Paul Williams—yes, that one Paul Williams, the rare singer-songwriter who has collaborated with Barbra Streisand, Brian De Palma and Daft Punk—had only a few tips during a November rehearsal, but when he spoke, everyone listened. The squirrels, who had been rather boisterous seconds earlier, concentrated. George and Melissa Rabbit were all ears.
After all, when the man who wrote the score hands out notes, even forest animals pay attention.
Williams, spry and mischievous at age 81, had stopped by the New Victory Theater in Manhattan to watch the early stages of “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” featuring a menagerie of puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop on the stage.
Williams and Henson, of course, went way back: in 1976 the musician was a guest on the eighth episode of ‘The Muppet Show’ and a few years later he co-wrote or co-wrote the songs for ‘The Muppet Movie’, including the Academy Award-winning song. nominee “Rainbow Connection.”
In between these two projects, Henson asked him to come up with the score for “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” a one-hour TV special that aired on HBO in 1978 in America.
“I loved working with Jim,” Williams said. “He sent me the script and the book, and I just sat there and wrote. I think I had to audition for ‘The Muppet Movie’ a bit, which was a huge risk for them at the time.”
Based on an illustrated children’s book by Lillian and Russell Hoban, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” begins with the title character and his mother barely gets by with small chores by the river in Frogtown Hollow. So when they hear about a talent show with a cash prize of $50, they decide to enter separately. Emmet plays the washtub bass in a group with his furry friends, and Ma sings, but they face stiff competition, especially from the mischievous Riverbottom Nightmare Band, whose members include an ermine, a snake and a weasel. The 75-minute musical production runs from December 11 through January. 2 at the New Victory, with streaming available December 17 through January. 2.
“What I love about the show, and appreciate it more now that I’m older, is that there’s so much heart in it,” said Christopher Gattelli, who co-directed and wrote the book with Tim A. McDonald. “At the same time, it has that great Muppet-crazy humor, those zingers and those really fast takes, and those 30-second acts that are just hilarious. It’s like a ‘Muppet Show’ with a story.”
Gattelli and McDonald worked on a first adaptation for Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals in 2008, but they went back to the drawing board for this one, which featured four puppeteers and eight actors. “There’s more puppetry going on, and that’s music to my ear,” said Cheryl Henson, Jim’s daughter and an investor in the new show. (John Tartaglia, a Tony nominee for “Avenue Q,” is credited with the direction of the puppets.)
While Goodspeed used some of the original figures from the special, they are now in museums and had to be rebuilt for the New Victory.
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“But of course they don’t make the same fur anymore,” said Rollie Krewson, who built Wendell Porcupine and Charlie Beaver for the TV show; she is now a master doll designer and builder at the Creature Shop. “I had to find furs more like what the Emmet actor is wearing. They also wanted a new Ma, and we built a Pa Otter — it had never been there before.”
During that rehearsal in Long Island City, the felt cast often acted as if they were taking on a life of their own between scenes. “I consider it a good run if I forget they’re puppets,” Colin Trudell, who plays Emmet, said of his co-stars. “The puppeteers are also masters of improv – the things that come out of their mouths during rehearsal really bring the characters to life.”
Trudell, who graduated from Texas State University in May, hadn’t seen the TV show when he auditioned for the stage version, and he watched it for the first time before calling back. You can’t blame him for missing out: “Emmet Otter” stayed under the radar for a long time (it is now available for streaming on Amazon and other platforms); and a proper soundtrack didn’t come out until 2018, so it doesn’t have the next better-known Henson properties.
However, the fans are devoted and loyal and often pass on the “Emmet Otter” tradition from generation to generation, as happened in Gattelli’s family.
A big reason for the show’s cult following is its rare humor and warmth. Without becoming preachy, it is an ode to friendship and family ties, as well as the idea of community. Of course, you won’t be able to get the song’s riff out of your head after hearing the Riverbottom Nightmare Band growl, “We’ll take what we want / We’ll do anything we want / We’ve got no respect / For animals, birds, or fish.”
But it’s Ma Otter’s words you’ll remember: “Some say our world is getting too small,” she sings, “I say, with kindness,/There’s room for all of us.”
Williams’ songs for the original show offer an eerie mishmash of 1970s styles, with echoes of Randy Newman, Alice Cooper and the Carpenters. Except when the rambunctious Nightmare Band shows up, the music is filtered through a rootsy Americana vibe that transcends the decades, and was captured beautifully by My Morning Jacket in a painful cover of “Brothers in Our World” on the tribute “Muppets: The Green Album.”
“For me, the music is the heart and soul of this piece,” Henson said. “What works so well is that it’s delivered by these characters who are creatures — it’s a living storybook.”
For Williams, those creatures made the assignment feel effortless: He just got the hairy (or scaly, as the case may be) subjects of the show.
“There are all these little details in the script, amazing little clues to who the characters are,” he said. My wife and I use the line all the time when the Riverbottom Nightmare Band has just been totally rude to all the guys in the treehouse, and Charlie says, ‘They seem nice.’ It’s that human element that appeals to me,” he continued, “and it appeals to me on a level where it’s the easiest writing I’ve ever been able to do.”
One thing that didn’t fit, though, is a conventional “Jingle Bells” type number. Although the story is set around Christmas, there is no specific song about the holiday. Williams just saw no need for it in “Emmet Otter.”
“There are two tasks in writing songs for a movie or a play or whatever,” he said. “One is to illustrate the character’s inner life, and the other is to advance the story. When you’re done, you go, ‘What’s missing?’ And it never felt like anything was missing.”