Elmo sneaked into the building inside a duffle bag. When it comes to interviewing world-famous personalities, the Muppets require a few special accommodations (they also brought their own pop-up chairs). But in many ways they were like a lot of big stars: They wanted to know the questions in advance. And they hit their marks.
Elmo and Abby Cadabby came to the New York Times studio recently to talk about the alphabet song. It’s a tune that, in its 50 years on the air, “Sesame Street” has covered a lot — with Muppets and celebrities, in dance numbers and ear-wormy songs, like Usher’s “ABCs of Moving You,” which has nearly 115 million YouTube views.
Music has been a part of the “Sesame Street” DNA since the show was developed in the late ’60s, and its legacy with artists is remarkable: It counts Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Nina Simone and Romeo Santos among its alums, and continues inspiring audiences and musicians, of many ages, today.
As curriculum-driven programming, the show also has a mission, to teach children and get them ready for school. Singing the traditional alphabet song wasn’t enough. To really promote reading readiness, said Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and curriculum at Sesame Workshop, kids need to focus on individual letters: “So that’s why we created the ‘letter of the day.’”
Now “Sesame Street” has a library’s worth of pop song parodies about the alphabet, with A and C songs (as in “C is for Cookie”) among the most popular. And they’ve done dozens of original versions of the whole ABCs too. But just how do you reinvent a tune that’s as elemental as language? And how do you do it, over and over again, for a half-century?
To find out, we spoke with Sesame’s music director, its writers, its Muppets and Usher, who took what the “Sesame” composers and lyricists gave him and essentially deconstructed it. In place of a highly produced track, there’s beatboxing and handclaps.
“It was a very deliberate decision to take music away,” Usher said. He wanted his young audience to understand “that we are instruments,” he added. “There’s no guitar break, there’s no drums, it’s just me — O.K., I can beatbox, I am the beat. I can sing; I am the song.”
Usher, a longtime fan of “Sesame Street,” took one extra liberty: In his version of the ABCs, the letter U stands for his name. “I actually made Usher a part of the alphabet,” he said, beaming. “Greatest day ever.” Watch the video above for more “Sesame” secrets to the ABCs.
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