The Sacred Space of The Muppet Show

Once upon a time, on Friday nights in the late 1970s, there was a little 30-minute space of time on the CBS network which would grow to define a generation. Carved out between shows like Dance Fever, Family Feud and The Incredible Hulk, which were mostly predictable week after week, a program called The Muppet Show provided the kind of variety, humor, playfulness and absurdity that provided a welcome respite from the usual sound and fury of prime-time programming. Looking at much of what passes as "entertainment" these days, looking back on certain moments from this show makes you wonder how it ever got broadcast to begin with. The show drew on age-old traditions of vaudeville, show tunes, mime, and international styles of puppet theater brought up-to-date for its modern audience, in a manner seldom seen on television at all since then. For several years, US networks turned down Jim Henson's concept of a prime-time slot for puppetry, and it might never have happened were it not for the faith that British producer Lew Grade put into the show to green-light it for production and syndication. The first season in particular, first aired in 1976-77, featured a mix of British and American guest stars who had previously worked with the Muppets or who were friends of the production team. Once the show grew in popularity, finding guest stars became an easier task, allowing them to attract everyone from the "high culture" of classical ballet and opera to the freakish fringes of 70s shock-rock & pop...from Beverly Sills and Rudolf Nureyev to Alice Cooper and Debbie Harry. Through the entire 5-season run of The Muppet Show, as I've enjoyed it so much from those first original airings as a small child, into re-runs and collecting of episodes as I've grown up, there is one particular feature of the show which I have come to notice as rather poignant and significant.

Occasionally on the show, if the guest star was a singer (as opposed to merely an actor), there would be a quiet, intimate scene with the guest star singing to, or performing with, one single Muppet character. Sometimes it took place on stage, in some kind of decorated set with Kermit for example, or as a simple empty set with Rowlf playing piano. Other times it would be backstage, as a private chat with the guest star as they tried to cheer up or give counsel to someone like Robin, Fozzie, or even Kermit himself.  As the song progresses between the two of them, suddenly from off camera another Muppet walks into the frame behind them.  Then another....and another...and another. One or two at a time, the other Muppets gather around, as if they have heard the song begin from wherever and whatever they were doing before.  It is as if the song calls to them, and gathers them into a huddle around its source. Then as the song builds, what began as a duet becomes a chorus, as the gathering of Muppets begin to sing along through the rest of the number. The camera in these musical scenes typically stays still in one long-shot through most of the song, only cutting away, zooming or dissolving at times into an occasional close-up of the guest star. 

The first instance where this kind of scenario would have appeared to audiences on The Muppet Show was in the episode with Sandy Duncan, first aired on October 2, 1976. The musical number for Try to Remember begins with Kermit sitting on Sandy's lap in an outdoor meadow setting. As the camera moves from a close-up and pulls back, we notice a large group of Muppets entering the scene to sing along, and Kermit looks around bewildered, as if he was not expecting this intimate serenade to become a chorus.  Another scene of this nature aired a few weeks later on October 23, in the Emmy award-winning episode with Paul Williams, during his performance of Sad Song. The song begins on a dark stage with Paul leaning against the piano played by Rowlf, while members of the Electric Mayhem accompany in the background. Gradually the chorus of other characters emerge from off-screen to bring the song to a moving finale, followed by the classic Muppet theater applause track, and a little pat on the back to Rowlf from Paul himself. Another take on the scenario in Season One was presented with Ethel Merman (episode air date: February 19, 1977) who segues into the number There's No Business Like Show Business after a backstage pep talk with a discouraged Fozzie Bear. The other Muppets gather around in admiration and support, until the number moves next into Ethel taking her song to the Muppet stage.

Another significant take on this kind of musical scene appeared in Season 2, during the episode with Bernadette Peters (original air date, November 5, 1977), in one of the show's most moving performances. Backstage in Bernadette's dressing room, Robin laments to her about his disappointment over nobody noticing him. To console little Robin, Bernadette begins singing the song Just One Person (from Snoopy: The Musical). In this case, the actual lyrics to the song literally play out as the scene unfolds. Bernadette's initial verse to Robin begins, If just one person believes in you....hard enough, and long enough, it stands to reason, someone else will think 'If he can do it, I can do it', making it two whole people who believe in you...  At this point, on the words "two whole people", Robin's Uncle Kermit enters the scene and begins to sing along (which is poignant since Robin has even been ignored by him throughout the episode). The song's verses continue into the lyric There's bound to be some other person who believes in making it a threesome, making it three... and at this point, Fozzie joins in. The song continues, And if three whole people, why not four? and in comes Scooter....And if four whole people, why not more, and more, and more?  and in comes the rest of the Muppet chorus to finish the number. This same multi-layered approach to characters entering at key moments of the song was reprised powerfully and beautifully by the Muppet performers as they sang the song in tribute to Jim Henson at his memorial service, their melodies audibly wavering into tears by the final verse.  

Throughout continued seasons of The Muppet Show, this kind of staging with Muppets gradually joining the scene would appear in other musical numbers by performers such as Edgar Bergan (Consider Yourself), Dom Deluise (We Got Us), Paul Simon (Long Long Day), Linda Ronstadt (When I Grow Too Old to Dream), and Melissa Manchester (Whenever I Call You Friend).  

In these kinds of musical numbers, there are several things I feel we gain witness to as a viewing audience. Firstly, there is a nostalgic and historical element to the way some of these scenes are staged, particularly the ones which take place by a piano. As film historian Leonard Maltin points out in one of the Disney Treasures Silly Symphonies DVD commentaries, music used to be something which was experienced in many average homes. Before the days of radio and television, it was common for families to gather around a piano and sing together. Today, as Maltin suggests, we consume music as a form of entertainment more often than we participate in music. These scenes with the Muppets crowded around a piano invoke an age-old tradition and bring a feeling of that memory into the medium of television for us to experience. The Muppet Show also preserved a good number of songs which might have otherwise been forgotten to history had they not been given new life through the popularity of the series.

Secondly, there is a sense of respect, admiration and reverence for the human guest star by the chorus of puppet creatures, as if the Muppets themselves are drawn into a ritual led by a being from a world outside their own. In the sense that these scenes are typically set up as a quiet moment of the human offering encouragement, advice or counsel to a discouraged Muppet, the manner in which they unfold into song creates a sense of respect not only for the performer, but for the power of music to bring inspiration, admonishment and healing. 

And finally, in many of these musical numbers there is a sense of storytelling inherent in the staging and the way the song unfolds. The almost religious reverence the Muppets have for the guest star and the counsel they bring is built upon by the message which is often brought forth. In this sense, the guest star becomes like a kind of shaman to the Muppets, sometimes imparting a token of spiritual wisdom to their particular tribe. In ancient cultures, the shaman would receive a vision from the spiritual realm, and the tribe would gather, often around a campfire, to hear the message. Out of this tradition came elements of not only religious rites, but also the building blocks of mythology and storytelling, which for many cultures would be translated into live theater featuring ornamental masks, and the roots of what would become modern forms of puppetry. In this context, the origins of The Muppet Show come around full circle into their own production, and no other musical number encompassed this truth more than in the final act of the episode with Harry Belafonte, first aired on February 17, 1979. It was this episode, and the philosophy behind the musical number Turn the World Around, that would be named as a personal favorite of Jim Henson himself. 

The number begins with Harry offering advice to Fozzie, who is feeling discouraged in his feeble attempts to write a script for the evening's show. Having hit a wall in trying to master the craft of writing under his own power, he asks Harry where he gets ideas for the songs he writes. Harry replies with one of the most beautiful and inspiring monologues ever uttered on television, as he tells a story which could serve as an inspiring message for any local tribe, church or community. And as he speaks, the Muppets begin to gradually surround him to listen.... 

"They don't come easily. You have to get inspired. Like the song we're going to do next?  I discovered that song in Africa, as I was in a country called Guinea. I went deep into the interior of the country, and in a little village, I met with a storyteller...and that storyteller went deep into African tradition and mythology, and began to tell the story about the fire, which means the sun, and about the water, about the earth, and he pointed out that all of these things put together turn the world around. And that all of us are here for a very, very short time, and in that time we are here, there really isn't any difference in any of us....if we take the time to understand each other. The question is, do you know who I am?  Do I know who you are?  Do we care about each other?  Because if we do, together we can turn the world around.

The essence of this monologue comes forth literally within the lyrics to the song, accompanied by puppets with African masks which were built specifically for this number....We come from the fire, living in the fire, go back to the fire, turn the world around. This pattern of lyrics repeats using words like water, mountain, sunlight, and spirit, eventually culminating in a verse saying We are of the Spirit, truly of the Spirit, only can the Spirit turn the world around. Through this story and song, several truths come forth: we come from the dust and elements of the earth, we are called to live in harmony with it, and that we are also created in the image of a great Spirit, who alone turns the world along with us, if only we would open ourselves to the inspiration He brings us. We must also learn to see ourselves as each being different facets of that same Spirit, as even the scriptures point to the hope behind this shaman's vision: Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. (1 Corinthians 13: 12) 

In the noise of today's entertainment world, it is a rare and special thing to find a moment that can give us a sense of timelessness, inspiration or insight into what draws us to music in the first place. Musical performances offered to us on television today are often in the context of a loud, celebrity-driven competition or award show, inside an arena of incessant cheering, confetti, sweeping camera moves, and other forms of excessive stimulation to the senses. One of the only modern shows which comes closer to providing a dose of musical creativity is Glee, which I admire at times for its attempts at re-inventing older songs for a new generation and opening up new meanings behind their lyrics. This similar kind of integrity is even more inherent in The Muppet Show, not only because it comes from a simpler, less-saturated time in the history of television, but also because of the respect they had for the performances they created. When staged as quiet intimate moments of encouragement, inspiration and storytelling on a simple theater stage, they give us a sacred space in which we can simply slow down and just listen. If we listen closely enough, we may still catch glimpses of what music can do when shared in community, in silence, and sometimes with its notes tuned to a higher source of inspiration. 

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