By Ryan Roe, Tough Pigs
The temperature in New York City’s Carnegie Hall during two special Family Pops concert performances of Jim Henson’s Musical World on Saturday, April 14th was comfortably warm. But I still managed to get chills several times.
And now that I got that cheesy intro out of the way, let me tell you everything about the show, which your crazy Tough Pigs pals attended for both performances. The event was described as “a musical tribute to Jim Henson’s great legacy through song and puppetry,” and that’s exactly what it was. There were lots of puppets, and lots and lots of songs from the worlds Jim Henson had a hand in. It would be impossible to include every great Muppet song from Jim’s career, but the show, written by Muppet veteran Craig Shemin, did a great job of hitting all the essentials and entertaining the casual fans and families while simultaneously causing the Muppet geeks’ heads to fill up with joy and happiness and float up to the ceiling.
As the audience wandered into Carnegie Hall to find their seats before the 12:30 show, there was a video playing on the big screen at center stage. It was Rowlf at his piano, singing several songs from the Ol’ Brown Ears is Back album, and for some reason he was wearing a watch on his left hand. I have no idea where this video came from. At first I thought it might be newly recorded footage with Rowlf lip-synching to the old recordings by Jim Henson, but then Sam came in, and he was performed by Frank Oz, so it remains a mystery to me. [UPDATE: I've been informed by Tough Pigs pal John that this video came from the pre-show for the old "Here Come the Muppets" show at Disney World. Mystery solved!]
When the lights dimmed and the show began, we got another Rowlf video, and this one was in black and white and featured his old co-star Jimmy Dean. They were performing at Carnegie Hall in 1965, with Dean conducting Rowlf on the violin. When this clip ended, Rowlf himself popped up at center stage, and the crowd went wild. “I was such a hit, I knew they’d have me back,” he said. “I just didn’t think it would take 47 years!” This is when it really sunk in: This was going to be live performance with live Muppets. There was Rowlf, right there onstage in front of us, emerging from behind a black drape just high enough to obscure Bill Barretta. When Rowlf had departed, the orchestra, joined by the Electric Mayhem, played a medley of the theme songs from The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, and the show was off and running. Musical World was a New York Pops concert, and it was pretty amazing to hear a full orchestra playing Muppet songs live. They were accompanied by Essential Voices, a big ol’ chorus of singers who added a lot to songs like “Sing” and “Come and Follow Me.” But I’ll get to those songs in a minute. All the songs and medleys were also accompanied by video montages, which drew from a plethora of Muppet productions from the various franchises’ histories.
As the spotlights did ballyhoos (a word that’s fun to say), Jerry Nelson’s unmistakeable announcer voice introduced the host of the show: John Tartaglia!
But there was no sign of him. So then, another introduction: John Tartaglia!
Nothing. The conductor Steven Reineke pulled out his cell phone to call the missing host, and the big screen showed us Tartaglia fast asleep in rubber duckie pajamas. “Why are you at Carnegie Hall?” Tartaglia asked the conductor. “Our Jim Henson’s Musical World concert is next week!” When he was informed that no, it’s today, right now, he hung up and raced to the theater, appearing in the aisle just seconds later. Wow, he got there really fast. How do you think he did that?
Tartaglia stripped off his pajamas to reveal a suit with frog-green pants as he sang “Sing,” and then he talked a bit about Jim Henson and how important music always was to the Muppets. Reineke interrupted him — he just wanted to make sure Tartaglia had told all the show’s special guests the correct date for the concert. Tartaglia assured him that he had, but when Reineke briefly left the stage to go to “the little conductor’s room,” Tartaglia confided to us that he had in fact told everyone the wrong day. Here Statler and Waldorf appeared in the actual balcony of the theater, to the delight of everyone, especially the audience members sitting next to them. “You mean the Muppets aren’t going to be here? This is our lucky day! We finally came to the right show!”
Tartaglia attempted to call his friends on Sesame Street, by dialing 123-456-78910, but it went straight to Hooper’s Store’s voicemail. “We’re closed right now,” said Alan. “Our normal hours are 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM, Monday through Friday.” So now there were no Muppets and nobody from Sesame Street. So now what?
There was a familiar musical flourish, and Fozzie Bear popped up on stage right. You see, John had told him the show was next week, but Fozzie had screwed up and come to Carnegie Hall this week. “I guess two wrongs do make a right!” said Fozzie. John asked Fozzie if he remembered Jim Henson, then told us that he had asked Fozzie to got to the library to do some research before the show to learn more. “So, what’d you find out?” John asked, and Fozzie said, “I found out they don’t allow bears in the New York Public Library.” Now taking advantage of Fozzie’s scheduling confusion, Tartaglia asked Fozzie to go find all the Muppets and bring them in while he kept the show going.
Fozzie departed. Desperate for something to do onstage, Tartaglia turned to the orchestra: “Is there anyone here who’s always dreamed of being a star? There must be someone!” A violinist tentatively raised her hand, so he invited her to join him out front. As the orchestra started “Steppin’ Out with a Star” from The Great Muppet Caper, she put on a sparkly jacket, started singing, and soon joined Tartaglia in some perfectly synchronized
choreography. What a multi-talented violinist! Of course, Muppet fans (and Broadway fans) in the audience figured out before Tartaglia announced her true identity that this “violinist” was none other than Stephanie D’Abruzzo, his Avenue Q co-star and fellow Sesame Street performer. She left the stage at this point (leaving an empty chair in the string section) but she would return several times to puppeteer various characters. During the second show, I looked for her in the orchestra at the beginning of the show, and noted that she was doing a very convincing job of pretending to play the violin. Unless she actually does play the violin, in which case she did a great job of that!
The next character to pop up got almost no reaction from the majority of the audience, but the Muppet geeks present were freaking out. It was Uncle Traveling Matt! He was leading a tour of Outer Space for two other Fraggles… Red and Wembley! So this was pretty incredible for a few different reasons. For one thing, when do the Fraggles ever appear live in public? For another thing, we’ve seen Karen Prell make a few delightful appearances with Red in the past few years, but we didn’t even know there was currently a performable Wembley puppet in existence. It was great to see him, and Steve Whitmire had no problem slipping back into the character after however many years. (Steve, by the way, was never credited on the show’s promotional materials, despite performing at least four characters in the show. If he was a last minute addition to the lineup, they fit him in pretty seamlessly.)
Uncle Matt presented a slideshow of “facts” about “Carnegie Cave”: It was built last week by Doozers, it serves as a summer home for Ma and Pa Gorg. Tartaglia asked if they could sing a few Fraggle songs, and they obliged with a medley of “Come and Follow Me,” “Pass It On” (requested by Matt as “That squeedly song you do”), “Workin’,” “Wemblin’ Fool,” “Let Me Be Your Song,” and the Fraggle Rock theme song, complete with clap-claps from Essential Voices and the entire audience. Tartaglia tried to explain to the Fraggles what a Jim Henson is, ultimately deciding that he was a lot like Cantus the Minstrel. A picture of Jim holding Cantus elicited a shocked reaction from Matt: “Oh my gosh! That silly creature is kidnapping Cantus!” Once Matt calmed down, the Fraggles decided to watch the rest of the show from backstage.
Overall, the audience was a little bit on the subdued side for both performances. They applauded appreciatively for everyone and everyMuppet, but there wasn’t quite as much cheering and whistling and Bieber-fever-style screaming as I might have expected. But the next Muppet to appear got the biggest audience response of all, and for good reason. It was Miss Piggy, one of the most spectacularly talented stars ever to grace the Carnegie Hall stage. She had also been given the wrong date by John Tartaglia, but under the impression that the theater was her dressing room, she was arriving a week early to begin redecorating. When he asked her to sing, she insisted that she had to get into wardrobe and makeup first, and disappeared with a promise to return soon.
At this point, a woman with a headset and a clipboard wandered onstage. This was Rachel, the Carnegie Hall stage manager… but surprise! It was really Rachel Dratch, the
comic actress and former Saturday Night Live cast member. I’d be curious to hear how she ended up in this show… She was a fun addition to the proceedings, but I might have expected somebody who had actually worked with the Muppets before. Rachel offered to take part in the show by doing her Muppet impressions — “Me want cookie. Nom nom nom” and “Elmo loves you. Tickle Elmo. Ha ha ha.” But instead, Tartaglia invited her to sing with him, which led to a rendition of “Be My Echo” from Sesame Street.
Speaking of Sesame Street: When the orchestra played the theme song, just like magic, the human cast of the show came walking up the aisles, as Elmo, Ernie, Bert, and Cookie Monster all popped up on the stage. This was when the kids around me started yelling, “HI, ELMO! HI, ELMO!” (Elmo actually wasn’t given much of a spotlight here, but it makes sense considering the program was focusing on the music from Jim’s era, during which Elmo was a Sesame regular but not yet a superstar.) Tartaglia welcomed Bob McGrath, Loretta Long, Roscoe Orman, Sonia Manzano, Allison Bartlett, Alan Muraoka, and Nitya Vidyasagar to the stage, whereupon McGrath and Long bragged that they’ve been living on Sesame Street for 42 years, and received a well-deserved round of applause. I’ve always been nearly as fond of the Sesame humans as the Muppets, so it was pretty thrilling to see those folks who feel like my television aunts and uncles and buddies up there doing what they do best. (Notably absent were Emilio Delgado, Desiree Casado, Chris Knowings, and either of Caroll Spinney’s characters, but perhaps they had some kind of scheduling conflict. Or perhaps they really were told the wrong day.)
Bob kicked off the Sesame medley with “The People in Your Neighborhood,” singing a new verse about the conductor. Ernie and Elmo sang “One Fine Face,” and Cookie Monster did “C Is for Cookie.” Oscar’s absence didn’t stop the cast from singing “I Love Trash,” with the four ladies trading off lines of the “sneaker” verse. This was followed by “Rubber Duckie.” Elmo provided the duckie squeak sound effects, which seemed to genuinely catch Ernie/Steve off guard for a second. The song wrapped up with the whole cast doing a kick-line across the stage, and it just doesn’t get much better than that.
When the Sesame folks exited, John Tartaglia went into the audience, searching for people with some “Muppet memories” to share. As he scanned the crowd, he stopped in front of one gentleman. “Did anyone ever tell you you look just like Paul Williams?” The guy replied, “I am Paul Williams!” Fortunately, he just happened to have the lyrics to all his Muppet songs with him, so he took the stage for the next segment of the show, which was devoted to Emmet Otter. As the orchestra’s 1st Chair Washboard Player produced the rhythm that starts “Barbecue,” a bunch of animals from the recent stage production of Emmet Otter appeared onstage, including the great-looking Doc Bullfrog puppet. They followed this with “Where the River Meets the Sea” and “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub.”
Fozzie returned, having proudly completed his mission: He found the muffins, and he brought them to the theater! When Tartaglia pointed out the Emily Litella-like error the bear had made, he became despondent: “I let you down! I’m always letting people down! I can’t do anything right.” John was comforting: “You may have made a mistake, but I still believe in you.” And if you know the Muppets, you know what song came next. It was “Just One Person,” with Kermit, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, the Electric Mayhem, Bunsen and Beaker, and Beauregard all showing up to join the chorus.
One of the fun things about going to a live Muppet show and sitting in the balcony, is that you can catch glimpses of the puppeteers’ heads… I was happy to be able to satisfy my impulse to know who was playing Zoot while Dave was playing Gonzo (It was Karen Prell) and who was playing Janice while David Rudman was playing Scooter (It was Stephanie D’Abruzzo). Just another little added-value thing for the geeks.
The Muppet Show theme song kicked off another medley, which included “Mahna Mahna” (Kevin Clash as both Snowths, navigating around Bill Barretta’s head!), “Movin’ Right Along,” “Happy Feet,” and “Together Again.” After this, Kermit put his legs on so he could sit on the edge of the puppeteer-hiding curtain and chat with John Tartaglia. He was pretty close to Jim Henson, he said. “You might say he was my right-hand man!” Tartaglia expressed his admiration for Kermit’s ability to successfully put on a show, especially considering the fact that It’s not easy… not easy… Kermit didn’t take the bait; even when Tartaglia said, “There are some other things that are not easy,” Kermit responded, “Math class?” But then of course he sang “Bein’ Green,” and I think I may have had a little out-of-body experience.
Piggy finally returned, all glammed-up and ready to sing “Never Before, Never Again,” but John had to inform her that the show was almost over. But she had just gotten into wardrobe, she protested. She was wearing three pairs of Spanx! Fortunately, John convinced her that she would be singing lead on the final song and everyone else on stage would be singing backup. “Moi would expect no less,” she said, and Tartaglia invited all the special guests to come back for “The Rainbow Connection” led by Paul Williams, complete with the lyrics projected on the screen so the audience could sing along. And most people did.
I’m not a big fan of standing ovations. Audiences today will bestow a standing ovation on any performance that doesn’t completely suck, and I think the tradition has lost all meaning as a result. But I was happy to join in the standing ovations that happened at both performances of Jim Henson’s Musical World. We were standing for the orchestra, and for John Tartaglia and the special guests, and for the Muppet people — Pam Arciero, Bill Barretta, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Kevin Clash, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Dave Goelz, Eric Jacobson, Rollie Krewson, Lara MacLean, Karen Prell, David Rudman, Matt Vogel and Steve Whitmire. But we weren’t just standing for their performances on the Carnegie Hall stage on Saturday. We were standing for the Muppets, for decades of great music, and for that guy Jim Henson.
One thing I haven’t mentioned it yet is that there were sound issues throughout the show. They were particularly bad in the 12:30 performance, which included several moments where singers and Muppets couldn’t be heard at all, punchlines were lost, and lyrics were drowned out by music. I don’t know how this could happen in a place like Carnegie Hall that hosts multiple musical performances every single day, but it was a consistent problem. It didn’t help that there were so many little kids who were making noise the whole time… Honestly, what were people thinking bringing their families to a Family Pops Concert?!
I was feeling pretty cranky about all that, until I was talking to Tough Pigs’ own Mary Catherine Owen between shows, and she pointed out how fittingly Muppety it was. It’s why we love The Muppet Show — these lovable characters try really hard to put on a great show, and things keep going wrong, but they never let it stop
them. They just keep on putting on the best show they possibly can, which is exactly what happened at Carnegie Hall on Saturday. The Muppets and their friends put on a true Muppet show.
In today’s split-ownership reality, we never expected to see a show with characters owned by Disney, Henson, and Sesame Workshop to appear on the same stage, and although there was never any inter-franchise interaction, it was a good, uplifting show from start to finish (and even after the finish, when several of the performers generously said hello and signed autographs for fans waiting at the stage door). I’m pretty sure everyone there had a good time, so my hope is that the show’s success will encourage the three companies to cooperate more in the future… A Muppet Family Summer Vacation, anyone?