Joe Hennes: Hey there, my fellow theater aficionado Matthew! Have you heard that Sesame Street has a brand new musical off-Broadway??
Matthew Soberman: Wait, there’s a new musical? As opposed to the many old musicals they’ve done, presumably on streets other than Broadway?
Joe: Yes! Rather than singing and dancing on the (fake) streets of New York City, they’re singing and dancing a few blocks over in an actual theater. I’m pretty sure you knew about this… weren’t you sitting next to me?
Matthew: Was that what it was? I kept wondering when I had to put on my 3-D glasses. Then yeah, I guess I was there.
Joe: Yeah, the 3-D was provided for you by, like, real life. For anyone not following this ridiculous shtick, Matthew and I went to see Sesame Street: The Musical, now playing at Theatre Row in NYC. Surprisingly, we knew very little about what to expect before taking our seats. Matthew, what were you thinking this was going to be?
Matthew: So this was put on by Rockefeller Productions, who previously produced Disney’s Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation, which I saw earlier this year. I was blown away by the puppetry and how they managed to capture the spirit of the characters I had grown up watching in movies and on television. So when I heard they were working with Sesame Workshop to produce a full-blown stage production of Sesame Street, I figured it would be a new storyline with classic songs from the show. And I guess that’s kind of what I got, though often not in the way I expected. How about you, Joe?
Joe: Frankly, I had no idea what to expect. The marketing materials for this show didn’t give away anything that indicated whether it would be real puppets, if the puppeteers would be visible, if the real Sesame performers would be in the show, and so on. As a Muppet journalist, it was pretty frustrating.
But if we’re talking content, I expected a throughline plot that could only be told in a live performance, peppered with classic Sesame songs. It’s still a show for preschoolers, so I didn’t expect a whole lot of depth. But I did expect… something? Plot-wise? There really wasn’t any story at all, just an excuse to hear some old Sesame jams.
Matthew: That’s absolutely fair. I guess the big question I had leaving the show was, “what makes this different from your average edition of Sesame Street Live?” And the only answer I had was not much, aside from the fact that they used actual puppets instead of full-bodied costumed characters. And that’s what I found particularly disappointing.
Joe: I certainly have a lot to say about the puppets, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But you’re right, the “story” involves the Sesame gang saying that they’re starring in a musical, and then they just go ahead and put on a musical. That’s the arc. Actually, it’s more of a “musical revue”, like the Sesame characters putting on a cabaret with some light choreography.
Matthew: Yes! This is especially light on plot, with the only through-line being the fact that they recruit an audience member to be their big guest star. Obviously, this “guest” has no theatrical experience, so they have to train him how to sing, dance, and “pretend” by way of discussing costumes. It’s less of a story and more of an excuse to sing more classic songs backstage.
Joe: Right, it’s just a through-line, and the show doesn’t really need it. We were promised a “special guest”, which I assumed would either be a celebrity or an obscure Muppet. Instead, we got “Steven”. Wow, so special. Nobody comes to a Sesame Street show looking forward to seeing the human.
Matthew: Unless maybe they used one of the human characters we already know, but I doubt Alan Muraoka was available for this.
Joe: Oh man, that would’ve been killer! Broadway star Alan! Okay, so aside from the random dude who pops up on stage, we did get to see most of the Sesame gang (sorry, Big Bird fans – he must’ve skipped rehearsal). How’d you like seeing our old pals in the flesh? Er… fur.
Matthew: The puppets and puppetry were the two things that this show gets really, really right. They look like they came right off the set of the show. Granted, for character consistency, they mostly lip-synch to a pre-recorded audio track of the Muppet performers we know and love. But lip-synching isn’t an easy thing to do with a puppet (or in general), and these puppeteers have that down pat. This could’ve gone very wrong very quickly without their skills.
Joe: It’s a shame that the show couldn’t feature the usual Muppet performers. I think we got spoiled by shows like “The Muppets Take the Bowl”, where Matt Vogel and Eric Jacobson and David Rudman and all the other regulars got to show off their Muppet skills live. Since that was never going to be a real option for a daily Broadway show, we’re left with alternate performers, who really have an uphill climb to make the show look natural. Like you said, lip-sync with puppets is really hard, and there’s an “uncanny valley”-ness when you notice that the puppetry styles don’t match up to what we’re used to seeing on screen. I also hear that the performers aren’t using monitors, so they’re mostly working blind. I can’t stress this enough – huge props to the live performers.
Matthew: The pre-recorded audio is another aspect that brought me back to that question I had leaving the theater. Part of the fun of seeing a live stage production is the immediacy of being there, in the moment. This really is what drew the parallels I found between this show and Sesame Street Live. Why do a live stage show if it’s not going to be truly live? I suppose it has to be a matter of compromise: you’re not going to get Matt Vogel and Eric Jacobson to be able to commit to a show with this many performances. It loses something, but it feels tragically necessary to bring a show like this to life.
Joe: Absolutely. Between the performers situation, the lack of story, and basically just getting a “greatest hits” album, you’re probably better off just watching the show. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing was a slog – I genuinely enjoyed several of the musical numbers! What stood out to you as a highlight?
Matthew: Who would’ve thought a grouch could raise my spirits? The biggest highlight, believe it or not, was Oscar the Grouch’s one appearance, taking on the role of theater critic for “The New Yuck Times.” He performed a special rendition of “I Love Trash” showing how enjoyable even bad theater can be that won me over.
Joe: Man, I have never related to a song as much as I did in that moment. Oscar’s right – writing negative reviews is fun as heck. It was a smart update to a classic song!
Matthew: Especially the fun Easter eggs for theater fans, which I won’t spoil here. (Mostly because they’re already spoiled, since they’re trash.)
Joe: Good punnery! “I Love Trash” worked really well here because they made some great updates, but another song stood out to me because it was so faithful to the original. Bert and Ernie sang “But I Like You”, and it was delightful. The performers had every beat down pat, and the song really felt like it was written to be performed live like this.
Matthew: Yes, I really loved when they adapted songs to have a show tune-like feel, which is what we should be getting with a Sesame Street stage musical. But there were some inexplicable choices on songs, which already felt like show tunes and could naturally fit into the show. The one I know we both noted was Elmo’s number, where they went with “Elmo’s Got the Moves” instead of “Happy Tappin’ with Elmo.” Granted, “Moves” is a song younger theatergoers are likely to recognize, but “Happy Tappin’” was made for the stage! And they were already using Elmo as a full-bodied, bunraku-style puppet!
Joe: Look, Sesame has about 3,000 incredible songs in its library. I’m sure any fan with an ounce of nostalgia can rattle off a dozen songs that should’ve been in a live Broadway show but didn’t make the cut. I was glad to see a few of my favorites, including “Fuzzy and Blue”. Though as much as I loved seeing Grover and Cookie Monster bring that one to life before my very eyes, it was sorely missing a Herry Monster. And even worse, they easily could’ve included Rosita as the third blue Monster, but they chose the “missed opportunity” route instead.
Matthew: Yup, though I guess we should be thankful that they kept the “and orange” part, with an orange Yip-Yip martian taking the place of Frazzle. Because martians are known for their fuzziness, right?
Joe: How cool would it have been to see Frazzle on stage for that number? He could’ve doubled as Cookie Monster’s understudy! There was one other scene I feel like I have to point out, at the risk of spoiling something exciting. This show has the potential to do things that can only be done on stage, and while we don’t see much of that throughout the 70-minute runtime, we do get to see two giant bunraku-style Muppets called the Fuzzy Funk. And they’re freaking awesome – classic Muppet Show-style creatures in the vein of the Bossmen that seem to be controlled by a team of puppeteers in sync with each other. I’m so glad they took a chance with those, because they were incredible to see in-person.
Matthew: Another highlight of “things we wouldn’t normally see on stage” was the Pinball Number Count, replete with puppets of numbers 1 through 12. It’s a simple thing, but it was executed so well!
Joe: Yeah, and so great to see a couple numbers that DON’T focus on just the familiar characters! Elmo gets a break!
While we did get so many classic songs, there were two original numbers: “Hey! We’re in a Musical” and “You Can Be a Star”. What’d you think of those?
Matthew: They were fine, and definitely captured the excitement of live theater. But I don’t think they’re the earworms that “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” are. Still, I found them enjoyable, particularly “Hey! We’re in a Musical.”
Joe: Right, it’s pretty hard to write a classic Sesame Street song. “Hey, We’re in a Musical” was a fun intro to the show, but I can’t say I remember how it goes, like, at all. I remember feeling pretty bored throughout “You Can Be a Star”, which is not a good sign for the Big Showstopper.
Now that I think about it, I got bored several times throughout the show. Rosita and the human guest sang “Sing After Me”, and they stripped out all the fun stuff. The Count sang “The Batty Bat”, and the stilted choreography left me just waiting for the song to end. I love both of those songs dearly, and I’m genuinely upset that they failed to capture any of the original magic.
Matthew: That seems to be a recurring issue that plagues the show. It seems more focused on what they could use, and not on how to adapt that to the unique medium of a live performance. But then again, I did have to remind myself during the show that I’m not Sesame Street’s target audience anymore. Perhaps these choices were deliberate, and younger theatergoers will be more appreciative of them. But as a grown-up Sesame fan, it just felt harmless to me. Not bad enough to eviscerate in a review, but not good enough to recommend it to anyone without little ones.
Joe: Boo, who cares about preschoolers? Kids can’t afford Broadway tickets – this show is for you and me! (I mean, we can’t afford Broadway tickets either, but you get me.)
Speaking of the kiddos, there were a few educational moments that felt totally unnecessary. The Count introduces the concept of the number 2, and he spends a little too (two?) much time harping on it. And Gabrielle teaches us about belly breathing, I guess just to make sure nobody’s having too good of a time?
Matthew: Hey, is it really Sesame Street anymore if there isn’t some sort of curriculum? I actually felt the guest star through-line was the big curriculum moment, showing the elements that go into musical theater. They mention it prominently in the show’s program and website.
Joe: I wish I could agree – I would’ve LOVED it if the show was secretly teaching kids about the theater. It felt to me that all the production method stuff came about by accident.
Matthew: Maybe. Still, they don’t make any bold choices to overtly demonstrate it. If there’s a concrete lesson to be learned from this show, it’s hard to find.
Joe: Maybe the lesson is “nothing is as good as the real Sesame Street”?
Matthew: Wait, are you saying there’s a television show based on Sesame Street: The Musical?
Joe: Hey, it wouldn’t be a current Broadway show if it wasn’t directly connected to a familiar franchise! Okay, last thoughts: What’s your recommendation?
Matthew: Like I said before, if you have kids that would get a kick of Elmo, Rosita and the like on stage, it might be worth it to them. But for the grown-up fans, you can just listen to the “Platinum All-Time Favorites” album and get the same feeling. (And probably spend considerably less money.) What about you?
Joe: It’s probably the closest most people will get to a real Sesame Street Muppet, so if that’s important to you or your tiny human, then it’s absolutely worth the price of admission. But if you have expectations for the potential of what a Sesame Street musical could be, then you’re likely going to be disappointed.
I wish I could give this a more glowing review, but Oscar the Grouch was right. Sometimes journalists like us just need to complain. Scratch that, we get to complain.
Matthew: And that’s what ToughPigs is all about, Joe!
Joe: Oscar gets us.
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by Joe Hennes and Matthew Soberman