In 1977, Jim Henson produced a spectacular one-hour television program in Toronto for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Based on a book by fantasy novelist and children’s author Russell Hoban, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” was a riff on “The Gift of the Magi.” The film featured a single-parent family of penniless otters who are barely making ends meet in their hometown of Frogtown Hollow and therefore struggle to buy Christmas gifts for each other. This musical endeavor, for which Ma and Emmet both pay a heavy personal price, proves to be their salvation.
Kermit the Frog was the narrator, and the lush amphibian also appeared later, as laconic as ever. Frank Oz voiced Alice Otter. Henson voiced various snakes, beavers and foxes.
With its blend of Henson’s famous Muppets and characters from the novel, “Emmet Otter” is now considered a seminal work by Henson historians. Although Henson’s Muppets date back to the 1950s, “The Muppet Show” was only a few years old in 1977 and Henson was already experimenting with radio-controlled puppetry and much more complex physical setups.
A year later, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” appeared on the HBO cable network in the United States, then just six years old. And later through distribution, and eventually through the wonders of VHS tapes, it became a popular and eventually beloved part of holiday programming, pushed into many VCRs on Christmas Day.
So the title is a good idea for a live production that opens Monday at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago.
Over the past several weeks, a high-caliber production team led by writer-producer Timothy Allen McDonald and director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli has rehearsed the show in the Fine Arts Building. (The two partners co-wrote the book for the live musical.)
The show’s full title has now taken on a possessive nature: “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.” Otherwise, it wears its past on its sleeve and aims to both capitalize on widespread nostalgia for the piece and introduce a new audience to its appeal.
The Chicago production isn’t the first outing; the show attempted to do so at New York’s New Victory Theater during the height of the pandemic, but it proved impossible. Now, after much more extensive development, McDonald and Gattelli say their plan is to expand beyond the so-called children’s theater market and open on Broadway next year.
Sitting in a rehearsal studio upstairs at Studebaker, it’s not hard to see why.
Even back in its TV days, “Emmet Otter” was a legit musical, featuring songs by iconoclastic actor-singer-songwriter Paul Williams, who seemed to have written every pop song lyric for the entire 1970s. He wrote “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” and “We’ve Just Begun” for The Carpenters, “Evergreen” with Barbra Streisand, and wrote numerous hit songs for Three Dog Night and various other magazine hits including “Bugsy Malone” soundtracks including ”.
Williams loved working with Henson and having the chance to write both lyrics and music for “Emmet.” In 1979, Williams would write the lyrics to the Academy Award-nominated song “The Rainbow Connection” for “The Muppet Movie,” a hugely successful film that expanded on many of the ideas Henson had worked on with “Emmet Otter.”
During the 1980s, the Muppets further established themselves as superstars, but on May 16, 1990, Henson died at the age of 53. Towards the end of his life, Henson was already negotiating with Disney, but it took 14 years for Disney to actually buy out completely. The Muppets brand. When the transaction was finally completed in 2014, Kermit went to work for Disney, but the Henson Company retained the rights to only a few of his productions, the one closest to Henson and his children’s heart. “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (which had already been attempted as a live show at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2009) was one of them.
And even though the Disney-owned word “Muppet” is now banned from marketing and press materials, and Kermit isn’t currently scheduled to appear in Frogtown Hollow, it’s what allows everyone to rehearse the Henson-inspired bliss on Michigan Avenue. (Although it’s a good bet he’d love to be there.)
Everyone involved in the production respects the old-school Henson legacy. “I was never part of a gang that had a treehouse,” Williams said one afternoon as he visited rehearsals and 46 years of singing. “Jim had a childlike curiosity about him, and I knew that ‘Emmet’ was the audition for ‘The Muppet Movie’ that I really wanted to do.”
Along with the existing material, Williams also wrote five new songs. She describes the new and old “Emmet” notes as “Americana that I have never done before but it seems to suit me very well.” And it really feels like it.
“Jim’s dream was always to do a Broadway show,” McDonald says. “We found it impossible to operate the way we wanted to at New Victory because all we did was do COVID testing and make changes. We were never able to do what we’re doing now in Chicago.”
Is “Emmet Otter” exactly a holiday show? Despite the role of Christmas gifts in the plot, McDonald says it’s not inherent in that. The original TV special didn’t have seasonal mayhem at its center (there wasn’t even a Christmas tree), instead offering a thrilling tale of otter tolerance and triumph. “We went a bit overboard with Christmas,” says McDonald, “but we think audiences will tell us what we got.” Perhaps “Emmet” could have a typical post-Chicago Broadway play.
The show is definitely aimed at families: grandparents and parents who want kids and grandchildren to fall for the otter and Henson puppets like they did in the 1970s.
And there’s something about this show that’s quite different from most of the puppets you usually see in live entertainment anymore, like Milky White in “Into the Woods” or the denizens of “Avenue Q” or the gazelles of “The Lion King.” ” In “Emmet Otter,” as in nearly everything to come out of the Henson Company, the audience doesn’t see the puppeteers.
Even at this rehearsal, actors from Chicago and New York still visible, joined by black-clad live performers Andy Mientus and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone portraying the mother-son otter duo, a visitor marvels at how easy it is on the eye. It goes to puppets offering moral advice, as Henson’s creations often do. Here, squirrels are philosophers and beavers are vocalists, and there is nothing and no one between you and them. As Henson knows all too well, this is much more difficult to achieve live on air than in a situation where all you have to worry about is the frame of the camera lens and it takes up a lot of rehearsal time. And so it should be.
“You get a double whammy when you see a puppeteer,” says McDonald. “In Jim’s work, the puppet had a life of its own. “It has always been fascinating for all of us.”
After the cast sings one of Williams’ sweet new songs, rehearsal breaks. Gattelli gives notes to the puppets.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.