A Word With “Schoolhouse Rock Live” Director Scott Ferguson

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The original Schoolhouse Rock television series was the brainchild of an advertising executive who noticed his son could remember all the words to popular songs on the radio, but could not remember the multiplication tables. He reasoned that if important educational information was coupled with exciting animation and catchy music, children would be able to learn and remember it. Schoolhouse Rock was born and quickly adopted by ABC-TV which broadcasted the series on Saturday mornings from 1973 to 1985.

Flash forward to 1993 where the musical Schoolhouse Rock Live! played for eight months to sold-out houses in a record-breaking run in Chicago’s Cabaret Voltaire.  On February 20, 2020, the pop culture phenomenon will make its Big Island debut at the Kahilu Theatre. (See ticket info below.) I caught up with Scott Ferguson, the hit show’s original director and co-writer, for a few questions about Schoolhouse Rock Live!

Why do you think the popularity of School House Rock has survived for so many years? Some people I know can recite the lyrics to songs by heart.
It’s really a phenomenon! One of the biggest reasons is because all of the songs were written by such incredibly talented artists of the time like jazz musician Bob Dorough. The songs just have such amazing hooks, and they’re so smart, cute, funny and catchy. The other reason, I believe is they were aired on TV starting in 1973 and were on pretty regularly until about 1984. During the Reagan administration, there was a push to not require educational television, and so Schoolhouse Rock was replaced by an exercise show starring Mary Lou Retton. Since they were on Saturday mornings for such a long period of time, a full generation of kids grew up with it. That’s what you did back then. There was no Internet. You watched Saturday morning cartoons… they were just ingrained, you know, like a commercial. That’s what happened to me. I was one of those kids.

How did you get involved with the production?
After I graduated from college, I was having a party, and the show was off the air for 13 years. I was at the Blockbuster, remember those? – and I saw a video of the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that would be hilarious to play it in the background at the party. So, I put it on, and everyone literally went over to the TV and was laughing and singing along. That’s when I got the idea that this would make a great live show. I was thinking of forming a theater company and trying to figure out a show to do. And that’s how it happened.

What would you say is everyone’s most memorable song?
There’s two. It’s a toss-up.  “Conjunction Junction,” and “I’m Just a Bill.”

What’s the reaction like from children from this generation who have never seen the original TV series?
They love it!  In 1993, we started doing a production in a live theater, kind of late night. It was a retro fun thing at the time. Then we toured it to schools nonstop from 1993 until a year ago. Part of the popularity was because as the generation that loved it growing up got older, they then started having children. They then were the teachers at schools. They were the ones who bring in the entertainment for the schools. It just kept going and it still keeps going. I mean, the show is licensed through Music Theater International, and it is done every year by hundreds of schools and theaters all across the country. We ran it for so long, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m done touring it.’ Now we just do various performances and don’t regularly tour anymore.

Do you interact with the audience during the presentation?
Absolutely! That’s part of what makes it fun… there is a lot of interaction. The audience is part of it from the very beginning. The concept of the show. I mean, it’s a very simple show. We’re not trying to hide the fact that this is about the Schoolhouse Rock song. So, the plot structure is very simple, and it mainly is used to get us to the next song. It’s basically about a teacher who’s nervous about his first day of teaching. He turns on the TV and Schoolhouse Rock is on and he’s like, ‘Oh, I love these songs. I might as well watch a little bit.’ And then these characters come out of the TV, his imagination, and say, “Look, teaching can be really easy. There’s nothing to worry about. You just have to have fun and use your imagination.’ So, from the very beginning of the show, there are all kinds of participation. We have volunteers come up at one point to do the circulation. I don’t want to give everything away. But, you know, but yeah, it’s a lot of fun!

I understand you’ll be offering special presentations of the show to our local school kids when you come to the island.
They will love it! It’s the same show for everybody. One of my favorite review quotes was ‘This is the type of show that you can bring your 5-year-old niece and your 80-year old grandmother. And the three of you will be arguing about who liked it most.’

If you go… Have a good show!

Event: Schoolhouse Rock Live!
When: Thursday, February 20, 2020, at 7 p.m.
Where: Kahilu Theatre
Cost: $25-Adult/ $10-Children under 16.
Info: Tickets can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Kamuela.

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