Ryan Dosier – Today on The Muppet Mindset, we have a real treat for you. I had the great opportunity of interviewing Paul Rudolph who is currently the Vocal Music Director for Sesame Street in Season 40 and 41 and also served as Assistant Music Director on Muppets Tonight. Paul and I discussed many things, including his work on Sesame Street, his wife Leslie Carrara Rudolph and–oh, why am I telling you? Just read on and find out for yourself!
Interview with Paul Rudolph
PAUL: It’s my pleasure.
RYAN: I know you guys just finished filming Season 41. How did that go? Are you excited for the next season? (Even though this one hasn’t even finished yet.)
PAUL: Season 41 was fantastic. There was a featured song in nearly every script, which kept me very busy. Unfortunately I can’t say anything specific about the episodes until they air.
RYAN: How exactly did you get involved with Sesame Street and The Muppets?
PAUL: For Muppets Tonight: I was working as a composer’s assistant for Richard Gibbs in the fall of 1995 – working on Tracey Ullman’s show “Tracey Takes On” – when Richard got the call to be music director for Muppets Tonight. He brought me in as assistant music director. For this show I had many duties, including arranging, composing, vocal direction, transcription, and on-set conducting with Muppets, guests and live musicians. I worked with Kevin Clash on this show quite a bit.
For Sesame Street: Kevin Clash and I have kept in touch over the years, mostly through my wife Leslie Carrara-Rudolph and her various work with Sesame Street as Abby Cadabby and other characters. Kevin and I spoke in the fall of 2008 about my skills and experience, which included vocal work on Muppets Tonight, composing, arranging, conducting, and ProTools engineering / editing. All of these skills translated to what he was looking for in a new vocal music director for Season 40 on Sesame Street.
RYAN: So you now work for Sesame Street as the vocal director and you’ve held that title for both Seasons 40 and 41. What exactly does this job entail?
PAUL: Vocal rehearsal and coaching for the cast, Muppets, and guestsarranging vocal partsrecording / engineering vocals via ProToolsediting / tweaking vocals via ProToolscomposingon-set vocal performance direction / conductingediting songs as neededproviding “scratch” vocals as needed I am, by my own humble admission, a ProTools audio geek, and offered this service as part of my job when I was hired for Season 40. I may be the only vocal music director that operates ProTools with my right hand while conducting the vocalist with my left!
RYAN: When working with the Muppeteers, is it more difficult to direct the voices of their characters (such as Grover, who has a funny voice) than it is to direct a human cast member?
PAUL: The first part of my job is checking the key / vocal range of the song for the character. This is very important: if the range is too high or low, the character voice itself may not come through. That is the first step in direction for me: getting to know the characters and ranges.As for direction, the Muppet characters on Sesame Street have been performing these voices for years and years, so they are quite comfortable with singing in character. So typically, after recording a vocal take, I’ll simply ask the talent “is the character ok?” For seasoned veterans like Carroll Spinney, Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, etc… the answer is really up to them. I may suggest different direction based on the lyrics or script / scene description, but ultimately they know the character much better than I do. At that point, my direction focuses on the essential musical elements of the song: style, rhythm, pitch and feel.
Cast member direction is somewhat similar: even though they are singing in their “natural” voice, it is still technically a character. So again, based on lyrics / scene direction I help them find the right choice for the song. And often my direction is quite simple: just telling a cast member to smile while they are singing can make a huge difference in the sound.
PAUL: Many of my favorites are from legendary guests:Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” – for over 6 minutes! Tito Puente “Ran Kan Kan,” Cab Calloway – “Hi De Ho,” Ray Charles – alphabet song. Classic Chris Cerf tune “Eight Balls of Fur,” Classic animation songs like “Ten Tiny Turtles.”
RYAN: You have even had the opportunity to compose some songs for the show, correct? What are some of the songs you’ve worked on?
PAUL: Yes, the “Guess The Seasons” song was my first. This was an “insert” song with lyrics written by Annie Evans. This allowed me to work not only with my talented wife Leslie (Abby Cadabby), but also Fran Brill (Zoe) and Carmen Osbahr (Rosita). It was really fun writing for this trio and a treat to work with all of them and hear my song come to life. This song is featured on the Sesame Street 40th anniversary DVD set.
RYAN: When doing a primetime special appearance such as the Capitol Fourth event, how much of a say do you have in what songs are performed?
PAUL: None, really – the songs are all chosen ahead of time by the producers / directors of the show.
PAUL: That would be wonderful. Even better, the NFL team in DC could adopt him as their mascot. The “Washington Big Birds” is much better than “Redskins”, don’t you think?
RYAN: You also act as the vocal director for the Sesame float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. How much more difficult is it working with the entire cast rather than just a few performers?
PAUL: The actual recording process is the same as the show: one-on-one per each character. The fun challenge for me is in the vocal arrangement in terms of melody and harmonies. This year the total number of voices was 16 for the recording, so making sure the melody “pops” out and the harmonies blend per all the voices is very important.
RYAN: Something I’ve always wondered is how difficult it is to record a song where one Muppeteer performs more than one character in the song. How much longer does it take for, say, Kevin Clash to record a song where both Elmo and Hoots the Owl sing?
PAUL: Generally speaking, not long at all. Again, these performers have been doing the voices for years, so switching from one to another is completely natural for them, and frankly, is incredible to watch and hear. One interesting thing I noted when recording the Macy’s parade song is that some of the performers, when recording two characters, did not want to hear the first one they recorded in their headphones, as this was distracting.
RYAN: You were the musical director for Muppets Tonight! as well. What were some of your favorite experiences on the show?
PAUL: Actually I was Assistant music director to Richard Gibbs. Richard was really great to work with, and gave me many opportunities to arrange, compose, and conduct on the show. The show was just a blast.Some of my favorite moments were from the recording sessions prior to taping, which often took place at Capitol Studios. Just standing in Studio A, where Sinatra recorded, was unreal. I recorded my first track for Muppets Tonight in that room. Taping the show and watching the amazing puppeteers was a real eye-opener. I was so impressed with how important the musical movement was to them, including lip-sync and instrument performance. They make it look so easy, but it is their dedication to the song that really shines. (As an example of some new material, check out the Muppet version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It is simply amazing. I did not work on that, but know many people that did and the attention to detail in things like the guitar solo are just incredible.)
It was also a great experience to be a part of a Jim Henson production – writers’ meetings, set design – it was all new to me and really exciting to be a part of a show that had such history. Hearing stories from Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Brian Henson, etc… was always a treat.And one of my favorite parts of coming to the set was there was a piano there every day – Leslie and I used to sing standards out of a fakebook during breaks.And of course the guest stars were incredible: Tony Bennett was simply amazing – Bill Barretta as Johnny Fiama and Brian Henson as his sidekick Sal were hilarious. Bennett had his trio on set and recorded all the songs prior to taping the show. The trio included his music director for over 35 years, Ralph Sharon on piano. When they recorded, the entire crew was asked to be completely quiet, and there was this great silence at the end of the tunes – you could hear a pin drop, and you could feel that everyone wanted to applaud. But then when our engineer gave a thumb’s up after the last take the crew erupted in applause. Simply amazing.
Garth Brooks was another highlight. We pre-recorded Garth Brooks at Capitol Studios and he sang an edited version of his tune “We Shall Be Free”. His engineer arrived with a dat tape and Garth sang one take of it – and all of us in the booth thought it sounded better than the version on his cd.
John Goodman – he did a great Joe Cocker impersonation and sang “Feelin’ Alright” which was stellar. For the rehearsal our pianist didn’t show up so I got to run through the tune with him and find his key. He can REALLY sing. Don Rickles – I will never forget conducting Mr. Rickles for “Being Green” while he was dressed in a giant Kermit outfit and strumming a banjo. Hilarious.
PAUL: Funny enough, the first song I wrote for Muppets Tonight was a go-go tune called “Groovie Spamela” in which she danced with Ernest Pleth. Hilarity ensued. And never underestimate the attraction of someone covered in felt…
RYAN: I think it’s awesome that two Muppet people fell and love and got married. Did you have a big, Muppety wedding?
PAUL: Not at all, we were married at the Graceland Chapel in Las Vegas by Elvis himself. Though we had paper doll cutouts of Harry and Bess Truman as our witnesses, so I guess those could be considered puppets?
RYAN: Being married to Leslie obviously means that you get to direct her vocal performances sometimes. What is that like?
RYAN: Who are some of your favorite Muppets?
PAUL: Well, going back to Muppets Tonight, my favorite has to be Johnny Fiama. I’m a big fan of the crooner era, so Bill Barretta’s take on Johnny was simply amazing. I even wrote the theme to “Johnny’s Pasta Playhouse” for a MT episode. And of course there is Animal – the legendary drummer, and Spamela, Seymour and Pepe, oh, the list goes on and on.
RYAN: What are some of your greatest memories on Sesame Street and with the Muppets?
PAUL: So many… We just taped a music-heavy show that I can’t say anything about because it is part of Season 41, but suffice to say there was a moment where a full cast of over 24 voices were singing and it was stellar.
Season 40 – I’m not sure what episodes have officially aired, so unfortunately I can’t get too specific: Any time there are multiple Muppets it is so fun. Such as Zoe dancing with 7 chickens. A blast. There was a multiple Elmo day as well which was a riot. And penguins. Lots and lots of penguins!
Watching Big Bird and Snuffy interact is simply incredible. I just look at those two enormous Muppets and they really say Jim Henson.The Knights episode was really fun. Elmo, Abby and Telly were playing Knights and on a quest to find things that begin with the letter “Y”. They had a great little song that recurred throughout the episode. Really fun.Seeing Leslie perform a kangaroo and sing a groovin’ jazz tune was so great! That was for the episode where Jack gets his jump back and is able to fly over candlesticks. Very fun.
Watching the remote-control Elmo and Abby riding tricycles was really amazing. And in general, when I arrived on set every day, the first place I would go is the Muppet wrangler table. This is where the magic begins, and it’s fun to look at what characters will be taping that day. So when you see a Muppet broccoli, potato, and carrot sitting next to Fat Blue, all surrounded by remote control cars, you know it’s going to be a fun day!
RYAN: Where do you draw your inspiration for composing music?
PAUL: For composing on Sesame Street: from the lyrics / script itself, and also envisioning how the song will look and feel on tv. That may sound odd, but for a show as legendary as SS, I have to think about the past songs and try and get that feel. And I always look to past composers for inspiration, including Joe Raposo, Jeff Moss, etc…I also try to provide unique instrumentation in my songs, and write in more unique styles than just straight 8’s in 4/4 time. I think it is important that kids are introduced to this early on. One of my favorite LP’s when I was growing up was Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” which has tunes in 7, 5, etc… Kids can count to five, right? Why not a song in 5/4 time?
RYAN: You get to have the distinct pleasure of directing the vocals of celebrity guests. Who were some of your favorite celebrities to work with?
PAUL: Jason Mraz was an absolute favorite. The guy is so completely comfortable singing and playing – a seasoned pro’ who worked his way up by just getting up on stage and doing his thing. His song “I’m Yours” was cleverly changed by the writers to “Outdoors“. When we were in the studio rehearsing the tune, he sang through the edited track and had we been recording, we could have used his first take. Incredible. Have you heard him sing “Rainbow Connection“? Stellar.
Adam Sandler was also a blast to work with. His “Song About Elmo” was really fun. Sandler was very humble about his singing / playing abilities, but I’m telling you, anyone who can open for The Who live, singing a parody of “Magic Bus” shouldn’t be humble at all! He was great.
Rocco Fiorentino was an exceptional guest. He is a 12-year-old blind jazz singer that has performed with Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder. It is so amazing to hear such pure talent emanate from a vocalist. He performed a classic Jeff Moss tune “Everybody’s Song” for Season 40. While he was on set he sang a couple of other tunes with the cast and crew and amazed us all.
Another amazing guest was Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “In The Heights”. He was featured in a script where Big Bird plans on moving to a new ‘habitat’. Lin-Manuel is one of those consummate stage performers that just lit up Sesame Street.
Ricky Gervais: stellar – super fun song with Elmo that he sang and played on guitar. Jimmy Fallon – stellar – great work on the “Wild Nature Survivor Guy” spoof – and great singing!
RYAN: Do you weld?
PAUL: Oh yeah.
RYAN: What do you weld?
PAUL: Instruments and stands for my percussion gear that I use in my group GLANK. I make instruments from “found objects” such as saw blades, LP tanks, motorcycle gears, etc… so welding comes in handy.
PAUL: There are quite a few, but the “Wild Nature Survivor Guy” with Jimmy Fallon was really fun. And seeing my insert song “Guess The Seasons” come to life was an honor.
RYAN: What is your favorite letter and number?
PAUL: R / 14
PAUL: It means that education and entertainment can creatively go hand in hand to make the longest-running children’s show ever. And that means: I am completely honored to work on the show.
RYAN: What sort of advice do you have for those of us who dream of working on Sesame Street or with the Muppets?
PAUL: I always go by the three “E”s of “freeelance”: Education: educate yourself in terms of what skills you’ll need that pertain to the job. Experience: find ways to increase your resume list by taking part in film / music content that matches your goals. Enthusiasm: always give 100% to any job, even if it’s a freebie.
Other than that, find people that share your dream and create content that inspires you. Send it out to anyone who will listen / view it. And BELIEVE.
PAUL: Well, Kaufman Astoria Studios is near the “R” subway… heh heh heh… But seriously, I got there via hard work, perseverance, and a little luck.
RYAN: Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. It really means a lot to The Muppet Mindset! Thank you for all of your work on Sesame Street and with The Muppets and I look forward to a lot more!
PAUL: My pleasure. Thanks Ryan!
Also, just letting you know that the CD I worked on with Jerry Nelson is now available online. Currently at www.digstation.com and soon on CD Baby. I was the music director for the recording sessions and co-produced it with Jerry and Kevin Clash. Plus I mixed it over the summer. It’s a real testament to Jerry’s talent as a vocalist and a song-writer. Plus a stellar band. Great stuff!!!
Another huge thanks to Paul Rudolph for such a fantastic interview! To check out Paul’s work, see Sesame Street Season 40, Muppets Tonight, and Season 41 coming this fall!
For more information about all of the wonderful things going on at Sesame Workshop, visit here: http://www.sesameworkshop.org
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier