ON THE RECORD: A Year with Frog and Toad and The Thing About Men

This week's column discusses two 2003 musicals, A Year with Frog and Toad and The Thing About Men.

A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD [ps PS-416]
There is a fine line between theatre and children's theatre. A Year with Frog and Toad, which visited the Cort just prior to the 2003 Tony Award cut-off date, straddled that line. Somewhat successfully, but not successfully enough (at a $91.25 top). Even so, the show has more than enough to recommend it. Separate the mostly-charming material from the severe-but-understandable business decisions that spelled doom, and you're left with an audience-friendly property that should prove especially durable on the stock and amateur circuit.

Frog and Toad is based on the series of four children's books by Arnold Lobel. It was devised as a children's theatre piece by the author's daughter Adrienne Lobel, an accomplished set designer. (As the show progressed, Lobel also served as producer. Her husband, Mark-Linn Baker, starred as Toad, a case of nepotism gone good.) After a 2000 workshop at New York Stage and Film (at Vassar College), a full-scale production was mounted in August 2002 at The Children's Theatre of Minneapolis. This was followed by a November engagement at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street, where Frog and Toad (at a $30-something top) was greeted with the sort of reviews that leaves you with no alternative: Broadway or bust. Which, for better or worse, is what happened.

Frog and Toad on Broadway, alas, couldn't quite bear the weight. Robert Reale's music continually breaks out in razzamatazzy, Dixieland-like jaunts that are just right for the proceedings. (Ms. Lobel's liner note tells us that she "envisioned the show as an intimate vaudeville-style musical with a jazzy '30s style sound.") For example, "Getta Loada Toad," which is better known in my house as "Toad looks funny in a bathing suit": The tune is joyous, and it builds into an enjoyably delectable number.

However — and it's a considerable however — a number of the songs (with lyrics by Willie Reale, brother to Robert ) seem to have been pulled, whole, from Arnold Lobel's amphibious episodes. These numbers might work perfectly well for kids; for adults, they drag the show down again and again. For example, a song about "Cookies": Toad makes some delicious cookies, which he shares with his friend Frog. They eat cookies; they stop eating cookies; they eat some more; they stop; they tie up the cookie box with string; they untie the cookie box; they eat some more. And on and on.

This is an episode, an authentic one taken from the original stories; but musical theatre it ain't. This happens as well elsewhere, in song-scenes where Toad sleds down a hill or tries to fly a kite. Compare this to Clark Gesner's "Book Report" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Child aimed, child-friendly, with child characters (and about Peter Rabbit, good grief!); but plot-laden, adult-savvy and crisp as a fresh-picked carrot. The Brothers Reale, faced with material lifted directly from the source material, in too many cases simply add music and stir. These several mild numbers are not signs of weakness, mind you, not for children's theatre. They actually serve as a change of pace for younger audience members, with mini-plot elements youngun's can latch onto. But Broadway economics depend on attracting an adult audience; you can pack your matinees with kids, but survival depends on full-price ticket sales on school nights.

I attended an evening preview of Frog and Toad, with an unenthused and obviously papered house, and I found myself alternately lifted by the music and let down by the over-simplicity. I returned near the end of the run with my kids — who adored the thing, and have been eagerly replaying the entertainment for the last ten months. (They absolutely love "The Snail with the Mail" and — so help me — the "Eating Cookies" song.) Would I have enjoyed the show more, on my first visit, had I been accompanied by children? Maybe so. Judging by the reaction of my kids and those of their friends who also saw the show, Frog and Toad seems a natural for school groups.

A CD of the original Children's Theatre production, recorded prior to Broadway, was sold at the Cort (and otherwise received limited distribution). That album has been repackaged — with a colorful, color-filled booklet — and released by ps Classics.

The five-person cast, and the ten-piece orchestra, accentuate the show's friendly nature. Mark Linn-Baker, a familiar Broadway character man, is just right as the lovable-but-gruff Toad. Jay Goede has less comic opportunities as Frog (more or less the straight man of the pair). Danielle Ferland, who as a juvenile actor created roles in two consecutive Sondheim-Lapine musicals (including the memorably crusty Little Red Riding Hood of Into the Woods), has grown into a sharp comedienne. She plays the early bird who catches the worm, and let us all pity the worm. Frank Vlastnik is the Snail with the Mail, deployed as a memorable recurring joke threaded through the show. He also has a moment in the sun, or the spotlight, in "I'm Coming Out of My Shell." (He's a snail, get it?) The third ensemble role is considerably less conspicuous. Kate Reinders, who sings the role on the CD, left the show prior to Broadway to undertake the role of June in the current revival of Gypsy.

THE THING ABOUT MEN [DRG 94772]
I am all for original cast albums, really; as far as I'm concerned, every musical deserves to be preserved on disc. One cast album might have a larger potential market than another, but that's okay. Every musical has its fans (or most musicals, anyway), and why shouldn't they have the opportunity to savor the scores? It is not unknown for cast albums to bring after-life to short-lived shows. And I'm not talking about Candide and Anyone Can Whistle, here; the eminently worthy Floyd Collins, for one, would surely have disappeared from view had it not been recorded.

The Thing About Men is unlikely to be confused with Floyd Collins. Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro's musical, which opened at the Promenade in August 2003, had a longer run than Floyd's limited engagement at Playwrights Horizons, but that's neither here nor there. The CD of The Thing About Men will no doubt serve to attract regional and stock and amateur productions, and the show might well have success in those areas. But I can't say that the score has much to recommend it, to me at least.

This was one of those pocket musicals about adultery. Philandering husband discovers that his wife is having an affair, etc. You know, one of those musicals with three principals, two people playing everybody else (with funny accents), lyrics like "cancel those desserts, now / I'm through with chasing skirts now," and country-and-western songs about "roadkill on the highway of your heart." The Thing About Men brings to mind entertainments on the order of Shelter and I Love My Wife, both of which — significantly — were produced back in the 1970s. The lyricist sprinkles four letter words here and there, but that doesn't make The Thing About Men contemporary.

Oh, and there's a song with a snippy French maitre d' singing "You Will Never Get Into This Restaurant." "Now, now, don't get snitty, don't get catty / Do I stand here and call you fatty? / Mais non, because we're both so mature / Well I am, I don't know if you're / Sure there's the door / Don't come back for more / There is no encore / She dresses like a whore." The next song starts with "I'm your beer server, Lance." But enough.

Sad to say, because the performances are enjoyable. I'm always glad to come across another performance from Marc Kudisch, who here plays the cuckolded philanderer. Ron Bohmer and Leah Hocking do well as the other parts of the triangle, with Jennifer Simard and Daniel Reichard making the best of their material. So let us direct The Thing About Men to its fans, and to all those groups across the country looking for an easy-to produce, mildly humorous, contemporary-but-not-too-contemporary, five person musical.

And lest you are worrying about the future of marriage in America, let me assure you that The Thing About Men ends with hubby and wife happily reunited. —Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail atSsuskin@aol.com.