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Lasting Lessons

'Schoolhouse Rock' revue revives songs from cartoon that teaches English, math.


Tune by tune, multiplication table by multiplication table, "Schoolhouse Rock" weaseled its way into the collective consciousness of an entire generation. Supply the phrase "Conjunction Junction" to any American born after 1960, and nine times out of 10 he or she will reflexively reply, "What's your function?"

Hard to believe that Gen-Xers are old enough to be feeling the pangs of nostalgia already, but they are, and especially for the Saturday morning cartoons that taught them grammar, math, science and history in three-minute bits.

Last year Rhino Records released a four-CD box set of 50 original "Schoolhouse Rock" songs. Just before that came a tribute album with such Gen-X bands as Blind Melon and Better Than Ezra doing "Schoolhouse" covers. There are also books, calendars and CD-ROMs.

And now, getting its West Coast premiere: "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" a musical revue.

The show, which contains 21 of the songs written for the series, started in 1973, was created by a Chicago theater troupe in 1994. A touring company will bring it to California next year, but the Comedy Tonight troupe will take a crack at it first in Simi Valley starting Friday, and in Thousand Oaks from June 13-29.

Producer and Comedy Tonight co-founder Gabriel Vega remembers well watching the cartoon lessons when he was a teenager and discovered the revue while surfing the Internet.

When Comedy Tonight opted not to do "The Wizard of Oz" this spring, he suggested "Schoolhouse." "I believe that what plays in the Midwest plays in Ventura County," said Vega. "When it played well in Chicago, it became clear to me that it would be successful here."

The revue has a bit of a story line: A new teacher (Bawb Cochrane) is nervous before his first day of school. He sits down to watch TV, sees some of the "Schoolhouse Rock" cartoons from his childhood, and then these characters emerge from his imagination to offer educational advice. The dialogue, though, is limited to about a half a dozen lines between songs.

Unlike other attempts to look back at '70s pop culture--such as campy takes on "The Brady Bunch"--"Schoolhouse" is more sincere. And the six members of the cast have fond memories of the ABC-TV shorts, which, in Los Angeles, may be seen Saturday mornings at 9:25 and 9:55 a.m. on Channel 7.

Cochrane, who is 26, showed up for his audition wearing a "Conjunction Junction" T-shirt. And like most of the cast, he knew most of the songs before the first rehearsal, including: "Interplanet Janet," "I'm Just a Bill," "Figure Eight," and "Lolly, Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here."

"My sister and I were 'bathroom performers,' " Cochrane said. Before bed each night, the duo would sing in front of the mirror in their bathroom, even though Dad was trying to sleep. "Schoolhouse Rock" was a staple of their repertory.

The music undoubtedly will be familiar to many in the audience, said director Rebecca Hanes, but she had to be creative in her staging. "One of the challenges in staging it is that there are cartoons that people are used to seeing. That doesn't always translate well to the stage," she said. "What you have to do is come up with something that's creative and includes the visuals you need."

But the music has always been the heart of "Schoolhouse Rock." The idea came from David McCall, an ad executive who noticed that his son couldn't master his multiplication tables but could remember the words to Rolling Stones' songs. Jazz musician Bob Dorough was commissioned to write the first songs--"Multiplication Rock"--for an album with an accompanying workbook.

When the book deal wasn't going anywhere, other co-creators Tom Yohe and George Newall sketched story boards and sold the idea to ABC as animated spots to be inserted in their Saturday morning cartoon lineup.

The timing was good: Parents were grumbling about a lack of educational programming and the content of cartoons, not unlike now, remembers Dorough. The spots ran at the top of the hour from 1973-1985, and were revived in 1992 with 10 new installments.

At first, Dorough had no idea how successful the series would be. A year after the TV spots started appearing, he wasn't even sure if children were tuning in. So he called up elementary schools and booked himself to do free assembly programs. With just a piano and a microphone, he would start to sing the first song he wrote: "Three is a Magic Number."

"The boys in the front row would nudge each other," he remembered. "They recognized my voice." They still do. When Dorough puts on his show "Schoolhouse Rock and All That Jazz" at clubs, he often finds a group of 20-to-30-year-olds in the audience. After the set, they say his melodies helped them get through basic math and memorize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

"Lots of young people walk up to me and say, 'You got me through it!' "


"Schoolhouse Rock Live!" will be performed Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., through June 8 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 E. Los Angeles Ave.; (805) 581-9940. It also plays June 13-29, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., at the Arts Council Center Courtyard, 482 Greenmeadow Ave., Thousand Oaks; (805) 389-3193.

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