The Sesame Street Circus Spectacular: An Interview with Keith Brown

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Jarrod Fairclough – What’s better than the circus?  A circus about Sesame Street!  And that’s exactly what the team at Silvers Circus in Australia is debuting this week, before taking it internationally.

Thankfully The Muppet Mindset is based just a few miles from the circus tent in Melbourne, so we were fortunate enough to chat with the show’s director Keith Brown from Showtime Attractions about how the Sesame Street Circus Spectacular came to be, and just what has gone in to the making of it.

Jarrod: So, tell me Keith, what was the genesis of a Sesame Street themed Circus?

Keith: Sesame Street is in it’s 50th year anniversary, so it was a concept of where Sesame Street is today, and after 50 years, what could we bring to the children and families of today.  So what we’re doing, which has never been done before, is ‘Sesame Street joins the circus!’.  So Elmo, who is 3 and a half years old, would like to join the circus, and he’s bringing his friends with him.

Jarrod: What went in to making this idea a reality?

Keith: It’s been an effort from a full administrative team, as you can imagine.  There’s been a lot of flying to New York.  We worked very closely with a licensing company, and working closely with Sesame Workshop.  It’s a good two years of administration to get something like this off the ground.

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Jarrod: What has your relationship with Sesame Workshop been like?

Keith: Oh, absolutely amazing!  So we’ve just returned from New York, we’ve been able to meet all the puppeteers, recording all the voices for the show.  It’s absolutely been amazing.  The team have made us so welcome at Sesame Street.

Jarrod: So is this brand new material, exclusive to this show?

Keith: Brand new material, never been heard, never been seen!  A lot of the music has been written here in Australia, exclusively for the show, then taken to New York and recorded.  Characters singing some of these songs for the first time.  It’s all brand new!

Jarrod: Oh, great!  So was the writing of the show done locally?  Did you get input from the Sesame Street writers themselves?

Keith: Yeah, writing was done in Australia, but we had the full Sesame Street team assisting us and working with us.  Even though we’ve been working on the brand for a little while now, it’s about learning the brand, and the background of the characters, and how to stitch all the characters in with the circus performers from around the world.  So there’s been a lot of learning between all of us, but I think we’re there.  I think everyone is in for an amazing show.  People aren’t expecting what they’re going to see.

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Jarrod: Well, if I can ask, without spoiling anything – what CAN fans expect to see?

Keith: I’m not saying (laughs).  It’s absolutely spectacular.  I can tell you Elmo will be there, Cookie Monster will be there, Abby, Bert, Ernie.  One thing I can say is Super Grover is making a special appearance, because he wants to be the new circus star in ‘Motorcycle Mania’.  So, without giving too much away, it’s an amazing show.  They’re heavily in rehearsals as we speak, all the performers from around the world have arrived.  Even Big Bird is making an appearance.  He’s not in the live show, but he’s there to meet the children.  So we’ve replicated the stoop from 123 Sesame Street, where the children can stand on the steps and meet Big Bird and get their photo taken.  We’ve even got some special occasions where Cookie will have a celebration day where kids can come celebrate with him, get their own bakery hat and apron.  Elmo will have special party days to celebrate 50 years, where kids will get a party hat and cupcake.  So, we’ve got special promotions that will activate during the season as well.

Jarrod: I love that this is an almost entirely Australian production.

Keith: Exactly, we can use a lot of Australian artists, we’ve used a lot of Australian people to write, to do music.  We’ve got Australian performers.  We’ve got overseas performers, but we’re able to bring something to our shores all the way from New York, and have it launch in Melbourne.  That’s a big coup for us as well, that we’re launching locally.

Jarrod: Well on that point, there are a lot of places in Australia you could have debuted this.  Why Melbourne?

Keith: Because I live in Melbourne! (Laughs).  And I love Melbourne.  We have a brand new big top, so we designed a special made theatre and had it built in Italy.  And this is going to be a travelling theatre.  So, we’ll be taking Sesame Street to every country town in Australia.  Once we’ve finished here, we’ll take it to New Zealand, to Hong Kong, Japan.  We’ve got big tours planned.

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Jarrod: So you worked with the puppeteers to record their voices, and these guys know these characters so well because they work them every single day.  How much input did they have script wise as you recorded?  Were they allowed to improvise?

Keith: Oh yeah, they brought their attitude, and their voices, and how to voice it.  I was sitting in the recording studio, and it was amazing to watch them.  From the first take to the second take to the sixty-eighth take, until they got it exactly how they wanted it.  It makes your spine tingle a little bit as you listen to them bring it all to life, and once it’s recorded and put together, it’s amazing.

Jarrod: Oh my god, they’re the best at what they do.  I’ve been lucky enought to be around these guys as they’ve filmed, and to interview Cookie and Abby and Elmo, and to watch them is to watch the masters.  It’s something that you can’t explain, unless you’ve seen it.

Keith: Correct!  100%.

Jarrod: So did you actually get to meet some of the Muppets themselves?

Keith: Yep, it’s all been a part of our training and interaction and getting to know them.

Jarrod: So other than the circus, you said you’ve got the stoop from 123 Sesame Street.  What other things are there to do before or after the show?

Keith: Pre-show there’s Elmo’s World, where Elmo has his own activity land that kids can play in, like a big ball pit.  We’ve also got tables with lightboxes where children will be able to learn how to draw the characters.

Jarrod: Fantastic, I’m excited to see the show next week, and I can’t thank you enough for finding me a bit of time to chat.

Keith: Thank you!

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.