Friday, January 18, 2013

(No) Thanks for the Recommendation, Netflix!

image via

Today, The Buster found a children’s program on Netflix called The Wheels on the Bus and immediately begged to watch it.  As far as I can tell, the premise of the show is to ride around on a bus singing repetitive songs and to foster basic childhood skills (the episode we watched promoted the virtues of getting along, sharing, not procrastinating, washing our hands, and eating healthy snacks).  Sometimes the passengers get off of the bus and the viewers are treated to a video montage of things like insects and parades. 

I’m sure this doesn't sound much different than any other children’s program.  But the thing is that the people on the bus are crazy-weird.  The bus is driven by Roger Daltrey (lead singer of The Who) dressed in a full-body dragon costume.  Or at least the dragon is voiced by Roger Daltrey…it’s likely someone else wearing the actual costume.  Other bus riders include an assortment of mismatched puppets, some people wearing what look like cast-off mascot costumes, and some (mostly) normal people.  The kids are all future music-dance-theater majors, the grown-ups keep on smiling, and there is some guy dressed up like a clown/mime.  Add in some terrible computer animation and some random children appearing as singing, dancing, fairies and you have half an hour of my life that I will never get back.  Naturally, The Buster was riveted to the screen.    

This is where good-mommy-me and I-like-the-arts-me have an internal struggle.  The overall message of The Wheels on the Bus is great.  No one is hitting anyone else.  No one is being called stupid or dumb.  We’re learning about taking turns.  I want to like it, but the part of me that sat through all those theatre, literature, and film classes is threatening to throw a fit.  The lessons are a bit heavy-handed, the production values poor.  I want children’s programming to be smart, funny, and high-quality.  And I want it to be watchable, and not just by The Buster and Miss Meatball.  I want to see what they are watching—is there a new concept that I need to explain or help reinforce?  Or something a character did that I don’t want my kids doing?  We spend a limited amount of time watching TV and I don’t want to spend it watching rubbish.  Or things I find straight-up annoying (Dora the Explorer, I’m looking at you). 
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of great stuff out there.  The PBS line-up is predictably good—where we live Barney is out and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is in (thank goodness).  Sesame Street is as fantastic as ever.   And while I still think that the Man in the Yellow Hat is a terrible pet owner (seriously, if Curious George were a human child, DFACS would have stepped in) and that Super Why should stop changing all those stories, I’m grateful for all the quality children’s media options available.  

What are your favorite children’s television programs?  Least favorite?  In addition to the shows mentioned above, we like Kipper, Charlie and Lola, and The Octonauts.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Les Mis

There I am, right next to Jean Valjean.  My eyes are shut because, apparently, that note is a beast to hit.  Or I'm just blinking. Or both.  

It seems somehow appropriate that the film version of Les Misérables was released this year—ten years after my own Les Mis experience.  I saw the film version a couple of weeks ago and I still can’t stop singing the songs (you’re welcome, family).  I loved the movie for both its own sake (seriously, were you listening to Anne Hathaway? and looking at that camera work?) and for all of the Les Mis-associated memories it brought back.      

The original London cast performance of Les Misérables opened on October 8, 1985, the day before I was born.  In a very literal sense, Les Mis has been there my whole life.      

I can’t pinpoint the moment the musical entered my consciousness, but I know it hadn’t registered as important until the year my high school drama teacher decided we would put on a production in our run-down auditorium.  I knew some of the songs, a bit about the plot, and absolutely nothing about what the musical would do to my junior year of high school.  Les Mis changed me.  I know it sounds kind of hokey and clichéd, but really.  It did.  That production, my production, was one of the defining experiences of my adolescent years. 

At seventeen, the themes of love, redemption, and identity resonated with me—really, aren’t they what being a teenager is about?  Figuring out who you are, messing up a lot and trying again, learning that love is both exquisitely simple and devastatingly complex.    
Check out that hoop skirt! 

And then there was just how hard we all worked and the people we had the opportunity to work with.  The musical was so very big and we were all so very young.  Talented, but young and only minimally experienced.  Few of us had performed outside of other school productions.  Our teachers believed that we could do it, though.  Matt and Kelly and Trevor and the loads of other adults who I used to call Mr. and Mrs. never questioned whether or not we were capable.  Instead, they told us to keep working.  I wish I could adequately thank them all for that.     

Of all the hundreds of hours of rehearsals, I remember one in particular; we visited a homeless shelter to sing some highlights of the musical.  I remember our teacher’s words as he spoke to the people there about the songs we would sing.  Jean Valjean was transformed for me…he became someone who was “down on his luck” who “wanted a better life.”  And there were nods and mmm-hmms and eyes that brightened with comprehension.    I remember the sudden understanding that this wasn’t a story written for a dressed-up, theatre-going elite.  “For the wretched of the earth/there is a flame that never dies/even the darkest night will end/and the sun will rise;” we were singing about hope and hope is for everyone, particularly the hopeless.    

I just dug out a cd someone made of one of our dress rehearsals, and I am struck more than anything by the sincerity of our voices.  I love that.  I listen to the pit orchestra struggle along in the background as Jared sings “Stars.”  Ben and Jessica break my heart with “A Little Fall of Rain.”  I shake my head at the number of high Cs I hit.  “One Day More” still gives me goose bumps from the moment Matt starts singing.  I miss that entire cast.

Favorite Les Mis memories, HHS or otherwise, go! 
Yeah...everyone else is paying attention to something important and I'm looking at a Mr. T coloring book.