Today being World Puppetry Day, and many of us housebound due to rapidly spreading Covid-19, I wanted to do a quick plug for a thing to watch to lighten your spirits.
I first watched The Muppet Musicians of Bremen on its television premiere in 1972. It was Muppet creator Jim Henson’s follow up to his hit tv version of “The Frog Prince”, starring Kermit the Frog, which had aired the previous year. At 7 years old, I was its target audience. I was even familiar with the source material, which I knew from my book of Grimms Fairy Tales, under the title “The Brementown Musicians”. Most editions of “The Brementown Musicians” are accompanied by a very memorable illustration of the four main characters standing atop one another at the door or window of a cottage: a rooster atop a cat atop a dog atop a donkey. The image makes an impression.
Bremen is of course in Germany, but for the purposes of his Americanized version, Henson re-set the story in the bayou country of South Louisiana. It is worth noting here that Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, though he spent much of his youth in Maryland. So there is something oddly personal and strange about this TV special, much more so than just about any Muppet work I can think of. Henson’s visions were always highly original of course, but normally they were also highly accessible and sunny in mood, framed as pure entertainment. But The Muppet Musicians of Bremen is different from a lot of his work in two significant ways. One is that the script (by Jerry Juhl) and the overall art direction possess a sort of peculiar cultural authenticity. It is in other words not universalized, but particularized to depict a quirky, lesser known pocket of the country. The dialogue is rich in funny, oddball folk phraseology that has the ring of truth to it. It’s so densely packed in wonderful rural idioms it makes you want to watch it many times just so you can catch everything. Secondly, the story material is much darker than Henson typically ever goes near. The four animal characters, Leroy the Donkey, T.R. the Rooster, Rover Joe the Hound Dog, and Catgut the Cat, are all staring at death in one way or another. Leroy and T.R. are about to be killed by their owners; Rover Joe is very old; and Catgut (a bluesy female with a voice modeled on Carol Channing’s, mixed perhaps with Krazy Kat) is merely despondent because she’s down and out.
The four humans in their lives, Mordecai Sledge, Farmer Lardpork, Mean Floyd, and Caleb Siles, are, as their names imply, dark and cruel men. As luck would have it, they are also stupid and superstitious, which adds another layer of darkness to the script — and works to the favor of our heroes. They are played by costumed performers with foam puppet heads, which makes them even more scary and uncanny than they would otherwise be. They are proper villains. The climax of the program, in which they get their just desserts, relieves that effect with loads of hilarious slapstick.
If you don’t know the story, these four castoff animals find themselves four castoff instruments (tuba, banjo, trumpet, trombone), and take delight in making music, which here takes the regionally appropriate form of extremely catchy songs with a New Orleans flavor. The songs are still in my head after several days. My wife had the cast album as a child; she said she played it endlessly. I would have done the same. At any rate, it’s available on Youtube. You should watch it today!
I’m obviously a big fan of JIm Henson and the Muppets. Here are some related posts: