A friend of mine pointed out that children’s theatre doesn’t come much more marketable than this “jukebox musical” from Childsplay, based on the Saturday-morning cartoon shorts that aired on ABC in the ’70s Schoolhouse Rock. The songs, which teach multiplication, basic grammar, civics, history, science, etc., still work with the kids in the audience. But they also offer a strong dose of nostalgia to the parents and grandparents.
Indeed, I found my own eyes welling up at times, like during “The Preamble” or “Three is a Magic Number.” Partly, no doubt, this was due to the prettiness of the tunes, but partly it was from the evocation of my own fondly-remembered lazy Saturday mornings in front of the tube.
The TV shorts were originally conceived when an advertising executive named David McCall noticed that his young son, who was having trouble learning his multiplication tables, could nonetheless flawlessly sing along with songs on the car radio. Instead of indulging the standard parental grouse of “If you’d put the same effort into your schoolwork…” McCall reflected on the power of pop music as a teaching tool.
The cartoons which resulted have certainly remained in the popular memory. Many of us gained our first (sometimes our only) understanding of the legislative process from Jack Sheldon’s woebegone vocal for “I’m Just a Bill,” and if we know the Preamble to the Constitution by heart, there’s a good chance we hear it dulcetly sung by Lynn Ahrens in our heads.
The stage version packs more than a dozen of the songs into about an hour. The premise is that a young man (Christopher Morucci), nervous on the morning of his first day as a schoolteacher, is visited by colorfully-dressed aspects of his own personality (Vinny Chavez, Devaune Bohall and McKenzie Reese) who guide him toward dynamic ways to impart lessons. It’s sort Schoolhouse Rock! a la Glee; four attractive, overenthusiastic young actors furiously caper around the simple set, performing the tunes to canned music. If they don’t have quite the same soul as the TV singers, they more than make up for it in sweetness and exuberance.
The show closes with a number of more recent vintage, “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” from a ’90s-era revival of Schoolhouse Rock! with which I was unfamiliar. It explains the concept of the predicate with whimsy and a hint of wistfulness, and with much more clarity than I could manage, even though, like
Conjunction Junction, my function is hookin’ up words and phrases and clauses.
Schoolhouse Rock! The Musical continues through May 26 at Herberger Theater Center. Go to childsplayaz.org for details.