Composer Bill Sherman on Reimagining Music From ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ and ‘Here Comes Donkey Hodie’ Album
Grammy-, Tony- and Emmy-winning composer Bill Sherman counts Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson — currently two of the biggest names in music-centric movies — among his list of famous friends.
But the In the Heights and Tick, Tick … Boom! executive music producer also has a few other famous friends, likely more recognizable by a legion of tinier fans: the puppets of PBS Kids, Spiffy Pictures and Fred Rogers Productions’ Donkey Hodie. A series for children ages 3 to 5, Donkey Hodie features reimagined characters from the Make-Believe Neighborhood of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and stars Donkey Hodie, the granddaughter of Grampy Hodie (the original Mister Rogers Donkey Hodie). The series seeks to help children navigate the frustrations and challenges of childhood, dream big and persevere in the face of failure.
The music director of Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Nature Cat, Sherman is behind the PBS Kids’ series reimaginings of classic Rogers’ tunes like “Today is New,” “I Like to Take My Time” and “I’m Proud of You.” For an upcoming March 18 episode, entitled “Swoop-a-rino,” he stuck close to the original arrangement for a new track, “You’ve Got to Do It,” an exclusive clip of which can be listened to below.
The song will also be featured in full on the show’s debut music album, Here Comes Donkey Hodie. Slated for release by Warner Music Group’s Arts Music division on April 8, the album is currently available for pre-save and can be pre-ordered starting March 18.
Produced by Sherman, it features 16 tracks, including the series theme song and a total of three original Fred Rogers songs from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with new compositions and arrangements by Sherman.
Spiffy Pictures co-founders Adam Rudman and David Rudman penned the lyrics to several songs, with numbers performed by the cast of the series.
“There is so much to love about these songs and so much love in them. Not only do they encourage kids to be persistent, curious and creative, but they sound amazing and are full of joy,” Andrea Craig, senior vp of Warner Music Group’s arts music division, said in a statement about the album. “Donkey Hodie songs are really for all of us who try every day to do hard things.”
Ahead of the album’s release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Sherman, who is also a member of Freestyle Love Supreme, about reimagining Fred Rogers’ compositions, producing an album during COVID-19 and why children’s show music is so easy to remember.
What about Fred Rogers’ music is special for you as a composer and how do you interpret it for your compositions?
With a lot of children’s music, but specifically with Fred Rogers, there’s a complexity to it that makes it simple. I think that Sesame Street does that and Mr. Rogers does that harmonically speaking. They’re very sophisticated. They’re like jazz tunes with lots of chords and moving things, but then when he sings them, it sounds like he’s speaking. The way Mr. Rogers spoke was melodic in its own sense. I never got to ask him, but I feel like he’s translated that into his music. It was how he communicated with people whether it was speaking or singing — it all just came out perfectly and magically. Interpreting that is interesting because these songs are all in what I’ll call the Mr. Rogers genre. I had a lot of leeway to do whatever I wanted and explore a number of other genres to put it in today’s world, put it in a different time period or put it somewhere else. That was truly exciting to me. As fun as it is to compose itself, rearranging other people’s music has its own challenge because you want to make sure that you don’t offend them with your own tastes. But then you want to make sure the song goes somewhere else too and does something else.
How is your work on the spin-off Donkey Hodie similar and different from what viewers heard in the original Mister Rogers Neighborhood tunes?
The original Donkey Hodie was an extension of what Mister Rogers Neighborhood was and how that works sonically — which is all those songs like, “Would You Be My Neighbor?” The fun thing about the new version is it gives you carte blanche to go wherever. From a genre and a sonic perspective, we’ve written dance, reggae, bluegrass and rock tunes and I’m always trying to bring everything sonically into today’s sounds. I feel responsible for and what I feel is fun is emulating today’s music in children’s music. That’s the language that we’re speaking in now and that’s the way children are hearing now. When I hire people to write for me, I’m always like, don’t feel like you’re writing for kids. Just write a song that you would enjoy playing or hearing on the radio. The other note I always give is catchy. So it’s like an earworm. Usually in songs, the chorus is the earworm, but I always feel like with children’s tunes, because you only have a certain amount of time, you make everything a hook. So the verse is the hook, the chorus is a hook and you just go hook, hook, hook until you remember everything. That to me is the biggest goal.
Does composing music for children of different ages change your approach?
I write for a lot of kids’ shows and they all sort of fall in the same range, anywhere from 3 to 9 [years old]. My rule for that is I play it for my kids, who are brutally honest. My daughter will listen and if she’s like “Nah, you should do this” or says “This doesn’t work,” I’ll usually delete it and start again. I know it’s good if I play it and she’s like “Cool,” and when we’re making dinner later on in the night and she’s just singing it. The biggest reward is if kids are singing them back no matter what age they are. Because if they’re singing them and repeating them, then they’re learning. I think that’s the overall key to what we’re doing here, which is trying to teach and help kids learn. So a lot of what we do is repetition and, if we can, put a melody into their heads. Their thoughts will hopefully repeat the thing that we’re trying to teach them and that’s the beginning of grasping and learning something.
How did you think about your latest Donkey Hodie re-arrangement, “You’ve Got to Do It”?
I played the saxophone, loved it and I played every Sunday morning in this big band at a local high school. So with this one, I sort of took it and turned it into Michael Buble’s big band. I think that’s something that anyone really can relate to because it’s just fun, up-tempo, exciting music. On this one, I took Fred’s melody and chords and juxtaposed it onto like a big band thing and his chords. Rearranging to me is like moving parts around, switching everything together and coming out with something new. That’s what I did. I took his melody and his chords and my concept and squished them into one.
What was the experience of and approach to producing Here Comes Donkey Hodie?
The idea was just to put out the best songs we had and I think ones that gave a good picture of what the whole show is about. So there are songs about empowerment and about learning, there’s the theme song. Then once we know what the pieces were, we went back and re-recorded some of the instruments — some of it’s done on computers and some of it live. I wanted it to feel live and organic for this because Donkey Hodie, in essence, is a very organic show. Everything that’s happening is on a set. It’s real, except that it’s a puppet, but everything is being created. There’s no CGI, any of that stuff. In the COVID world we live in, we sent away some guitar parts, and then they got sent back and we remixed everything just like when we’re working for an audio release. It’s definitely different than for a show, where there are sound effects thrown in and usually the vocals are really loud because it’s on a TV. But Tyler Hartman remixed everything and we remastered it for audio release. It was a really fun process to revisit those songs and turn up the heat a little bit on them and take them into a different ready for audio release level.
Out of all the Fred Rogers rearrangements that you’ve done, what has been your favorite to do so far?
I would say the one that we’re releasing right now. That one feels the most “Fred Rogers” of them all, and the one I think I’m probably most proud. There’s this great jazz piano player in the city. His name’s Andy Ezrin. We sent the tune to him and were like, “Hey, can you take a solo over this and make it sound like a jazz thing?” So he did. Fred was a great jazz piano player too, so that homage to him felt right.