Sesame Street’s Unsung Women: Cheryl Hardwick

Published: March 7, 2018
Categories: Commentary, Feature

If someone were to hold a rubber duckie to your head and challenge you to name six Sesame Street songwriters, I bet I could guess the names you’d rattle off: Joe Raposo, Jeff Moss, Christopher Cerf, Tony Geiss and frequent collaborators David Axlerod and Sam Pottle. I know this because those are the six writers I would have named before today — and with good reason! The aforementioned composers and lyricists wrote seemingly innumerable classics like “Bein’ Green,” “People in Your Neighborhood,” “Telephone Rock,” “Proud to Be a Cow,” and… what’s the name of that other song I’m thinking of?

The shame in that, though, is that were an equal number of female songwriters who also crafted many of our favorite Sesame Street tunes. They are the “unsung songwriters” of Sesame Street, and today is the day I start to sing their praises! One of these such women is composer and keyboardist Cheryl Hardwick.

Hardwick started writing for Sesame Street in the early ‘80s and continued through the ‘90s, all the while assisting and eventually taking on the role as the music director for Saturday Night Live (for which she is also credited with creating music for 14 sketches featuring the likes of Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Dana Carvey — to name a few)!

Hardwick wrote for humans and Muppets alike, and her melodies spanned a wide variety of styles and genres. While she may have occasionally written lyrics as well, she is most often cited as collaborating with other talented female lyricists: primarily Maggie Bloomfield, Nancy Sans, and Cathy Rosenberg-Turow. She even wrote the song “The Middle of the Night Whisper Song” with Sonia Manzano, Sesame Street’s own Maria.

I have long admired Christopher Cerf’s ability to take an incredibly familiar melody and riff on it just enough to suggest the original while still being a unique composition as he did with the Billy Idle-inspired “Rebel L”. He did it so successfully with the Beatles-influenced “Letter B” that he was sued!  I therefore foolishly assumed he also wrote the melody for the Madonna-esque “Cereal Girl.” Boy — I mean girl — was I wrong! It was none other than Cheryl Hardwick! Even if “cereal” didn’t rhyme with “material” (the song’s clever lyrics were written by Rosenberg-Turow), Hardwick’s melody and arrangement immediately reminds us of the Madonna song, and for me at least, left an indelible mark that stayed with me from childhood.

It’s possible Hardwick was commissioned to write the 1989 parody after her not one, but TWO interpretations of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” first with “Kids Just Love to Brush” in 1984 (lyrics by Bloomfield), and then in 1985 with “Grouch Girls Don’t Wanna Have Fun” (lyrics by Sans). The melody for the former shares little in common with Lauper’s, but the backing music, especially in the beginning (paired with Bloomfield’s use of “night” and “momma” in the same lyrical position) is definitely reminiscent of the original. The grouch-led number is most similar to the original thanks to their ‘80s hairdos and earrings!

Hardwick’s parodying skills were also taken advantage of in 1985 for The Police spoof “We’ll Watch Out for You” (which can be seen in a YouTube upload featuring obscure Muppets Dexter the juggling monster AND Leo the Party Monster!), and then again in the 1991 “Shoop Shoop (It’s In His Kiss)” riff, “Hair Brush” (spoiler: It’s in the drawer!). With lyrics by Sans, this song perfectly evokes the spirit of Cher’s 1990 cover of the 1960s song.

Those spoofs are great, but Hardwick’s songwriting skills go way beyond crafting sound-alikes of pop hits. She can write rock songs: If you were ever curious about what Dr. Teeth would sound like with a Bronx accent, look no further than the 1983 Hardwick/Bloomfield collaboration “Street Garden Cooperation,” in which a cool, leather-clad, Jim Henson-voiced Anything Muppet sings about cooperating to plant a garden.

She can write show tunes: In case kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s didn’t get the memo from Free to Be You and Me’s “William’s Doll,” in 1988 Sesame Street made sure that boys knew that it was okay for them play with dolls in Cheryl Hardwick’s and Belinda Ward’s cleverly titled “Guys and Dolls,” which was featured as part of Monsterpiece Theater.

She can write country: Hardwick really shows off Camille Bonora’s twangy Polly Darton voice in the catchy (albeit brief) “14 Carrot Love” (Lyrics by Sans, 1990), which she sings in hopes of convincing Benny Rabbit to donate his carrot to her 13-carrot collection.

She can write music fit for ballroom dancing: I need to mention the wacky “Trashcan Tango” (lyrics by Sara Compton, 1988) where Susan and Gordon win an award (presented by a Richard Hunt grouch) for performing a tango in which they violently kick trash cans into the audience. Wow, Sesame Street used to be a lot sillier and more brazen!

She can write music that speaks to your soul: Being that it’s Women’s Month, I should have no shame in admitting that once a month I become an emotional mess and cry at something, and this month it was the Hardwick/Bloomfield 1986 collaboration “I Get There,” which features Shelly the turtle. He sings about how things take him longer, but he eventually reaches his destination and even gets to stop and enjoy the little things as he goes. It’s reminiscent of Joe Raposo’s “Frog Struggle Song” (1972) that plays over live footage of a frog climbing up a tree. As a city-dweller who often gets wrapped up in the pressure to move quickly, I was touched by Shelly’s message and the slightly melancholy yet very sweet melody composed by Hardwick.

Lest you think Hardwick has only written for one-shot Anything Muppets and short-lived characters, I’d like to comment on the music of a song by none other than Bert: “Paperclip” (lyrics by Luis Santeiro, 1986). I’d like to comment, but it is always hard for me to truly discern the melody of a song sung by early Frank Oz characters!

And of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Cheryl Hardwick wrote the jazzy music for my favorite “letter song” (be on the lookout for my upcoming “Alphabet Awards” article in which it is featured): 1988’s “Oh, How I Miss My X” (lyrics by Mark Saltzman and sung by Patti LaBelle).

The Cheryl Hardwick song I’d like to highlight in closing is ironically placed because it could rival some of the best opening numbers in musical theater. “Spring is Here” (Hardwick/Bloomfield, 1986) features most of the cast celebrating the new season, and it even grants a verse to Elmo, whom Xennials like to claim wasn’t around during their childhood (this was aired in 1986, fellow 80s kids!). The number is replete with all the trimmings of a big opening number, including rich harmonies, the perspectives of multiple characters and a closing can-can.

These songs are all so different, but all equally catchy. And these are only a handful of her many, many credits. So the next time someone interrogates you at rubber duckie-point and demands you come up with those composer names, don’t forget Cheryl Hardwick!

Click here to become an emotional mess on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Staci Rosen

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