Back in 1971, an advertising executive noticed his son had trouble with multiplication tables but had no trouble at all memorizing Rolling Stones’ lyrics. He hired jazz pianist Bob Dorough to write a song that would teach math skills and an illustrator to create matching visuals. In January 1973, ABC-TV debuted Schoolhouse Rock in the Saturday morning children’s cartoon programming slot. The Emmy Award-winning animated series ran from 1973 to 1985, and songs like “Conjunction Junction,” (grammar), “I’m Just a Bill,” (government), and “Interplanetary Janet,” (astronomy), are still embedded in our memories.
In 1993, actor/writer Scott Ferguson rented a video of Schoolhouse Rock to use as background music for a party he was having. When he noticed everyone gravitated to the TV to sing along and laugh, the concept for a live musical version of the show was born. Schoolhouse Rock Live! played for eight months to sold-out houses in a record-breaking run in Chicago’s Cabaret Voltaire.
Last Wednesday, the show made its Big Island performance debut – first to 800 local school kids, and then on Thursday to the general public. All shows were a big hit with the audiences.
Schoolhouse Rock Live! follows Tom (Danny Taylor), who is nervous about his first day of teaching. In a fit of insomnia, he tries relaxing by watching Schoolhouse Rock when various characters representing facets of his personality emerge from the set and show him how to win his students over with imagination and music. Through math, vocabulary, history, and civics, they remind him how much fun learning can be, and why he became a teacher in the first place.
The three characters of Tom’s imagination are George (Christopher Walsh), who represents Tom’s romantic side, Dina (Angie Pope) as his goofy side, and Schule (Courtney Rioux Hubbard) his mature side. The tight fast-paced sixty-minute show is filled with many of the TV series’ favorites like “Conjunction Junction,” “Just a Bill / The Preamble,” and “Interjections.” Looking around the auditorium, I could see the excitement on the children’s faces, especially when cast members ran through the aisles to give some of the kids the stage props they were using.
Later on, the cast asked the children if they’d like to join them on stage for a song, and roughly 20 or more took them up on the offer. Who really wants to sit in your seat when you can be part of the live action and in the spotlight? Dressed in brightly colored costumes, the cast bounced around with as much energy as the Keiki brought with them. Kudos to the cast for working the word “mahalo” into one of the songs.
It’s surprising how much Schoolhouse Rock’s influence still manages to work its way into pop culture. On a recent episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the late-night comedian created a one-minute grammar lesson skit for anyone who wasn’t clear on what a double negative is – citing the time Donald Trump appeared to side with Russia over the U.S. intelligence community. “It’s sort of a double negative,” Trump said.
Schoolhouse Rock Live! is aimed for an audience of 13 and under, but nostalgic parents and grandparents enjoyed it too! (That was an interjection used in the last sentence in case you’re keeping score.) Scott Ferguson’s production of the classic TV show was spot on, and the cast’s energy and spirt earned a well-deserved standing ovation.
Read my interview with creator/director Scott Ferguson here.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby