Last weekend, Sesame Street continued to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a very special live show. A Swingin’ Sesame Street Celebration: 50 Years and Counting was a concert starring a bunch of Muppets doing new arrangements of much-loved Sesame Street songs, backed by the legendary Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Abby and Big Bird scatted, Rosita met some people in her neighborhood, and Hoots the Owl made his triumphant return! Several of your Tough Pigs pals were at the Friday night performance. Let’s find out what we thought of it!
The show featured a lot of songs from Sesame Street‘s history, some better known than others. Were there any songs you were surprised to hear?
Ryan Roe: I can’t say I was expecting to hear “One of These Things.” It’s such a short song, and on the show it’s generally not very jazzy. But I’m glad they found a way to make it work, as performed by Oscar with the help of some banged-up musical instruments.
Staci Rosen: I’m surprised I had never even heard Ernie and Bert’s “It’s a Circle” before, because I’ve researched a lot of Sesame Street duets for cabaret performances in recent years. I’m a sucker for counter-point and I look forward to hearing the song again! “Ladybugs’ Picnic” and “Pinball Number Count” were interesting choices too. You don’t hear those all that often.
Shane Keating: I echo Staci’s choice, but I was also quite surprised the band opened the second act with “Mahna Mahna,” which is usually associated with the other group of Muppets.
Matthew Soberman: In all honesty, the song I might have been the most surprised to hear was “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon.” It’s not because it isn’t well-known, but because I wouldn’t have thought to envision it as a jazz arrangement. But it was arranged beautifully by Marsalis for one of the highlights of the night. I’m not normally a huge fan of the song, but this had a fabulous lounge quality to it.
Evan G: Yeah, of all the songs, “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” was probably the most changed and most memorable. I certainly didn’t expect to hear it like that.
Joe Hennes: It’s not really a “song” per se, but hearing the full jazz band play Super Grover’s fanfare was incredible. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s easy to forget that even a five-second musical intro needs to be written and performed by talented musicians.
Were there any songs you were surprised not to hear, or that you would have liked to hear?
Ryan: When Bert and Ernie came out and declared that they each like different styles of jazz, I was 100% certain they were about to sing “But I Like You.” But then they did “It’s a Circle” instead! “But I Like You” would have been fun, but I can’t really complain.
Matthew: When I think of Sesame Street and jazz, the first thing I think of is “Put Down the Duckie.” But they performed that song. The second song I think of is “Dance Myself to Sleep.” It would’ve been cool to hear that song backed by a full jazz orchestra. But I guess Ernie just wasn’t tired yet.
Joe: Although there’s a few dozen (or more) songs I would’ve loved to have heard, I was surprised that a musical show with an appearance by Oscar the Grouch didn’t include “I Love Trash”.
Shane: Yeah, “One of These Things” was an unexpected choice for Oscar. I was anticipating “I Love Trash” as well, or maybe even the lesser-known “The Grouch Song.”
Staci: I was surprised there weren’t more than two Jeff Moss songs! I’ve always thought his songs would sound especially good with a big band. “The Grouch Song” and “I Love Trash” would have been great choices for Oscar even though his trash can was noticeably absent. (Wow, I just noticed Shane said the exact same thing. Great minds think alike!) And if Prairie Dawn had been there, I would have loved to hear “All By Myself.”
Evan: I’ve mentioned before that I love “What I Am.” I’m not sure how to translate it to jazz, but after its surprise reappearance at the NPR Tiny Desk show I was holding out hope.
There were so many Muppets in this show: Abby Cadabby, Bert, Big Bird, the Count, Elmo, Ernie, Grover, Hoots, Rosita, and some cows! What did you think of the character lineup, the puppetry, etc.?
Staci: Surprisingly, I did not notice until the day after the show that Cookie Monster wasn’t there. (I’m not sure what that says about the lineup, but I guess my senses were too busy to feel a major absence.) It was fun seeing the performers scooting around as they did at the Hollywood Bowl show, and it was especially satisfying for the performers to get a curtain call with their names announced — but why only their first names? And I would have liked more female performers onstage!
Ryan: I was also happy to see that the puppeteers were visible the entire time. It may have been a practical consideration because there was an orchestra taking up a good portion of the stage, but it allowed the audience to see and appreciate the people under the characters. There are super-talented artists singing at Jazz at Lincoln Center all the time, but most of them don’t have to sing while rolling themselves all over the stage on dollies!
Matthew: Hehe, dollies. (That’s a puppetry joke.) I too enjoy seeing the puppeteers practice their craft with them out in the open, so that people can see just how much work goes into projects like these. I will also add that I attended the Friday night show, and then watched the livestream on Saturday, where the puppeteers were mostly not seen on camera until the final number. It’s an interesting contrast, to see what they do in person and then an approximation of what it looks like on TV (so to speak). As for the characters, I guess I was surprised to not see Cookie Monster, but there was such a great lineup that it more than made up for it.
Joe: I agree, it’s never not impressive to see the puppeteers in full view and to watch what it takes to bring the characters to life. I especially enjoyed watching the right-handers, and how integral they are to the choreography, passing props, and general realism. As for the characters themselves, I liked seeing Mr. Johnson perform in a scene without being tormented by Grover. (In “People in Your Neighborhood”, he was dressed as a doctor… he’s not a doctor, but he is a hypochondriac.)
Shane: I would like to shout out Ryan Dillion, whose falsetto vocals as Elmo were incredible throughout the entire show.
Evan: I was so glad that Hoots came back! It wouldn’t have been a jazz show without him and I’ve missed him a lot this decade.
It’s easy to forget, but in addition to the Muppets, there were also some people playing instruments onstage. What did you think of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and their new arrangements of the Sesame songs?
Matthew: The orchestra was fabulous, putting new spins on Sesame Street classics. Like I said before, their arrangement of “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” transformed how I feel about the song. The way that they created these great jazz versions of songs I don’t normally associate with jazz, like “Sing After Me” and “Ladybug’s Picnic,” made this a concert well worth seeing.
Joe: After seeing the Muppets perform with a full orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, I was expecting something pretty similar, musically speaking. But Wynton Marsalis’s orchestra did so much more than just play the songs, they put an all-new spin on them in their own style. It felt like we were hearing those classic tunes for the first time all over again.
Shane: One thing I liked is how they arranged “Mahna Mahna” and made the little interjections between the choruses actually fit in musically with the whole song.
Staci: I loved the orchestra! I wondered if fifteen pieces was too much for the performers to compete with, and at times it was difficult to hear all the voices, especially with Hoots’s lower singing register. With that said, I would love to hear a professional recording of this setlist with the vocals mixed appropriately. I was happy with the tempo of “Sing,” which was a little faster than it’s sometimes performed.
Ryan: I was so excited to see a live Sesame Street concert that I wasn’t even anticipating the fact that I was going to see a performance by some of the best jazz musicians around. They really made it something different than just a Sesame sing-along.
We all enjoyed the show, but was there anything you wish they had done differently?
Matthew: The only thing I could’ve wished for was more. In my eyes, having a Sesame Street show and not including Cookie Monster is like watching the 1986 New York Mets play and them leaving Gary Carter on the bench. Or like watching the Beatles play, only to find George Harrison stayed home. It’s still a fabulous show, but there’s just that tiny feeling like something’s missing. Also, as wonderful as it was to see Mr. Johnson, having him in a project is like Chekhov’s gun: if you have Mr. Johnson in the show, by the end, he must be heavily frustrated and inconvenienced by Grover. I was waiting for that payoff, and it didn’t come. But beyond that, it was a great evening of entertainment.
Joe: The show felt really full, so I can’t really say there’s anything inherently missing. But if I had to pick something to add, I could’ve gone for a few obscure character appearances. What if we got to see Captain Vegetable backed up by the jazz orchestra? Or a jazzy version of “What’s the Name of That Song” with Forgetful Jones? Or Sesame Street’s original jazz aficionado Ferlinghetti Donizetti?
Shane: They seem to have used a new Oscar the Grouch puppet for this show. He looked very scraggly and I don’t think I liked it very much.
Ryan: I loved nearly all of the new arrangements, but I wish they had gone with the existing version of “Put Down the Duckie.” This low-key version was groovy enough, but I missed the non-stop, danceable high energy of the original.
Staci: I just wish the ushers at Jazz at Lincoln Center had enforced Abby Cadabby’s “put away your phones” announcement, or at least asked patrons to turn their brightness down. I get everyone’s excitement at wanting to capture the moment, but I do not believe screens should ever be on in a dark theater.
What was your single favorite moment from the show?
Matthew: I just love when the Sesame Street theme is performed by a big orchestra. And even though I knew the show just had to start with it, I still get that rush of excitement. And having the orchestra enter from the audience was a great touch. It made the theater feel more intimate, like a community.
Staci: My favorite moment was when a Muppet circle appeared at the end of “It’s a Circle.” I loved the persona and accent Ryan Dillon gave it, and it continued the proud Sesame Street tradition of inanimate objects turning out to be characters.
Ryan: My favorite non-musical moment was a bit in which Ernie, from the stage, instructed Grover to run from the orchestra section of the audience to the balcony to find out if everyone was having a good time. Seconds later, Grover appeared in the balcony — and then Ernie made Grover run all the way back to the stage. It felt just like a Grover & Ernie TV sketch, but it was a unique trick of multiple puppets and puppeteer teamwork that would really only work in a live venue. And I like the part where Grover falled down.
Joe: Seeing Ernie dance on the moon. It was the perfect combination of an iconic song, terrific puppetry, and some amazing choreography. That part was truly special.
Evan: I cried when Ernie danced on the moon, so it’s gotta be that.
Shane: I agree with Joe, as that moment was totally unexpected compared to what we had seen during the show prior – Muppets simply just rolling on and rolling off the stage. Suddenly, we see a giant stage prop and they’ve gone to the effort of redressing Ernie and the performers for the final verse.
Any final thoughts?
Ryan: Big Bird sure is tall.
Matthew: More Muppets at live events! More concerts with Sesame Street music! More Muppet performers in the spotlight! To borrow from that other franchise: More! More! More!
Joe: I second Matthew’s sentiment. But not just more of the same – let’s go bigger! More songs, more puppetry, more dates! Take the show on the road or air it on TV! I hear they have the capability to do a live puppet show with an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, y’know…
Staci: There was something special about the moment near the end when the Muppets came into the audience. Taking the show on the road would allow more fans to have this moment of interaction with the characters and performers, which would be really magical.
Shane: Why is it called “Jazz at Lincoln Center” when the building is in Columbus Circle?! It doesn’t add up!
Evan: Columbus Circle? That’s a circle! It’s round! It’s the moon in the sky! A big pizza pie! Oh you get the picture.
Click here to run from the orchestra section to the Tough Pigs forum!