The Hollywood Bowl has a storied history of hosting legendary shows that will forever be etched into the annals of our awesome city. Sinatra in ’43. The Beatles in ’64. Pavarotti in ’73. The Who in 2002. The Muppets in 2017.
That's right, people. For the first time ever, the full Muppets ensemble is appearing at the Hollywood Bowl — and as a proud member of the Muppet generation, I say it's about goddamned time.
I know they're just stuffing and felt with puppeteers' hands shoved up their butts, but the Muppets shaped my childhood more than any other fictional characters (and most real people) I can think of. Between Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Jim Henson and his various Muppet creations (I probably should throw Yoda in here, too, even though he was voiced by Henson's partner, Frank Oz) taught me everything from counting and basic Spanish to Jedi philosophy (“Do or do not — there is no try”) and the awesomeness of David Bowie. They were basically The Beatles of their peak era (roughly 1976-81, when The Muppet Show aired on primetime TV), with a better drummer and cornier jokes.
Even in my adult life, the Muppets' influence looms large — especially since I met my wife, who is an even bigger Muppet fanatic than I am. When you enter our house, the first thing you see is a Muppet shrine of sorts, piled with Muppet memorabilia including matching ceramic Kermit and Miss Piggy figurines and a Pigs in Space lunchbox that, to the right person, is probably worth more than any other object in our house. At our wedding, she walked down the aisle to “Rainbow Connection.” Does this make us total weirdos? Not according to at least one authority on all things Muppet.
“You are not weird,” Kermit the Frog assures me. (Yes, I got to interview Kermit for this story. It was only an email interview, but when I got his answers back, did I perform a Kermit-like freakout dance at my desk? You bet I did.) “Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher wrote a magical song that means so much to so many people,” Kermit continues. “Whether you’re sitting on a log in a swamp strumming a banjo or walking down the aisle on your way to marrying the man or woman of your dreams, it’s the perfect song.”
One of the many things the Muppets don't get enough credit is how much they've influenced music — which is why seeing them at the Bowl, where they'll be accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (and fireworks, and SNL's Bobby Moynihan, who's hosting), promises to be such a memorable event. Their best songs, including “Rainbow Connection,” “Bein' Green,” “Movin' Right Along” and “Mah Nà Mah Nà” (which, weirdly, Henson and co. lifted from the soundtrack of an Italian sexploitation film), are as ingrained in the American psyche at this point as “America the Beautiful” and “Sweet Caroline.” In fact, you're probably humming “Mah Nà Mah Nà” right now, aren't you?
But it goes deeper than that. Through their musical guests on Sesame Street and especially The Muppet Show, the Muppets helped shape the tastes of an entire generation of musicians and fans. (Side note: The Bowl performance will feature only the cast of The Muppet Show and associated Muppet films, not the cast of Sesame Street. Kermit is the only Muppet who moves freely between the two worlds.)
The Muppet Show's musical guest list reads like the greatest K-tel Music compilation of all time: Judy Collins, Elton John, Lena Horne, Lou Rawls, Petula Clark, Helen Reddy, Loretta Lynn, Liberace, Kris Kristofferson, Leo Sayer, Harry Belafonte, John Denver, Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Debbie Harry, Buddy Rich, Gladys Knight, Johnny goddamn Cash. Even Alice Cooper got in on the action — which is crazy when you consider that Cooper was basically 1978's answer to Marilyn Manson, although his shock-rock shtick was heavily sanitized for network television.
What all these performers brought to the show — besides a willingness to interact with puppets — was a high level of pop songcraft, a sense of humor and a kind of emotional honesty and earnestness (yes, even Alice Cooper) that I've responded strongly to in music ever since. I don't care if you're a country singer or a piano rocker or a jazz musician or even an electronic producer (The Muppet Show never had any of those, which is too bad, because a bunch of Muppets singing Kraftwerk's “Showroom Dummies” would've been one for the ages) — if your music is presented with intelligence and wit, and it's coming from a place of conviction, empathy and truth, I'll respond to it. Some of that I learned from my dad's jazz and Stephen Sondheim records. The rest I got from the Muppets.
Among The Muppet Show's earliest guests was Paul Williams, a singer-songwriter then best known for writing hits for The Carpenters (“We've Only Just Begun”) and Three Dog Night (“An Old-Fashioned Love Song”). Williams appeared on the sixth episode of The Muppet Show's first season in 1976, performing “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” and another of his hits, “Sad Song,” and gamely weathering jokes about his Muppet-like height (he's 5'2″). He hit it off with Henson and his team so well that he was asked to write music for the Muppets' first one-hour TV special, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, and later for The Muppet Movie, including the classic “Rainbow Connection.”
“‘Rainbow Connection’ will always have a really special place in my heart,” says the 76-year-old Williams, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Huntington Beach. “We set the bar pretty high for ourselves.” (Speaking to Williams, I felt the urge to break out into another Kermit freakout dance but managed to restrain myself.)
Williams wrote the music to The Muppet Movie with fellow songwriter Kenny Ascher, with whom he had just collaborated on Barbra Streisand's reboot of A Star Is Born. Though Williams is a brilliant composer in his own right, he felt Ascher's skills would complement his own. “He was somebody whose music was so elegant,” Williams explains. “I thought it would bring a real beauty to the music that I wanted.” (Fun fact: Ascher also did some of the string arrangements on Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell. Why Meat Loaf was never a guest on The Muppet Show, which obviously would have been the most perfect thing ever, is a mystery beyond the scope of this story.)
“It's going to be the most inspired pig
Work on the music for The Muppet Movie began at Williams' house in the Hollywood Hills, above the Comedy Store. Williams recalls a meeting with him, Ascher, Henson, Frank Oz and screenwriter Jerry Juhl, at which they ran through the film's plot and identified moments for possible song placements. According to Williams, the discussion for the film's now-iconic opening scene went something like this:
Williams: “The first song — where do we find Kermit?”
Henson: “In the swamp.”
Williams: “What's he doing?”
Henson: “Playing a banjo.”
And that was about it. They knew Kermit needed what Williams calls an “I am” song — something to establish his character and set in motion the story of his journey to Hollywood to become the world's most famous frog. But beyond that, Williams says the Muppets' creator was surprisingly hands-off. As the meeting was wrapping up, Williams remembers telling Henson, “You know, we’re not gonna surprise you with this. Kenny and I will let you know what we’re writing about and let you hear songs while we’re working on them.” To which Henson replied, “Oh, Paul, that’s not necessary. I’ll hear them in the studio when we record them.”
“I’ve never had anybody give me that kind of creative freedom,” Williams says now. “It said a lot about him trusting the people that he chose to work with and also said a lot about him trusting his own instincts. It was a wonderful way to work. He was a remarkable man. As kind as he was brilliant.”
When it came time to record the vocals for “Rainbow Connection,” Williams says, “It wasn’t working. It just didn’t feel right.” Finally he suggested that Henson bring Kermit into the vocal booth with him. “And it was a totally different performance. As soon as Kermit was in the room with him, it was no longer Jim Henson doing Kermit — it was Kermit doing Kermit.”
Henson died in 1990, but his characters live on in various forms, voiced by different actors and operated by different puppeteers. Kermit, his most famous creation, was until recently the inheritance of a single voice actor, Steve Whitmire, who began working with the Muppets in 1978. This past July, in a cloud of acrimony, he was dismissed from the role. Whitmire claimed it was payback for being too outspoken about how Kermit was being portrayed in new Muppets material; Henson's family (and Disney, who bought the Muppets in 2004) said it was due to “unacceptable business conduct” that dated back many years. He's been replaced by Matt Vogel, who's been with the Muppets since 1996 and also does Big Bird, the Count, Floyd and Crazy Harry.
Muppet purists have had a hard time following the little felt critters since Henson's death — and in a way, I get it. I still can't really watch any of the Muppet movies from the ’90s — even with Henson's son Brian at the helm and most of the original actors and puppeteers still doing the characters, it all felt a little off somehow, the way Apple has felt a little off since the death of Steve Jobs. Jim Henson was an auteur, and you can't replace auteurs overnight.
For me, the Muppets got their groove back with their 2009 cover of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a brilliant update of The Muppet Show's cheeky, goofball tone for the YouTube era. God, I hope they perform it at the Bowl, though I'm not sure how they can possibly pull off cramming that many characters into a live performance.
When I asked Kermit what fans can expect from the Muppets' Bowl shows, he was understandably vague, though he did promise appearances from classic recurring Muppets skits including “Muppet Labs” (Beaker!), “Veterinarians Hospital” and “Pigs in Space.” “It’s going to be something you’ve never seen before and something we’ve never done before, the most inspired pig-, frog-, bear-, penguin-infused entertainment in the history of the Hollywood Bowl!” (I like to picture Kermit doing his freakout dance as he says this.)
Williams will be there, too, though with characteristic modesty, he downplayed whatever role he'll have. (“It’s smaller than my part in Baby Driver.”) Mostly, he just sounds as excited for the show as any fan.
“It’s gonna be so funny. It’s got Waldorf and Statler in there making fun of everything. It’s got some classic Muppet characters,” he says. “My whole life feels like a gift at this point — and certainly a high point of all the work that I’ve done through the years has to be my relationship with the Muppets.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the “Mah Nà Mah Nà” song as only appearing on Sesame Street. It was also used under a slightly different title, “Mahna Mahna,” on The Muppet Show. We regret the error.]