A funny thing happened to pop music in 1973: As Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Paul McCartney’s “My Love” and Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (about an extramarital affair) were burning up the Billboard hit singles chart, lots of kids, including teens as well as grade-schoolers, were groovin’ on – egads! — ditties about grammar and math . . . songs about multiplication tables, nouns, verbs and even those tricky conjunctions.
Schoolhouse Rock! began as very short, animated, educational music videos that aired during ABC television’s Saturday morning children’s programming block, with “Three Is a Magic Number” debuting the series on Jan. 6, 1973.
Schoolhouse Rock! became a phenomenon, with 64 episodes about math, grammar, science, civics, history and economics produced during the series’ original run from 1973 to 1984, its revival from 1993 to 1996, and direct-to-video pieces in 2009. A live theatrical musical debuted in 1993, followed by a sequel in 2000 and later a faster-paced, 50-minute version specifically tailored for youngsters titled “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.”
These days the series lives on via YouTube clips, video releases and the stage musicals, which continue to be produced by community theaters around the country. “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” will be presented by City Repertory Theatre at 7 p.m. Wednesday June 22 and Thursday June 23 at Flagler Auditorium in Palm Coast. Proceeds will benefit both City Rep and the nonprofit auditorium.
How do songs about verbs, conjunctions, multiplication, the legislative process (“I’m Just a Bill”) and the U.S. Constitution (“The Preamble”) still manage to hopscotch through people’s pop music memories a half-century later, almost as much as Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” – and certainly more than such now-forgotten ’70s hits as Cher’s “Half-Breed” or Edward Bear’s “Last Song”?
Laniece Fagundes, a City Rep veteran actor who is serving as music director for the CRT show, says Schoolhouse Rock! sports music that “is sticky. It’s sticky melodies, it’s sticky lyrics, it’s sticky catchphrases you can remember. You remember those little things that stick in your head and you can’t get it out.”
Indeed, an irony of Schoolhouse Rock! is that, while it educated kids about math, science, grammar and U.S. government, the franchise is a surreptitious primer on how to write good pop songs – something that can’t really be taught but can only be observed and appreciated in hindsight. The songs of Schoolhouse Rock!, whose early pieces were penned by jazz pianist-vocalist Bob Dorough before a host of other musician-songwriters joined the creative fray, possess pop smarts in spades: cute melodies with memorable hooks; clever, slightly wacky lyrics (“Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? Hookin’ up words and phrases and clauses”); and a fun rather than pedantic vibe that pretends not to care whether you get the songs’ messages about adverbs (“Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here”) or America’s multiculturalism (“The Great American Melting Pot”).
That said, Junine Johnson, who is making her CRT debut as the teacher Jan, says the music “is a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.”
This from a veteran singer who earned a voice performance degree from Florida State and “moved to New York to study with a couple of well-known opera singers and do what you would call community theater-type opera,” she says. Now a St. Augustine attorney who is returning to the stage after a 25-year hiatus, Johnson says she thought the music of Schoolhouse Rock! “was going to be easy. You look at the score and think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be the easiest thing I’ve ever done.’ No, it wasn’t.”
That’s not so surprising when one considers the credentials of the series’ original composer.
Schoolhouse Rock! was the brainchild of David McCall, a New York advertising executive who was perturbed that his young son had no problem remembering pop song lyrics but stumbled trying to master multiplication tables. McCall pursued his idea to mix music and math by seeking out several ad jingle writers, but he settled on Dorough, an underappreciated jazz pianist who had performed between club sets by notorious comedian Lenny Bruce, put lyrics to Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” and recorded it, backed up Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s recording of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” and collaborated with Miles Davis by singing on the song “Nothing Like You,” making Dorough one of the few musicians with a vocal performance on a Miles record.
Dorough penned “Three Is a Magic Number” and the other 10 songs of Multiplication Rock, as the first season of Schoolhouse Rock! was dubbed. Subsequent seasons brought on a host of musician-songwriters to pen ditties about history, science, computers, money and earth ecology, even as Dorough continued to contribute with “Don’t Be a Carbon Sasquatch” and other works.
The stage version of “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” features music and lyrics from the original series, with a book by George Keating, Scott Ferguson and Kyle Hall. The play tells the story of the teacher Jan, who is nervous as her first day of school teaching is approaching. But her nerves are calmed when she turns on “Schoolhouse Rock!” and the characters come to life to help her prepare her lessons.
“One of the things I think we are learning is we live in a very cynical age,” says John Sbordone, City Rep’s co-founder and director of “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” “This play comes from a time in which innocence abounds, and we’re trying to recapture that innocence without being fake about it. That’s the challenge for the actor.”
“Schoolhouse Rock1 doesn’t talk down to you,” says Michael Sheehan, a Palm Coast resident who has performed in theater productions at Matanzas High School and Daytona State College, and who, like Johnson, Elizabeth Post and Rebecca Davis, is one of four actors in the six-member cast who are making their City Rep debut.
“I think that’s the magic of things from the ’70s,” Sheehan says. “Britt Allcroft’s ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ is something that stuck with me — that was my religion growing up as a kid in the 2000s, and I still remember all the lessons and teachings. That’s something I think Schoolhouse Rock! shares. The ’70s were an important time for creating innocent materials that don’t trample over children like they’re things to be marketed stuff to. At least the educational side of it. I mean you had things like ThunderCats and stuff that was more flash and trying to sell toys. But with Schoolhouse Rock! there was no ulterior motive other than to create something kids will enjoy and that doesn’t talk down to them.”
Sbordone hopes the musical is “going to tap into that audience that loved Schoolhouse Rock! in the ’70s and ’80s, and that they will bring their grandchildren and children to experience this as a family thing.”
“It’s nostalgic but it’s current too,” Fagundes says. “They’ve even gone so far as to update some of the lyrics to be more inclusive and to be more current. But for the most part it’s the same nostalgia, it’s still relevant, it’s still current and it still does what it’s supposed to do.”
But Schoolhouse Rock! isn’t just pure ’70s nostalgia. Most of City Rep’s young cast recall viewing the series during their not-so-distant school days.
Cast member Nick Sok, a City Rep veteran who will be making his singing debut with the troupe, remembers watching Schoolhouse Rock! in classrooms while attending Catholic schools in Daytona Beach and DeLand.
“In elementary school they would have TVs in the corner of the room,” Sok says. “They showed us clips and videos to teach us curriculum. We were kids so obviously this was the easiest way to get us excited about learning.”
Davis, currently a junior at Riverbend Academy in Ormond Beach, remembers her mom, a teacher, showing her Schoolhouse Rock! videos during the time she was homeschooled. She and her brother and sister “were big fans of Schoolhouse Rock!,” she says.
Cast member Phillipa Rose, a City Rep veteran, “saw a lot of these clips and videos in private school,” she says.
Fagundes watched Schoolhouse Rock! videos during her days at Wadsworth Elementary in Palm Coast. She notes her 7-year-old son “came to a rehearsal and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this song’ – I think it was ‘Conjunction Junction.’ ”
“Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” also will provide a lesson in how local arts groups can collaborate. The musical is being co-staged by City Rep and Flagler Auditorium, the 1,000-seat, nonprofit venue on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School.
“This is a fundraiser for City Repertory Theatre and for us,” said auditorium director Amelia Fulmer in an earlier interview. “We are trying to find ways to work together. It’s a nice show we can purchase (the rights to), and we have local people who can do it just as good as the touring group I could bring in here. So, we get the benefit of what money we make rather than them.
The auditorium, whose mission includes arts in education and educational outreach, gets “a lot of support – we get support from the state and the city and the county,” Fulmer said. “So, it’s kind of up to us — to whom much is given, much is expected. We are trying to be the big tent.”
“Amy Fulmer was the choral director at Flagler Palm Coast High School for many years,” says Sbordone. “Amy, with Nancy Crouch and Sam Perkovich of the Palm Coast Arts Foundation, are probably the leading advocates for sharing arts in the community. Amy and I have been friends for a while and she said we really should do something together.”
Schoolhouse Rock! would seem to be the perfect vehicle for that part of Flagler Auditorium’s mission that seeks to promote the arts in education.
“This is what I told the cast: ‘Kids will eat you alive,’ ” Fagundes says. “They just will. They’ll see something as either really, really lame, or they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, this is actually kinda cool!’ ”
The musical, she says, “will be entertaining” even if youngsters “look at it and say (imitates a disgruntled child’s voice), ‘Well, I’m learning something.’ ”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
City Repertory Theatre will stage “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” at 7 p.m. Wednesday June 22 and Thursday June 23 at Flagler Auditorium, 5500 E. Highway 100, Palm Coast. A matinee at 1 p.m. June 22 is sold out. Tickets are $15, or $40 for a family pack of four, available at the auditorium box office or online at flaglerauditorium.org. Information: 386-437-7547.