Music Interviews


Now, the musical revolution has reached way beyond Broadway and the big screen, all the way to the ears of 4-year-olds. For that, we can thank Dan Zanes. He's a shaggy, folky superstar for the preschool set known for his kid-friendly collaborations with big name guests from Sheryl Crow to Philip Glass to the Blind Boys of Alabama. And Dan Zanes' latest obsession, as Jeff Lunden reports, is show tunes.

JEFF LUNDEN: It all started with a call from Paul McCartney's publishing company, which has music by many Broadway composers in its catalog.

Mr. DAN ZANES (Musician): Did we want to make a family CD of Broadway music? And I couldn't hear it in my head.

(Soundbite of song, "76 Trombones")

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) Seventy-six trombones led the big parade with 110 cornets close at hand.

Mr. ZANES: But my manager kept saying, you know, just keep thinking, keep thinking. Be open-minded. And you know, I was thinking, oh, it's just going to be weird folk music in the end. And everybody said, no, that's fine. That's what we want. You just do your thing.

(Soundbite of song, "76 Trombones")

Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (Singing) Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun, 110 cornets right behind.

LUNDEN: And Zanes, who plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica, has done just that. His new CD, "76 Trombones," features 17 show tunes, all done in Zanes' trademark style.

Mr. ZANES: You know, I like the raggedy sound. I really do. I feel like that's our specialty. I wanted to really try and make Broadway music for the new economy, where it just sounds like it's a little group of people who might not be all that familiar with what Broadway is, but the spirit is high, the musicianship is high, but it's not about perfection. It's all about enthusiasm.

(Soundbite of song, "Hello Dolly")

Mr. ZANES AND Ms. CAROL CHANNING: (Singing) I stuff his shoes with extra socks. Run seven blocks in nothing flat. Yeah, I can do that. I can do that.

LUNDEN: Zanes says this album is inspired less by big showbiz than by little showbiz.

Mr. ZANES: It's the shows that kids put on in the living room after dinner. It's the shows that people put on in high schools and junior highs. And it's community theater. It's all the shows, large and small, that go on. It's such a huge part of life here in America, for everybody that's here regardless of where you're from, what's your background. Putting on a show is - it seems to be such an essential part of the human experience.

(Soundbite of song, "Hello Dolly")

Mr. ZANES: (Singing) Together at last, together forever. We're tying knots they never can sever. I don't need sunshine now to turn my skies to blue. I don't need anything but you.

LUNDEN: But Dan Zanes has invited some guest artists from big showbiz to perform on the album.

Mr. ZANES: I don't know much about Broadway, but I do know enough to know Carol Channing and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Matthew Broderick. And so the idea of working with those people is instantly exciting and appealing.

Ms. CAROL CHANNING (Singer): (Singing) Hello, Harry. Well, hello, Louie. It's so nice to be back home where I belong...

Mr. ZANES: Carol Channing to me just embodies the spirit of showbiz. And "Hello Dolly," we flipped the lyrics around a little bit so that it was almost a way of celebrating her, as well as the song itself.

(Soundbite of song, "Hello Dolly")

Ms. CHANNING: (Singing) I feel the room swaying for the band playing one of our old favorite songs from way back when. So here's my hat, fellas, I'm staying where I'm at, fellas. Dolly will never go away again.

LUNDEN: Another song from "Hello Dolly" got the Dan Zanes treatment with some help from Matthew Broderick.

(Soundbite of song, "Before the parade Passes By")

Mr. MATTHEW BRODERICK (Singer): (Singing) Look at that crowd up ahead. Listen and hear that grass harmony growing.

LUNDEN: Broderick says when a song is sung in the musical, it has a completely different context.

Mr. BRODERICK: It's about life passing you by, and you've got to jump in, which doesn't resonate to a 4-year-old. So we played it more as just watching a parade. You know, parades are fun to watch. And maybe 20 years later, a kid who listened to it will say, hey, wait a minute. I think that was about middle age or something.

(Soundbite of song, "Before the parade Passes By")

Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing) Sparklers light the sky. I'm gonna raise the roof. I'm gonna carry on. Give me an old trombone, an old baton before the parade passes by.

LUNDEN: Another song with a completely changed context comes from "La Cage Aux Folles," where it was sung by a proud drag queen.

Mr. ZANES: They go crazy for Jerry Herman songs. And the one that particularly kills me on this record is "I Am What I Am." For me, it just felt like the perfect campfire song, and that's how we tried to record it as if the group was really sitting around a campfire late at night.

(Soundbite of song, "I Am What I Am")

Mr. ZANES: (Singing) I am what I am. I am my own special creation. So come take a look. Give me the hook or the ovation. It's my world. I want to have a little pride. In my world, it's not a place I have to hide in. Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say hey, world I am what I am.

I always hope with everything we do that people hear these, and they want to go make their own music, that it inspires people to go and do the same, that somehow this music is suddenly within arm's reach.

LUNDEN: Dan Zanes says he's enjoyed recording this album of Broadway songs so much, he and his group are going to put together a live stage show with tap dancing and break dancing to showcase them.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

KELLY: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz will be back next weekend. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Have a great week.

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