Jim Henson’s Musical World Concert at Carnegie Hall
Alison Durkee – As most Muppet fans are probably aware, something incredible happened at Carnegie Hall on April 14. For two performances only, the different worlds of Jim Henson–Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock–all came together in the same show to celebrate Henson through music. While videos have already been posted here that capture many of the wonderful moments from Jim Henson’s Musical World, I was extremely fortunate enough to see the concert in person. I attended the 3:30 performance of the show and was so incredibly thankful I did, as for less than the price of seeing The Muppets in an NYC movie theater, I was able to witness a truly extraordinary and unforgettable show.
As the audience entered Carnegie Hall and settled into their seats, a mix of Muppet video clips played on a screen above the stage, setting the Muppety tone from the very start. A few minutes before the performance began, I could see the Muppeteers sneak behind the black curtains that lined each side of the stage and take their places, and I knew that something truly special was about to begin. When it was finally time for the concert to start, the house lights dimmed as another video started up. This one was of Rowlf and Jimmy Dean from Rowlf’s first appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1965. But just a few seconds later, Rowlf greeted us onstage live, popping up from behind a black curtain set up center stage. Telling us how he knew he would come back to Carnegie Hall but didn’t think it would take 47 years, seeing Rowlf right there, in the fur, was definitely an attention-grabbing way to start the show.
When Rowlf left, the concert officially began as the extremely talented New York Pops orchestra kicked things off with, appropriately, “The Muppet Show Theme Song.” Hearing this song (as well as the concert’s many other songs) played by a full orchestra in person was pretty stunning, but it was made even better by the fact that the Electric Mayhem (minus Animal) joined them onstage. The orchestra then segued into the theme songs for both Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock (complete with audience claps).
Following this overture, the spotlight circled around the theater as the familiar voice of Jerry Nelson filled the hall, introducing the concert’s host: John Tartaglia! ……Who was, of course, nowhere to be found (this IS the Muppets, clearly something had to go wrong). So naturally, conductor Steven Reineke pulled out his cell phone and called Tartaglia, who appeared on the screen above the stage, still at home in his rubber duckie pajamas. When Reineke convinced him that the concert was, in fact, happening RIGHT NOW, and not next week as Tartaglia thought, he immediately headed for Carnegie Hall, miraculously appearing in the theater just a few seconds later. Stripping off his pajamas to reveal a suit with bright green pants, Tartaglia launched into “Sing” from Sesame Street, joined by the talented Essential Voices choir that accompanied many of the songs. He then talked a little bit about Jim Henson and how important music has always been to the Muppets, pointing out that doing musical numbers was how Jim Henson originally started the Muppets in the first place.
However, there was still the matter of the many special guests that Tartaglia invited to the concert, which he thought was next week. Reineke asked John if he had told them the wrong date, to which he assured him he had not. But as Reineke left the stage to use the “little conductor’s room,” Tartaglia confessed that he HAD told his guests the wrong date, and didn’t know what to do. This, of course, was not a bad thing for Statler and Waldorf, who popped up in their traditional balcony seats, exclaiming, “You mean the Muppets aren’t going to be here? This is our lucky day, we finally came to the right show!”
But sadly for Statler and Waldorf (and luckily for the rest of us), this Muppet-less performance didn’t last long, as none other than Fozzie Bear himself appeared on stage. Forgetting that he was told the concert was next week and accidentally showing up today instead, Fozzie talked with Tartaglia, who asked Fozzie if he had been able to do any research on Jim Henson like John had asked. But all he found out, Fozzie replied, was that “they don’t let bears in the New York Public Library.” With that, Fozzie was sent off on a mission to round up the Muppets and get them to the theater while John kept the show going.
With Fozzie gone and no special guests in sight (An attempt to contact Sesame Street was only met with the Hooper’s Store voice mail message “We’re closed right now. Our normal hours are 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM, Monday through Friday.”), John turned to the orchestra and asked if any of them wanted to be a star and perform with him. A violinist raised her hand and “Steppin’ Out with a Star” started up, as Tartaglia and this “unknown musician” sang and danced in perfect synchronization around the stage. Of course, this musician was really Broadway actress and Sesame Street performer Stephanie D’Abruzzo, who starred alongside Tartaglia in the original Broadway production of Avenue Q.
After D’Abruzzo left, a familiar-looking Fraggle popped up. It was Uncle Traveling Matt, leading a tour of Outer Space for Red and Wembley! There to teach Red and Wembley about the “historic Carnegie Cave,” Matt presented a slideshow of the “cave,” which was supposedly built by Doozers as a summer home for Ma and Pa Gorg. Tartaglia insisted that no, this was actually not the case, but the Fraggles still stuck around to sing some Fraggle songs, performing a medley of “Follow Me,” “Pass It On,” “Workin’,” “Wemblin’ Fool,” “Let Me Be Your Song,” and the Fraggle Rock theme song. While seeing the Fraggles in person was pretty astounding to begin with, clapping along to the theme song with the actual Fraggles and watching as the rest of Carnegie Hall clap along in unison was extremely cool. Then, Tartaglia showed the Fraggles a picture of Jim Henson with Cantus the Minstrel, to which Matt exclaimed, “Cantus is being kidnapped by a Silly Creature!” When he calmed down, the Fraggles decided to stick around and watch the rest of the show from backstage.
Next to arrive was the Muppet that we had all been waiting for (or so she believes): Miss Piggy! The crowd was visibly excited when she appeared, arriving at what she believed to be her dressing room (the theater) early to redecorate. When told that the show was today, Miss Piggy exited in a panic and promised to return soon, frantically calling for her hair and wardrobe team. Then, a stage manager wandered onstage, offering to help out the show with some Muppet impressions. This stage manager was, in actuality, Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch, who entertained us with some… interesting impressions, including a deadpan “Me want cookies. Nom nom nom.” and “Elmo loves you. Tickle Elmo.” But Tartaglia instead offered for her to join him in a song, as they performed Sesame Street‘s “Sing After Me.”
This Sesame Street theme was continued as the orchestra launched into the show’s theme song. As the song started to play, special Sesame Street guests suddenly began to appear, and Sesame adults Sonia Manzano (Maria), Bob McGrath (Bob), Nitya Vidyasagar (Leela), Alan Muraoka (Alan), Allison Bartlett (Gina), Loretta Long (Susan), and Roscoe Orman (Gordon) took the stage, joined by Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Elmo (much to the delight of the many children in the theater). The group performed a medley of “People in Your Neighborhood,” “One Fine Face,” “C Is for Cookie,” “I Love Trash,” and finally “Rubber Duckie.” During “Rubber Duckie,” Elmo provided the “squeak squeak” noises for Ernie, which led Steve Whitmire as Ernie to improvise a line acknowledging Elmo. Even from my very high up seat, I could see Kevin Clash laugh over the exchange, as well as his clear joy the entire time he was performing, which was fantastic to see. Being able to see the Muppeteers behind the curtains from where I sat was perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the concert for me, as being able to get even a tiny glimpse of their work in person was tremendously exciting.
The Sesame gang left the stage and Tartaglia headed into the audience, eager to hear some good Muppet memories. What he found instead was Muppet composer Paul Williams, who just so happened to have all his Muppet lyrics with him! Williams took the stage and said a few words about Jim Henson, including the fact that he was “the nicest guy [Williams] worked with in [his] life.” He was then joined by some of the animals from Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, who all performed “Barbeque,” “When the River Meets the Sea,” and “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub.”
We were then greeted once again by Fozzie, who eagerly arrived with the… muffins that he had gathered on his mission. When Tartaglia explained that he had asked him to gather the Muppets, not the muffins, Fozzie was so disappointed with himself and the fact that he can never seem to do anything right. But John comforted him and emphasized that he still believed in Fozzie. Of course, this just so happened to lead perfectly into “Just One Person,” which started out simply as Tartaglia singing to Fozzie. But we all know that “Just One Person” is best when performed by a whole group of Muppets, and this instance did not disappoint. As the song continued, more Muppets kept popping up, and by the end, on the stage were Kermit, Gonzo, Scooter, Beauregard, Rowlf, the Electric Mayhem, Bunsen, and Beaker. While I had seen Muppets in person before and had seen so many characters throughout the concert already, seeing all of them singing live in person was completely amazing.
The Muppets said a few words (looking out at the theater, Gonzo exclaimed, “I bet you could fit a million chickens in here!”) before launching into a medley that included “The Muppet Show Theme Song,” “Mahna Mahna,” “Movin’ Right Along,” “Happy Feet,” and “Together Again.” Then, Kermit took a seat on the curtain’s ledge and the other Muppets left, as he fondly remembered Jim Henson as the one who taught him about music, how to sing, and even how to put on a show, calling him his “right hand man.” Tartaglia was impressed that Kermit could put on a show so well, since he knew that “it wasn’t easy,” just like some other things (hint, hint). While Kermit didn’t initially take the bait (when first asked about some other things that are “not easy,” he responded, “Math class?”), he finally gave in, performing “Bein’ Green” as only Kermit the Frog truly can.
But of course, we couldn’t possibly forget about Miss Piggy, who made a grand return to the stage with another announcement by Jerry Nelson. She started to launch into “Never Before, Never Again” before being stopped by Tartaglia, who apologized to her and said that the show was about to end. However, Miss Piggy was all ready to go (She was wearing three pairs of Spanx!), so John convinced her that while the rest of the cast was going to join them onstage for the final number, they would be singing backup to her. She agreed, and all the human performers joined the Muppets onstage to sing a moving rendition of “Rainbow Connection,” with the audience invited to sing along. The show closed with Kermit saying a final goodbye to the audience in the tradition of his closings on The Muppet Show, and it was even complete with a signature Kermit flail, ending this thrilling concert with an equally thrilling conclusion.
When the show concluded, the entire cast took a bow, first with the Muppets and then with the Muppeteers themselves appearing from behind the curtains. To be able to give these amazing performers a standing ovation for not only this wonderful show, but for all the joy and amazing work they have given all of us over the years was one of the most fulfilling moments of the afternoon for me.
Overall, Jim Henson’s Musical World was a ridiculously special experience that I’m so thankful I got to witness. While the simple act of bringing together the Muppet, Sesame, Fraggle, and Emmett Otter worlds in one performance is amazing enough, the concert was incredibly well done, and being able to not only see these Muppets live, but also get a glimpse at the Muppeteers performing them was such a tremendous opportunity. My only slight issue with the concert was that I wished the audience had been a little more enthusiastic and appreciative of what was happening onstage. While there were a lot of hardcore fans in the audience and everyone was clearly enjoying the show, it felt like (from the perspective of where I was sitting) a lot of people were treating it more like a casual concert and way to spend the afternoon instead of the special event that it was. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful tribute to the lasting legacy of Jim Henson and all the joy he brought to the world, and I can only hope that its success at Carnegie Hall means that we’ll be seeing these characters performing together again at some point in the future. While different companies may own these characters now, none of them would exist without the incredible creativity of Jim Henson, and seeing them come together to celebrate the man that unites them through music was a truly remarkable experience, and one that I hope future audiences will be able to enjoy as well.
Pictures courtesy of Dave Hulteen, ToughPigs.com, and Muppet Wiki
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org