How ‘Sesame Street’ Started a Musical Revolution

Fifty years ago, one television show united children’s education, puppetry and songs. Pop stars have been singing the Muppets’ tunes (and vice versa) ever since. Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Melena Ryzik for The New York Times which discusses how and why, for more than 50 years, “big names have lined up to play with the Muppets.”

* * *

How many ways can you sing about the letter B? On “Sesame Street,” that question has many furry answers.

Since its inception in 1969, the public television show has redefined what it means to teach children through TV, with music as its resounding voice. Before “Sesame Street,” it wasn’t even clear that you could do that; once the series began, as a radical experiment that joined educational research and social idealism with the lunacy of puppets and the buoyancy of advertising jingles, it proved that kids are very receptive to a grammar lesson wrapped in a song.

Big-name stars lined up to make guest appearances that have become the stuff of legend (Stevie Wonder and Grover; Loretta Lynn and the Count; Smokey Robinson and a marauding letter U). And long before inclusion was a curriculum goal, “Sesame Street” made a point to showcase Afro-Caribbean rhythms, operatic powerhouses, Latin beats, Broadway showstoppers and bebop alongside its notably diverse cast.

“Sesame Street is one of the earliest examples of a musical I experienced,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up adoring “I Love Trash” and called its singer, Oscar the Grouch, “a character so singular that he changes the way you see the world at large.”
Sign up for the Louder Newsletterjazz with reviews, interviews, podcasts and more from The New York Times music critics.

“I learned from ‘Sesame Street’ that music is not only incredibly fun, but also an extremely effective narrative and teaching tool,” he added in an email. “On top of that, their songs are the closest thing we have to a shared childhood songbook.”

Miranda began composing for “Sesame” not long after his first Tony win in 2008; his friend Bill Sherman, a fellow Tony winner, became the “Sesame” music director the following year. Today, with online viewership in the hundreds of millions, the series still hosts pop superstars — Janelle Monáe, Romeo Santos, Ed Sheeran, Sia, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars — on the updated streetscape where Nina Simone sang “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in 1972.

Now, as it marks its 50th anniversary — after 4,526 episodes, not to mention specials, movies, albums and more — the legacy of “Sesame” is clear: It impacted the music world as much as it shaped TV history, inspiring countless fans and generations of artists. And the show is still innovating, finding ever more ways to sing out loud.

In the late ’60s, when Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer, and Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and philanthropy executive, set out to develop “Sesame Street,” their aim was to build school preparedness and narrow the educational gap between lower- and upper-income children. They brought in a Harvard professor for pedagogy advice and borrowed from commercial TV to create memorable characters, including Jim Henson’s Muppets.

Research also showed that children were more attuned when they watched with caregivers, so in came the celebrity appearances (on the second episode, James Earl Jones enunciates the alphabet in theatrically sloooow tones) and parodies of songs that mom and dad would know.
How Feist’s ‘1234’ Turned Into a ‘Sesame Street’ Blockbuster
Aug. 22, 2019

The sonic identity of “Sesame Street” had many creators: Jon Stone, the first head writer and a longtime producer and director, helped conceive the theme song, and the writer Jeff Moss (like Stone, an alum of “Captain Kangaroo”) gave us “Rubber Duckie,” “The People in Your Neighborhood” and “I Love Trash.”

But the person most associated with the show’s musical style was its inaugural music director, the classically trained, Harvard-educated composer and jazz pianist Joe Raposo.
ImageThe show’s first music director, Joe Raposo, wrote more than 3,000 original compositions for “Sesame Street.”

In the early years, when “Sesame” did a now unheard-of 130 hour-long episodes a year (it sometimes aired as often as five times a day) Raposo’s output was prodigious: He wrote over 3,000 pieces for the show, original compositions that could range from a few seconds to full-blown production numbers.

“He would receive the cans of film from the office, watch them overnight and score them,” said his son Nick Raposo.

With a pencil and a legal pad, he wrote “everywhere,” his son said, including in taxis, sometimes handing his freshly jotted arrangements off to the music coordinator through the window. The first few seasons were definitely trippy; you could blame the era, or the pace. In those early years, “he was in the studio or on set probably 18 hours a day,” Nick Raposo said. “They would just sleep under the mixing board and wake up and start mixing the next day.”

(Like many of his early “Sesame” compatriots, including Jim Henson, Joe Raposo died young, in 1989, at 51.)

Music on “Sesame” functioned in three ways: as backing tracks for animation and film clips (a lonely orangutan looking for a zoo playmate, say); as live performances by well-known guest artists; and as songs for the human actors and Muppets to sing. Raposo, who loved Jelly Roll Morton and Chopin, fado and klezmer, wrote “C is for Cookie” — Henson originally developed Cookie Monster for snack commercials — and “Bein’ Green,” which took on extra poignancy when it was performed by Lena Horne and later Ray Charles, who told puppeteers that he identified with the song’s message about getting comfortable in your own skin, whatever the shade.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.