Sesame Street at 50 Years: A for the Arts, B is for Ballet, O is for Opera ...


Sesame Street turned 50 this week. The beloved children's television program has made kids laugh and learn for half a century. In addition to teaching kids the alphabet, phonics, basic math and some Spanish Sesame Street has never made any bones about pushing a larger social message of inclusiveness and cultural education. The show takes place on a large urban street and the characters reflect the diversity of NYC. The furry monsters co-existed despite having their own personalities, quirks, and (this is important) different fur color. Sesame Street did not dumb down its material for children -- its skits taught children not just the ABC's but how to settle conflict, how to express affection for each other, and how to deal with difficult issues like death. They even had an episode that addressed 9/11.

But you already knew all that. What I didn't realize was the wonderful arts tributes Sesame Street included over the years. I went on YT and found a goldmine.

Here is one example: Sesame Street presents the opera "Up and Down." This video is a treasure in terms of wit and snark. The host intones in that nasally voice often associated with opera radio hosts, "Hello, and welcome to Sesame Street Opera, with Placido Flamingo and Ernie will perform the very moving and silly Up and Down song from the opera of the same name ... It makes very little sense but it's a lot of fun to watch." I love so many things about the video. I love the matter-of-fact description of an aria as "moving and silly" and opera as making "very little sense, but fun to watch." I love the parody of an operatic duet. I love the riff on opera stars milking curtain calls. Most of all I love how they do this while illustrating the concept of "up" and "down" to children.



The incomparable Flamingo made many other operatic appearances. One of my favorites was "Bathtub of Seville":



Placido Flamingo was not Sesame Street's only opera star. There was also "Madame Schwartzhead" teaching children how to connect consonants and vowels. This skit masterfully parodies many of the mannerisms of an operatic soprano recital. I love the fan, the elaborate recital gown, the beehive 'do, and of course the harried stage manager.



At times real-life classical music stars made guest appearances. Seiji Ozawa showed up to conduct the "Animal Orchestra" in a performance of The Italian Street Song from the operetta Naughty Marietta by Victor Herbert. This is a wonderful example of Sesame Street's refusal to dumb down material. The average child (or average opera fan) wouldn't necessarily know Naughty Marietta by Victor Herbert. Doesn't matter. Sesame Street is determined to teach the children and adults watching. The animal harmonies are to die for as well as is the PBS meta-snark: instead of Great Performances it's Pretty Great Performances. Heh.



Marilyn Horne also made an appearance in full Semiramide regalia singing "C is for Cookie". "C is for Cookie" is an iconic song associated with Cookie Monster, so it's fun to see Horne singing it in operatic style. Again, there's no attempt to explain the costumes, decor, and why Horne starts doing coloratura runs. Sesame Street assumes kids will not get bogged down with the details, but will enjoy the whole operatic experience.



Here is Samuel Ramey singing the Toreador Song while teaching kids about the letter "L" for LOW. "Low" is actually a hard concept for kids to understand. Their voices are high. People speak to them in high pitched tones. The Muppets as a whole have squeaky, high voices. Hearing Samuel Ramey rumble out LOW notes is a thrill.


Of course Placido Domingo and Placido Flamingo finally sang a duet together:


Other opera star appearances: Denyce Graves, Isabel Leonard, Andrea Bocelli, Jose Carreras, Rolando Villazon, Renee Fleming. Jose Carreras sings "Vesti la giubba" while Ernie cries over his Rubber Ducky. That's just genius.



Sesame Street did not just highlight opera. Ballet and dance were represented with many delightful skits over the years. Here is the great Michael Jeter singing and dancing himself to sleep. One episode had the great Suzanne Farrell doing 20 grande battements. I have seen Suzanne Farrell speak a number of times throughout the years and she has always exuded an air of mystery and seriousness. It's as if she's never shaken off her reputation as Balanchine's unattainable muse. But even Farrell cannot resist the charm offensive of Grover and Kermit! Her giggling at 0:44 of this video might be the only time Farrell ever broke character in a public appearance:



In the clip below four New York City Ballet ballerinas are visited by Murray Monster. The ballerinas are called "peeps in the hood" but it's great how technical they get. They talk about first through fifth positions, specific ballet terms like pliĆ© and rond de jambe, barre work, and we see a clip of the iconic cygnets's dance in Swan Lake. Again, no dumbing down. Just accessible, funny, well-produced.



A great thing about Sesame Street and ballet is that they did not necessarily invite the biggest stars. The four ladies in the clip above are known to NYCB fans but not worldwide. They are not principals or soloists. Neither are the Feijoo sisters that widely known, but here they are showing Grover how to pirouette and doing an amazing job:



When Sesame Street did invite the big names it always brought out the best in its guest artists. They never treated their guest artists as something special. The Muppets did not fawn over them or worship them -- the skits were always written in a matter-of-fact style -- these were normal folks who had just decided to join the community for a day. As a result the quality of their guest appearances was very high. Johnny Cash even made Oscar the Grouch happy. Maybe it's because Oscar got to call him "Johnny Trash."



Here is Ethel Merman belting out "Tomorrow" in a way that we haven't heard since, well, Ethel Merman belted out "Tomorrow" on Sesame Street. Notice the plain clothes, the minimal makeup, the simplicity of her appearance. She's not ETHEL MERMAN THE GREATEST VOICE THAT EVER WAS she's just Ethel, that nice normal lady who happens to have amazing pipes.



REM famously disliked their 1991 hit song "Shiny Happy People." Michael Stipe said flatly that he "hated" the song. But here is the whole gang singing "Happy Furry Monsters" in a deadpan parody of the actual music video. They have everything nailed, down to Kate Pierson's dance moves. I've never seen Michael Stipe smile in real life. He is the definition of resting glum-face. So look at him bobbing his head and rocking out at the end of the video. It will give you life.



I could post Sesame Street videos all day. The common thread is: respect for its audience (kids and adults), respect for the art forms it introduced on the show, all with a dollop of snark and a shovelful of humor.

Arts organizations around the world could look at Sesame Street skits and realize that in order to reach an audience there can be no condescension. There is no need to dumb down anything, but one cannot act like the fine arts are a rarefied club where only a few belong. Do things with humor and care. So here's to another fifty years of Sesame Street, and of parodies like these. L is for Love of one of the greatest television programs ever created.

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    1. I also love the Muppets skits like Pigoletto.

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  2. And then there is their brilliant use of music and song on it’s own - “Being Green”. Whether viewed as a comment on racial identity or simply a song about anyone who feels “unworthy” or an outsider or just “different” in some way (and haven’t we all felt that at some point in our life), it is one of the mist beautiful and moving songs ever. Performances by Kermit alone or with great singers such as Lena Horne or Ray Charles will never be forgotten.

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