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Broadway Gives Its Regards to Preschoolers

In the Nick Jr. show <em>Wonder Pets</em>, animated animals are out to rescue pets with problems.
In the Nick Jr. show Wonder Pets, animated animals are out to rescue pets with problems.

For generations, many preschoolers got their first taste of Broadway by listening to their parents' original cast recordings. Now, Broadway's giving its regards to the pre-K set on cable TV. Two very popular series feature the music and lyrics of well-known and up-and-coming Broadway songwriters.

Each episode of Johnny and the Sprites begins exactly the same way: John Tartaglia, the show's young star, sings a bouncy, catchy tune as he descends a stairway in a tree house. Then he's joined by a bunch of adorable puppets.

Tartaglia is both star and executive producer of Johnny and the Sprites, which combines live actors with puppets to tell stories about tolerance and understanding — in this case, between humans and woodland sprites. He says he and his collaborators wanted to use theater songwriters on his show from the start.

"We were bemoaning the fact that children's music is so dumbed-down nowadays," Tartaglia says. "Children are treated as these robots, that they only like this and they only will get this. I think that all the lyricists and composers and myself got really excited about the idea of bringing this music to kids."

Top-Drawer Talent for Tots

Tartaglia's got some top-shelf talent working on the program. Its theme song was written by none other than Stephen Schwartz, whose credits include the musicals Pippin, Godspell and the mega-hit Wicked.

Johnny and the Sprites, on the Disney Channel, is one of two New York-based cable television shows employing Broadway talent. The other is Nick Jr.'s animated series Wonder Pets, a show about adorable classroom pets who form a team of secret superheroes to rescue baby animals in trouble.

Each episode of Wonder Pets contains two 11-minute mini-operettas, each with wall-to-wall music. Regardless of who the composer is, every show contains certain recurring musical themes. Those themes were written by Larry Hochman, who orchestrated the giddy Monty Python musical Spamalot.

Josh Selig, the show's executive producer, says that the music and the stories have come together around some remarkable talent.

"What we've looked for are great composers, those who have a sense of humor and can really do more than write a song, but can really tell a story with music. And we've been thrilled to have Bobby Lopez, who did Avenue Q, and Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown. These are really top names in their industry."

Composing for Kids

Lopez, the Tony Award-winning songwriter of Avenue Q, has written for both Wonder Pets and Johnny and the Sprites. He says working on these programs has allowed him to expand his musical palette and emulate composers from John Williams to Sergei Prokofiev.

"My one Broadway credit, Avenue Q, is actually more musically simple than a lot of the things that I've done for children's TV, because it, itself, is a take-off on children's TV," Lopez says. "And that may be why I'm in a position to do all this children's television."

As for Schwartz, he says about the only adjustment he makes is simplifying his vocabulary for preschoolers.

"I really don't make any kind of distinction, in terms of my approach, no matter who the audience is," Schwartz says. "I'm just trying to tell the story and advance the plot or make the point that the particular scene is trying to make. I really don't try to write down, and I don't try to make the chords simpler or the rhythms less intricate or whatever. I don't think about any of that."

Rich Ross, president of the Disney Channel, says that working on Johnny and the Sprites is an attractive proposition for Broadway songwriters, since it sometimes takes years to develop a show on the Great White Way.

"What you get to do is write a song, have it orchestrated and then we perform it — and then ... it goes on TV in a couple of months," Ross says. "I think it's really funny that, where Broadway ... or theater in general was thought to be the simpler process, [it] now has yielded itself to TV, which seemingly is more complex, but ultimately, faster and broader."

Johnny and the Sprites and Wonder Pets have a weekly audience of about 6 million viewers each, or roughly the entire audience of all of Broadway's shows combined last season. Wonder Pets has released a CD and DVD; Johnny and the Sprites has plans to do the same. Both shows are currently producing new episodes to introduce Broadway-style music to tots for a second season. And it appears that those preschoolers can't wait to see them.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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