My wife played a part in a community theatre production of A Year with Frog and Toad, a play based on the Frog and Toad stories written by Arnold Lobel. If you haven’t read Lobel’s books, I’m sorry your parents neglected you.
The play taught me two things. First, Arnold Lobel had a terrific wit. His simple stories about friendship are filled with wry irony and clever twists. Second, the play made a huge deviation from Lobel’s stories by turning Frog into a manipulative dream monster.
Frog is basically Freddy Kreuger meets Inception, with a little co-dependency thrown in just for fun. He uses some unexplained dream-altering magic to force Toad into a “friendship” that is entirely based on pleasing Frog.
I can tell you’re not convinced. Let me prove my point by referencing key scenes from the musical.
A Year with Frog and Toad
The opening number is one of the few songs not based on one of the Frog and Toad stories. It sets the scene as birds arrive to herald the beginning of spring. During this song, Frog and Toad are both in hibernation, but both of them interact with each other in their dreams. This establishes one key element: one of these amphibians can enter the dreams of others.
Now, you could argue that Toad is the dream walker, but there’s an important clue to the truth near the end of the song: Frog calls the birds in to close out the song. That suggests that Frog has control over the dream – a dream that, as we find by the end of the play, actually runs through all of these events.
In this scene, the narrative gets going as Frog tries to awaken Toad from hibernation. It’s only April, and Toad refuses to wake up until May. Not to be deterred, Frog tears off the pages of Toad’s calendar until the month of May shows, then lies to his “friend” in order to get him to wake up.
This is the first of many times that Frog subtly manipulates the gullible Toad to his own end. Most notably, throughout the rest of the play, Toad never mentions the fact that Frog lied to him. As far as Toad’s concerned, everything that happens is happening a month later than it really is. Frog has essentially stolen a month of Toad’s life.
Getta Loada Toad
Based on the story “A Swim,” this has Frog and Toad enjoying a nice swim, except for the fact that Toad is self-conscious about the way he looks in his bathing suit. Eventually, a whole slew of animals gather around the swim hole to mock Toad. Yes, he does indeed look funny in his bathing suit, but that’s not the point – he’s got serious self-esteem issues and needs support, not mockery.
This scene establishes a recurring theme throughout the play – the other animals are total dicks to Toad. The only person he can rely on is Frog…which is just the way Frog has planned it from the beginning.
“Cookies” represents a pivotal scene where Frog’s total control of the dream world is momentarily threatened, and we see exactly how far he’ll go to maintain the illusion.
In this scene, Toad makes a batch of delicious cookies that Frog can’t stop eating. Panicked, Frog tries putting the cookies in a box so he’ll stop eating them, but Toad points out that the box can be opened. Eventually, he runs outside and gives those delicious treats to a flock of birds, thus ending the threat of the cookies.
Why would Frog spurn such tasty treats? Obviously, they are a threat to his self-control. He needs to maintain total control of the dream realm at all times or Toad might see the flaws in the construct – such as the fact that everybody expresses their thoughts in song. This is the one and only chance that Toad has to break out of Frog’s illusions, but Frog ends that bid for freedom by eliminating the threat to his self-control.
Frog and Toad try to fly a kite, and birds mock Toad when the kite doesn’t get off the ground. Note that they don’t mock Frog – Toad is everyone’s butt-monkey throughout this play. Eventually, the kite gets off the ground only because Toad followed Frog’s advice.
Yes, Toad…everyone is against you except Frog. Listen to him – he’s the only way you achieve happiness.
What seems to be a vignette where Frog tells a ghost story actually gives us some rare insight into Frog’s motivation on maintaining this dream construct. As Frog tells a story of when he was a child, we find that his parents once abandoned him in the woods and left him at the mercy of a large and terrible frog which almost ate him.
Young Frog made it out of the situation alive, but the trauma from the event obviously changed him. He vowed never again to let others abandon him. Upon meeting Toad years later, he saw an opportunity to carefully mold this new creature into somebody who would be so dependent on him that he would never leave.
Down the Hill
If you have any doubts that Frog controls the circumstances of the dream in which this play is set, “Down the Hill” should dispel that. In this scene, Toad nearly dies because Frog urged him to slide down a dangerous hill. Furious, Toad promises never to speak to Frog again. As established in “Shivers,” this abandonment is Frog’s worst nightmare…
…and thus it all gets undone moments later. Early in the play, it was established that Toad had never received a letter. Now, just at the most convenient point in the plot, a snail shows up and hands Toad a letter from Frog. This totally changes Toad’s view of Frog, and they become friends again.
There are a lot of contrivances in this play (for example, the cookies eaten earlier would actually have killed the birds due to a toxic reaction from the theobromide contained in the chocolate chips), but this one takes the cake. I can buy that the slow-moving snail takes almost a year to get the letter to Toad, but how does the gastropod know exactly where to find Toad at that exact moment? Obviously, the snail with the mail was Frog’s trump card, and he was holding it back just in case something went wrong in the dream.
The whole dream theory comes full circle in the last song, when Frog and Toad again hibernate and again meet each other in their dreams. At this point, we find that Frog and Toad have been dreaming about the events of the play. In other words, everything that we just watched was a dream all along.
And once again, at the end of the song, Frog shows that he can control the dreams. The last lines from our protagonists are:
Toad: Yes, I’d better get back to hibernating. Spring is nearly here.
Frog: Oh, I think it’s just around the corner. Birds?
Birds come on to deliver the concluding verse of the play.
The only thing missing from that conclusion is Frog’s knowing wink to the audience. Clearly, this sick green monster has been inceptioning Toad into being reliant on him for years. For Toad, it’s an endless existence of inadequacy, constantly bowing and scraping before his “dear” friend Frog.
I have to admit, I didn’t think that adapting the Frog and Toad stories to the stage would work, but the decision to turn it into a psychological horror story is a fascinating one.
Images: Arnold Lobel