An entire generation thanks “Schoolhouse Rock” for teaching them the parts of speech, the preamble to the Constitution and their multiplication tables.
The educational animated shorts that snuck in between Saturday morning cartoons were first released between 1973 and 1985 and later came out on video with new songs in the 90s and early 2000s.
Then it was adapted to the stage, a show that Arizona’s premiere children’s theater, Childsplay, is about to perform for the fourth time in its history.
Directed by Anthony Runfola, the show will hold public performances at the Herberger Theater in Phoenix on weekends from through May 26. On Tuesdays through Fridays, they’ll do seven shows in the mornings for schools to which students are bused in.
“Schoolhouse Rock never seems to go out of style,” says Runfola. “It continues to be a great way to learn your multiplication tables, to learn your civics—and it’s great music.”
The last time Childsplay, a theater that reaches one in five Arizona schoolchildren each year, did “Schoolhouse Rock Live,” was in 2014 during its national tour.
The stage version introduces Tom, a schoolteacher preparing for his first day. He’s got a bad case of the nerves, a case made worse when imaginary people jump out of his television before breakfast and offer to help him get ready. George, Dina and Shulie reassure him he’s going to do a great job by performing such classic songs as “I’m Just a Bill,” “Conjunction Junction” and “Three is a Magic Number.”
It’s a musical that Runfola says not only makes learning fun, but as the theme song says, teaches that knowledge is power.
“There isn’t one way to learn,” Runfola says. “For young people, it’s not just memorization. It’s the idea that learning can happen throughout your whole body.”
While the words will be familiar to those who grew up with Schoolhouse Rock, Childsplay is updating the look and sound to speak to new audiences. The songs are the same, but they’ve created new musical arrangements that are recorded specifically for this production.
“It’s a more modern sound than you might remember from the television songs,” says Runfola. “It’s created for young people today rather than their parents.”
Part of that means giving the songs more of a rock sound than the folksy and jazzy sound that the originals had. There were no electric guitars in the original, the Childsplay production will have them. They’re bringing in musicians that specialize in playing rock ‘n’ roll. The tempos are a bit faster and they tried to take inspiration from such bands as Guns ‘N Roses and Queen.
But it isn’t just the music that gets a onceover. The staging is designed to capture the imagination of today’s young people. Runfola took inspiration from video games in creating the set and the staging. He says the ’80s are cool again, so he combined Minecraft’s 8-bit computer graphic look with such games as Tetris to build the scenography.
“Schoolhouse Rock were very early music videos. They were MTV before MTV,” Runfola says. “So, we took all those sorts of references to spin something that feels pretty modern and new.”
They’re using video projections to help to tell the story of a song and to create a setting or mood.
For example, in the song “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” the lyrics talk about the protagonist going on a trip and seeing things. Childsplay will use projections to suggest an Instagram feed in which people are posting pictures of what they encounter on their trip—the people, places, things, and, yes, their food.
In “Interplanetary Janet,” they use projections to help the audience fly through the solar system, giving the impression that the characters are surfing through space.
There is a two-act version of “Schoolhouse Rock Live,” but the Childsplay production is cut down by the creators of the show to fit better with school schedules. It features Christopher Morucci as Tom, Vinny Chavez as George, McKenzie Reese as Dina and Devaune Bohall as Shulie. Alan Ruch is the musical director and Mollie Lajoie is the choreographer.
While each of the characters who visit Tom represent facets of his personality, they needed to be cast with actors who could be very distinct and larger than life.
“I was trying to find four really big personalities to put together on stage, four people who can be completely different from each other, but still look like they absolutely belong together,” Runfola says.
Runfola is also excited about the show’s choreography. He and Lajoie have collaborated on many shows and he said they now have an unspoken dialog during rehearsal that works really well.
It’s because of the choreography and staging that he suspects “Interplanet Janet” might supplant “Conjunction Junction” as his favorite song, though he also suspects he might end up with a new favorite each rehearsal.
“I like the feel that we’ve made of surfing,” Runfola says. “The staging and choreography are just a lot of fun.”
As with any show based on 40-year-old material, Childsplay has had to mindfully deal with some aspects that can come across as dated or inappropriate. Whether it is mentioning Pluto as a planet or having Geraldo press his affections on Geraldine “despite her objections,” the theater addresses the issues carefully with staging and conscious engagement.
“It is challenging when you are working with material that is not yours to tinker with,” Runfola says. “You have to respect the authors. We can be clever enough to handle many situations in ways we do have control over such as staging. As society changes, we’re better about recognizing some sorts of things in our world.”
Runfola hopes that both parents and children will enjoy the revival of “Schoolhouse Rock Live!”
“You get that nostalgia factor with the idea that the parent is now sharing something with their child from their childhood that they have fond memories about,” Runfola says. “The thing that encouraged me to direct is that I grew up with (Schoolhouse Rock) and I can share it with my own children.”
“Schoolhouse Rock,” Herberger Theater Center’s Stage West, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix, childsplayaz.org, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, $12-$30.