Deborah Wicks La Puma is Mo Willems' composer for Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma has written music for Mo Willems' famous Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie - and now for Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed on HBO Max.

Mo Willems' naked mole rats owe their rock 'n' roll sound to this composer

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SHANNON BOND, HOST:

Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma has written music for a pigeon, an elephant, a pig and a colony of naked mole rats. That's what you do when you work with Mo Willems, the writer of "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus" and other children's classics. Now La Puma's songs are on HBO Max in the animated version of Willems' "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience," as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: First, why naked mole rats?

MO WILLEMS: They're yucky. They're outsiders inherently.

BLAIR: Mo Willems says he's a fan of terrible ideas.

WILLEMS: It's the same thing as a pigeon. Everybody else is going to do just wonderful bears and bunnies and all these adorable, fluffy things. So take the terrible thing because then it's yours.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED: THE UNDERGROUND ROCK EXPERIENCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Good morning, naked mole rats.

DEBORAH WICKS LA PUMA: What was Mo going to do to navigate the slightly problematic word naked?

BLAIR: "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed" is Deborah Wicks La Puma's third musical with Mo Willems.

LA PUMA: And then I got his first draft of the lyrics. And they were naked, naked, naked, naked, naked mole rats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAKED RULES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Giving you the naked, naked, naked mole rats. Mole rats.

LA PUMA: So I was like, OK, this is how we're going to work. We're just embracing it. We're repeating this word, and everyone's going to get over it right in the opening song.

BLAIR: In the story, a naked mole rat named Wilbur, played by Jordan Fisher, discovers clothes in a culture where they're banned.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME TO GET DRESSED")

JORDAN FISHER: (As Wilbur, singing) What is that? Is that a hat? Would it be wrong to try it on?

LA PUMA: He's summoning the courage to put on those clothes.

BLAIR: And once he does, he really likes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME TO GET DRESSED")

FISHER: (As Wilbur, singing) A shirt here in the dirt. Would it hurt if I try it on?

LA PUMA: Like, I kept crying when I was writing because even though, obviously, the song is about a rodent who's putting on clothes - I mean, it's very silly - but it touches those deeper themes of discovering who you are, embracing who you are and then having that courage to live that life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME TO GET DRESSED")

FISHER: (As Wilbur, singing) Is it time to get dressed? Can these clothes make me whole? Will they make me my best? Can clothes make the mole?

BLAIR: When Willems and La Puma were thinking about the kinds of songs they wanted for their rock opera, they listened to a lot of their favorite music from the '80s - Elton John, Queen, AC/DC, The Who.

LA PUMA: Pink Floyd, for example, "We Don't Get No Education" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL")

PINK FLOYD: (Singing) We don't need no education.

LA PUMA: And that was one that I loved because it encompassed kind of a community oppression.

BLAIR: You can hear echoes of Pink Floyd's famous song in La Puma's "Proclamation Nation" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROCLAMATION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Wilbur, go to your room, you better.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) 'Cause if Grand-Mah gets upsetter (ph) she will ravel you like a sweater.

BLAIR: Born to a Mexican mother and a father who grew up in Southern California, Deborah Wicks La Puma was a Navy brat whose family moved around a lot - Europe, South America. In her late teens, La Puma dreamt of becoming a rock star. She was in a band called Technical Difficulty.

LA PUMA: And then I sort of came to the realization, you know, I'm not quite cool enough to be a rock star, but I might be cool enough to be a composer for musical theater (laughter).

BLAIR: After college, she ended up in Washington, D.C., with her husband in the early 1990s. That's when she began a long-time partnership with playwright Karen Zacarias. They've done 10 shows together, many inspired by their shared Latinx heritage, like "Ferdinand the Bull," "Looking for Roberto Clemente," and "Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZAPATOS MAGICOS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing in Spanish).

BLAIR: Zacarias says one of the reasons she likes working with La Puma so much is that she's not afraid to throw out a song she's written if it's not working.

KAREN ZACARIAS: She has no ego in the sense of, like, she comes and listens. Doesn't it mean she doesn't have opinions. But she comes in with an open heart and always wants to make the work better.

BLAIR: Zacarias jokes that she was a little worried when La Puma started working with Mo Willems.

ZACARIAS: And I was like, that man's going to snatch her away from me. And sure enough, I'm so happy to share Debbie (ph) Wicks La Puma with you, Mo, but just know that she was my collaborator first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY NOT?")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing) If it hurts someone...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, singing) Don't do it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing) If it's fun...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, singing) Get to it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing) So when you're on the spot, just ask yourself, why not?

BLAIR: La Puma says writing music for children is better than being a rock star.

LA PUMA: It's hopeful. It's energetic. It's just such a powerful tool for teaching empathy and community.

BLAIR: Deborah Wicks La Puma and Mo Willems' "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience" is on HBO Max.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOUBAB KREWE'S "SALUT")

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