Who says education costs a lot?
For the second year in a row, the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre is providing tickets at no charge to a production, and this time the show takes theatergoers to class in a bright, fun, memorable way.
“Schoolhouse Rock Live” is based on the Emmy Award-winning animated series, premiering in the 1970s, that taught lessons about basic subjects such as math, grammar, science and civics through a fast pace and irresistibly tuneful songs such as “Sufferin’ ’til Suffrage,” “Conjunction Junction” and “Zero, My Hero.”
The production, which will be presented Feb. 28 through March 1, should ring a familiar bell for many audience members.
“Many people have fond memories of the songs, watching them as they grew up,” said Kevin Grady, one of the six cast members who gathered on a recent evening at the Children’s Theatre office. “There’s a point in the show where (the actors) mention somebody passed a U.S. government class because of ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ teaching them The Preamble. And I knew it was extra credit on like five tests in high school for me.”
Grady put that knowledge to use.
“I’d just sing the song to myself, writing it down as I was singing,” he said.
Those interested in this production should learn from last season’s free show: All tickets to “Cat in the Hat” were gone before opening night. Similarly, seats to “Schoolhouse Rock Live,” which are being taken quickly, must be reserved by calling 715-839-8877.
Children’s Theatre executive director Wayne Marek said having a free show will be explored again next year in hopes that sponsors, who make this possible, will continue to be interested.
“We’ll see how the funding goes,” Marek said, adding that such an offering benefits ECCT and audiences. “It’s a nice way to give back to the community and get people in who may not have seen a show. It’s free so they can take a chance on a show without any monetary investment.”
On the subject of “Schoolhouse Rock Live,” the music should be one of the show’s selling points, cast member Eric VandenHeuvel suggested.
“I think because of the variety of the music, and for the most part it’s very upbeat, so it’s a lot of fun just listening to the music, even if you’ve never heard it before,” he said. “So you get that educational experience through a fun medium that continues to change and is different for each song.”
The production’s songs are as eclectic as they are cleverly worded.
“It’s all different styles,” cast member Allie Kangas said. “There’s a little bit more of like a country twang to some of them,” and others, she added might have more of a folk-rock feel.
The show’s emphasis on basic school subjects means it won’t be dated like some musicals.
“The lessons in language and history and science that we’re teaching aren’t ever going to go out of style,” cast member Megan Murphy said.
One of the show’s triumphs is to tap into music’s inherent value as a mnemonic device. As recounted by The Washington Post and other sources, advertising executive David McCall got the idea for the show after noting that his young son couldn’t remember his multiplication tables but knew by heart the songs of rock ‘n’ rollers such as The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
That story resonates with actor Tyler Hahn. “Absolutely,” he said. “There are songs that were my favorite songs in elementary school and middle school that I can still remember every single word to. … That’s what makes the show so powerful to an audience, especially with young learners in that it’s a good way to reach them in a creative, fun, imagination-filled environment.”
Kangas noted how the tunes stick in a listener’s mind.
“I’ll wake up in the morning like (she starts to sing), ‘We the people,’ singing the songs because they are so catchy and you cannot get them out of your head,” she said. “That’s a good thing in some cases.”
VandenHeuvel even can report a specific example of “Schoolhouse Rock” helping someone with their homework.
“I actually talked to somebody about this show, and they were curious what songs I solo in, and one of those songs is ‘Three is a Magic Number,’” he said. “And they told me that that was their favorite song. They memorized their multiplication tables, at least for the No. 3, because of that song. Whenever they had to do that they would literally sing that song for their homework and complete it.”
Learning their lines
The memorable nature of the songs do pose one challenge for the performers, though.
“This (show) can be tough because it’s so iconic because people will know if you made a mistake,” Grady said. “Some shows that aren’t as well known, you can add a little of your own spin on a song if you want. But this one, everybody knows how ‘I’m Just a Bill’ goes, so we have to sing it that way.”
Some, but not all, of the cast members can draw on firsthand experiences of watching the show as children.
“I had never heard of it before,” cast member Jackson Berhow said, although he now sees its appeal. “I would say it is fun and catchy music that’s easy to learn. And it is enjoyable to watch it bring out the nostalgia in other people.”
Kangas grew up watching at least some of the episodes. “I had a VHS of the America one,” she said.
While billed as a kids’ show, its success would indicate popularity among a much wider age range, as Hahn suggested.
“It’s going to sound cliche … but you’re never too old to continue to learn and relearn things,” he said. “So there are definitely things that while we’re learning this music where I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that is the process of how a bill becomes a law.’ You know that you learned it, you know that you took tests on it in grade school. You’re never too old to relearn all these things that you take for granted that you think that you already know.”
As for the percentage of education and entertainment “Schoolhouse Rock Live” comprises, Murphy was quick with an answer: “100 and 100.”
Hahn added: “It’s a fun mix of both. That’s the biggest challenge that faces us is finding that perfect balance between being silly, fun, energetic and mixing that with making sure the message and the education comes across to the audience. That’s our job, and it’s been fun and enjoyable for us taking that journey together.”
“And,” Berhow added, “making sure that the information that we’re delivering is correct — that we don’t mess up our lines.”
Grady summed up, with laughter from cast mates, what audiences can learn from “Schoolhouse Rock Live.” “If you had to describe an adjective, how would you do it?” he said. “Can you do it in five words or less because we’ll teach you.”