realizing that children’s entertainment is only successful if adults equally enjoy it.
"Willie and I have always aimed at the grown-ups in the audience, keeping in mind that we wanted to keep the kids interested as well," said Rob. His brother agrees: "It is extremely gratifying to see parents get a kick out of watching their kids getting a kick out of something and vice versa. I think at its core, it's a romantic comedy and the adults that are softhearted enough to give over to its charms are in for a good time. It does require a certain surrender and I am always delighted to see adults willing to take that ride without the excuse of a five-year-old at their side."
Though family-friendly Broadway has largely been dominated by extravagant, ornate blockbusters like The Lion King, Frog and Toad is a gentler, more modest and intimate show, featuring a cast of five and an orchestra of eight. "The difference with our show is that we rely on more old-fashioned theatrical tricks to engage the audience. This is a low-tech enterprise and that’s just the way we like it," said Willie. He sees the musical as a different approach to reaching a similar goal. "In the overall Broadway scene, we feel as though we are providing a really fun first experience for young theatergoers that will make them want to come back to see other shows as they grow older."
Despite its attributes, Frog and Toad’s box office draw has not been especially robust. This may have partially been caused by the implication reflected in many of the musical’s reviews, expressing that though it’s a likeable show, the top $90 ticket price is unreasonable. The Reales point out, however, that there has been a widely advertised, continuous $50 discount (code available through the Playbill Club); balcony and box seat locations are available for as little as $16.25 and $26.25; and some revenue from ticket sales is used to donate thousands of tickets to organizations for underprivileged children.
And the Reales argues that there is really only one great indication of a musical comedy’s merit. "The audiences that come out of the theater after each show – they seem happy."
Playbill On-Line has joined forces with Camp Broadway and the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University. During the 2002-03 season to create opportunities for four high school student journalists, covering Broadway news for Playbill's teen readership. From September 2002 until May 2003, four students who were selected for the program will be responsible for writing an article every other month. One such article appears below.