As any parent knows, when a child gets a favorite song stuck in his/her head, the family better prepare to hear it requested, played, sung and repeated. Over and over and over and . . . Ever been trapped in a car with a kid on the hundredth reprise of "The Wheels on the Bus"?
That's when you need to turn to people like Christopher Cerf and the musical team at Between the Lions. They're composers and producers of kid-friendly music that adults dig, too, as can be heard in the new series seen daily on 300 PBS stations nationwide. Aimed at Sesame Street "graduates" who know their alphabet and seek to conquer the basics of reading, the series, now in its second season, is a hit with both kids and critics. The show's been endorsed by the National Education Association, won a TV Critics Award, and recently received three Emmy awards (out of seven nominations) for outstanding children's programming. Books and toys featuring the series' characters are available, and an album of music from the show is being planned. And here in cyberspace, an action-packed web site from WGBH, the show's co-producers, is filled with educational games and downloadable music videos (www.pbs.org/lions).
As described by Cerf, who spent years developing the series with his partners at Sirious Thinking Ltd., it's a concerted - and concerned - effort to create material that adults can enjoy with their kids for greater learning potential. The BTL team, he says, "involves really top talent, people who could write for adults or kids but have a kids point of view, and love - love! - being silly and writing good music."
Among the contributors to the musical mayhem are Sarah Durkee (she's written for the l National Lampoon and Roger Daltrey) and Paul Jacobs (whose credits range from Meat Loaf's touring band to the Van Cliburn competition), both of whom, with Cerf, created classic kid tunes for Sesame Street. Also on board is Thomas Z. Shepard, multiple Grammy Award-winning producer of original Broadway cast albums, classical works, and the very first Sesame Street album, in 1970.
As Shepard relates, it's especially gratifying to be composing for this new educational project. "As much as I love producing - and I do love it - generally it's polishing and refining the creative efforts of someone else. And it's very refreshing at this age and stage to be polishing and refining my own creative work." Now, he's the man behind "Monkey Pop-Up Theatre," songs and scenarios written around specific phonic sounds, to great comic effect.
If the visuals sometimes grab the viewers' attention, anyone who listens closely to the songs will quickly realize just how much care and expertise goes into them. "What amazes me about some of the music," Cerf asserts, "is that the musicians on it are absolutely world-class musicians and singers who are very well known in the industry, so that makes it lots more fun for us, too."
As an example, he cites the gospel-style group Martha Reader and The Vowelles who, true to their name, can only sing vowel sounds. "The women who sing the Vowelles's songs have sung with Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez and Whitney Houston," Cerf says. "They're able to sing anything really well - and so the music comes out really authentic."
In the course of watching Between the Lions you might hear a Motown-styled song called "Double-O, Oo" ("If you learn the title of that song," Cerf explains, "you've learned the phonic lesson"), a blues tune from B.B. The King of Beasts, or c&w diva Tammy Lionette going over the top with grief about how some letters don't sound like their name. "That's where parody works for adults and, at the kids level, it's just silliness," Cerf explains. "She's singing about the W sound but it's like the end of the world. And that's a good joke."
For the generation raised on Sesame Street, the Beatles and Doctors Seuss and Spock, the importance of sharing music, humor and warmth with their kids is not taken lightly. The musical team at Between the Lions makes that magic happen on a daily basis - a pretty neat job, Cerf agrees. "It's hard work," he admits, "but we're having an incredibly good time. Any complaints are not accepted."