Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Junie B. Jones: The Musical

Yay, my copy of "Junie B. Jones: The Musical" arrived today! We recorded this last year, and I must say it sounds sensational! Kudos to all, especially David Weinstein, Dan Rudin, and Lori Casteel (who is terrific as Junie!).

What you get from Amazon from this link is a 2-CD set, one CD being a Junie B. Jones audiobook, and the other being the studio cast album we recorded. The latter will soon be available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, etc.

One correction from the credits: In the song "Lucille, Camille, Chenille", I am Chenille and the wonderful Chris De'Sean Lee is Camille, not vice versa. Let's set the record straight! (Or in this case, the CD.)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Of Angry Birds and Rath-ful Pigs

I can find no evidence that Jaakko Iisalo, the Finnish designer of Rovio Entertainment's "Angry Birds" franchise, owns up to any influence from Lewis Carroll. But I see a connection!

At its simplest, the goal of the "Angry Birds" video game is to catapult birds through the air in an attempt to destroy fortresses constructed by green pigs.

In Chapter One of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice reads the poem "Jabberwocky", which famously begins:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
In Chapter Six, Humpty Dumpty explains parts of the poem to Alice, including that a rath "is a sort of green pig". Furthermore, in Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice, Gardner states that in Carroll's day, rath "was a well-known old Irish word for an enclosure, usually a circular earthen wall, serving as a fort and place of residence for the head of a tribe."

So the word "rath" connotes both "green pigs" and "fortresses"! Also, "rath" is a homonym of "wrath", which is a synonym of "anger", which again reminds us of those catapulting birds. Is Iisalo a reader of The Annotated Alice?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What happened to Emily's baby?

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is my favorite play. But a question recently occurred to me that I'd never thought of before, and I couldn't find anyone else wondering about it anywhere online. That question is this:

What happened to Emily's baby?

In Act 3, we learn from Emily's cousin Sam Craig and the undertaker Joe Stoddard that Emily has died:
Sam Craig: Joe, what did she die of? 
 Joe Stoddard: Who? 
Sam Craig: My cousin. 
Joe Stoddard: Oh, didn't you know? Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. ’Twas her second, though. There’s a little boy ‘bout four years old.
The now-dead Mrs. Gibbs confirms that Emily died "in childbirth". Emily then joins Mrs. Gibbs and the other dead onstage:
Emily: My boy is spending the day at Mrs. Carter's. (She sees Mr. Carter among the dead.) Oh, Mr. Carter, my little boy is spending the day at your house.

Mr. Carter: Is he?

Emily: Yes, he loves it there.
Clearly, Emily is talking about her four-year-old son. Later:
Emily: But, Mother Gibbs, one can go back; one can go back there again…into living. I feel it. I know it. Why just then for a moment I was thinking about…about the farm…and for a minute I was there, and my baby was on my lap as plain as day.
Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can.

Emily: I can go back there and live all those days over again…why not?
The "rules" of Wilder's afterlife seem only to allow reliving days, not resuming life as if one had never died (the 1940 movie notwithstanding). So the baby Emily refers to here must again be her now-four-year-old son.

Finally, when Emily is advised to relive only an "unimportant day", she says:
Emily: Then it can’t be since I was married; or since the baby was born.
Once more, "the baby" has to be her firstborn. And that's the last mention of Emily's offspring in the play.

So...what happened to the baby Emily died delivering?

• Did it live? Emily never mentions it, or who's taking care of it during the funeral, as she does with her four-year-old son (whom she mentions three different times). Emily notes that the farm "won't be the same to George without me", but doesn't express a word of notice that George has been left alone to raise a newborn baby? This option doesn't seem likely.

• Did it die? In that case, why doesn't it join Emily among the dead onstage (as impractical as it would be to stage this)? I mean, is there some sort of afterlife daycare somewhere? And why is there no mention or sign of a funeral for the baby, from Joe Stoddard or anyone else?

Wilder's notion of Emily dying during childbirth is deeply poignant. But by choosing it, he introduces a question into the play that doesn't seem to have a satisfactory answer.

However, it's clear that the ambiguity was deliberate. The first published edition of Our Town from 1938 reflects the script before it went into rehearsal, and there are numerous differences. In this version, Wilder firmly answers the question:
Sam Craig: Joe, what did she die of? 
Joe Stoddard: Who? 
Sam Craig: My cousin. 
Joe Stoddard: Oh, didn't you know? Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. Let's see, today's Friday—'twas almost a week ago now. 
Sam Craig: Did the baby live? 
Joe Stoddard: No. 'Twas her second, though. There's a little boy 'bout four years old.
So there it is: an answer, of sorts. Of course, the deliberate ambiguity in the standard script does leave the question open, and a production that featured someone holding a baby at Emily's funeral would seem to supply the opposite answer. But personally, I'm not feeling good about the baby's fate.

Thanks to Rosie Strub of The Wilder Family LLC and Lincoln Konkle of the Thornton Wilder Society for helping to solve the mystery.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Over the weekend I had the pleasure to be among the first several thousand guests at PizzeRizzo, the new Muppet-themed restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. There are several "easter eggs" hidden around the place, for the delight of Muppet geeks like myself. Here are a few:

The animated neon sign outside proclaims "THE CITY'S TOP RATED PIZZA". But every now and then some of the letters flicker off, making the sign momentarily read "IT'S RAT PIZZA"! The flickering lasts about 12 seconds, and happens approximately once per minute. So if you just happen to glance up at the sign for a few seconds, chances are you'll never see the secret message!

Tucked away on a shelf in the main lobby area is an ancient can of Wilkins Coffee.

And finally, the most incredible, subtle, layered easter egg I've ever seen anywhere: Upstairs at PizzeRizzo is the gloriously tacky "Rizzo's Deluxe Supreme Banquet Hall". Outside the Banquet Hall there's this sign:

This is an easter egg reference to The Muppets Take Manhattan, where Kermit encounters advertising executives named Jill, Bill, and Gil. Cute, huh? Ah, but underneath! If you look very closely, beneath the changeable letters on the sign, through the faux fading and dust, you'll see that this sign used to read: Pa Otter Memorial Service with tribute performance by The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band.

You can read all about Pa Otter here. Kudos to the PizzeRizzo designers for including such an incredibly subtle, even touching, reference.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thornton Wilder in "Our Town"

On September 29, 1946, Theatre Guild On The Air broadcast a radio adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town". The adaptation was by Erik Barnouw, and the production featured Thornton Wilder himself.

Wilder played the role of the Stage Manager onstage numerous times in "Our Town", beginning as a replacement in the original Broadway production. As far as I know, this radio adaptation is the only surviving record of his performance. The cast features Dorothy McGuire as Emily, the role she understudied and performed during the original Broadway run. Original cast members Doro Merande and Arthur Allen are heard as Mrs. Soames and Professor Willard, respectively.

As grateful as I am to be able to hear and share this recording, I must say I think it's a poor adaptation of the play. Barnouw made his adaptation without knowing that Wilder himself would be performing the Stage Manager role (which Barnouw renamed "Narrator"), and the part is greatly rewritten. In his book Media Marathon, Barnouw writes of being very nervous during the first readthrough, but Wilder was apparently quite game about the whole enterprise. Wilder's performance is good, although it would be nice to hear him reading more of the lines he actually wrote. The syrupy, overblown music is also a serious detriment to the production.

Admittedly, it's an impossible task to reduce Wilder's three-act play to 60 minutes, and the play itself is granted only about 45 of those minutes, due to sponsor messages. It is, as they say, what it is. And here it is. The photo in the video below shows McGuire and Wilder, with John Craven (the original George Gibbs on Broadway).

The full cast of the radio production:
Emily: Dorothy McGuire
Narrator: Thornton Wilder
George: James Dobson
Dr. Gibbs: Cameron Prud'Homme
Mrs. Gibbs: Barbara Weeks
Mr. Webb: Bill Adams
Mrs. Webb: Dorothy Sands
Mrs. Soames: Doro Merande
Mr. Morgan: Will Geer
Simon Stimson: Philip Tonge
Professor Willard: Arthur Allen

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jim Henson Was Not Left-Handed.

Jim Henson is included on many lists of "famous left-handed people". A lefty myself, I would be proud to share this trait with Jim Henson. But he did not puppeteer left-handed, and he did not write or draw left-handed, so there is no basis on which to claim he was a lefty.

With very few exceptions, puppeteers of hand/rod puppets like the Muppets put their dominant hand inside the puppet's head. There are thousands of photos that demonstrate Henson used his right hand for his characters' heads, like this one:

Or this one:

But hey, what about this one:

He's using his left hand there, yes? Actually, no. As could very easily happen back in the old days of film and negatives, this photo has been mirror-flipped. You can tell by the way his shirt buttons, and where the pocket is, and the direction of his hair part. It should really look like this:

Okay, so Henson puppeteered right-handed. But what about writing and drawing? Well, here's a clip from the 1968 film "Muppets on Puppets", where Henson draws with his right hand as he talks to puppet builder Don Sahlin:

Here's a one-minute clip from 1994's "The World of Jim Henson" with ten shots that show him holding and using a pencil with his right hand:

'Nuff said. So, how did this Henson-was-a-lefty rumor get started? Perhaps it is based on the fact that most Muppet characters seem to be left-handed. This is most obvious in a group like the Electric Mayhem, where characters play guitar "backwards", like left-hander Paul McCartney does:

But this is only a function of the puppeteers themselves being right-handed. The puppeteer's right hand goes inside the puppet's head, leaving the puppeteer's left hand free for simulating the guitar playing. If you're going to fake guitar playing by moving only one hand, the "strumming hand" is a much more effective choice than the "chording hand". And while the puppeteer could reach across their body and use their left hand to manipulate the puppet's right hand, if you've ever tried it, it feels very strange. It's much more natural to just flip the guitar around, and use the puppet's left hand for strumming.

Hence, most Muppet characters seem to be left-handed, and I suppose this has led people to assume this means the puppeteers are too. While there are left-handed puppeteers who have worked with the Muppets (like me), just like the general population, Muppet performers are largely right-handed. And so was Jim Henson.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Moonlighting from the Carnival

Nashville Public Library recently acquired three puppets that Tom Tichenor created for the original Broadway production of Carnival: Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, and Renardo. For the Nashville International Puppet Festival last month, it was decided that we would present a 10-minute scene from the musical, to showcase the puppets. We borrowed a Marguerite from another set of Carnival puppets which were created under Tichenor's supervision, and went to work.

Here is the result, performed live at the festival, with Rosemary Fossee as "Lili" and me puppeteering and voicing all four puppets. (Special thanks go to my unseen assistant Rebecca Harwood, who was busy pulling the puppets on and off my hands as the show went on.)

It was a thrill and an honor to perform these characters, following in the footsteps (handprints?) of Jerry Orbach, with whom I worked in a Beauty and the Beast concert at the Waldorf Astoria in 1992. (I sang the part of Gaston, with Jerry of course as Lumiere.)

During my research, I uncovered a couple of interesting things. The Shari Lewis Show appeared Saturday mornings on NBC, from 1960 to 1963. Jerry Orbach made more than a dozen appearances on the show, performing the Carnival characters in various adventures with Shari and her puppets!

Here is a list of the episodes Orbach apparently appeared on, with synopses where available:

11/18/61: A Job for Mr. Gladly

11/25/61: Horrible Henry Show
Jerry Orbach and his puppets Horrible Henry and Carrot Top are featured guests.

1/29/62: Car Show
Horrible Henry and Carrot Top offer to give Shari driving lessons.

2/24/62: Horrible Henry’s Book Show

3/17/62: Horrible Henry’s House Show
Horrible Henry and Carrot Top turn Shari’s house into a shambles when she invites them to stay with her.

3/31/62: Horrible Henry’s Newspaper Show
Shari decides that Horrible Henry would make a good newspaperman.

5/12/62: Perry Comet Show
Horrible Henry asks Perry Comet’s advice on a career in show business.

5/26/62: Reynard Show

6/9/62: Hayes and Henry Show
Bill Hayes visits the show, and Horrible Henry and Carrot Top try ruses to have him sing into their “hidden” microphone so they can sell the record.

9/29/62: Horrible Henry Contest Show

10/13/62: Circus Show

11/17/62: B.J. Barney Show

5/4/63: Invisible Man Show
Shari and Jerry Orbach try to figure out if an invisible man really exists on a carnival midway.

There's a brief clip from one of the episodes at 7:30 here:

It's so weird to think of these characters "moonlighting" from their regular jobs on Broadway. But while all that was going on, and also on NBC, Tom Tichenor himself performed Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, and Renardo on the 12/20/61 episode of Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall!

As Jack Gaver reported for UPI:
This has been the most successful year Tom Tichenor of Nashville, Tenn. has experienced, yet there has been a little frustration involved.
His puppets have been a huge success, but he hasn't opened his mouth in their behalf. A puppetmaster doesn't mind being unseen by an audience — that's an essential of the calling — but he does like to be heard.
Tichenor will get a big chance to wipe out the frustration the night of Dec. 20 when he and the famous puppets he created for the Broadway hit musical, "Carnival," appear on Perry Como's NBC-TV hour at 9. Tichenor will manipulate Horrible Henry, the Wonderful Walrus, Carrot Top, a peppy boy, and Renardo, the fox.
"We will do material especially prepared for the television show by Como's writers," Tichenor said. "For some reason, they didn't want Marguerite, the opera-singer puppet we use on the stage. I'm a little sorry about that, and, of course, Marguerite is pretty mad at being left out."