From the sounds of virtuoso flutists to the high-soaring arrangements performed by opera singers, the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music’s Festival Miami has gained a reputation for showcasing some serious musical acts.
But The Pop Ups, a duo from New York is sure to shake up things Sunday in Festival Miami’s only performance especially geared toward children. It’s a rock and roll musical performed with the help of several puppet friends.
At first glance, Jacob Stein, 37, and Jason Rabinowitz, 39, can come off a little silly. (Here they are singing with a potty trainer:)
Yet it would be a mistake to assume Stein and Rabinowitz, who in 2010 abandoned careers writing for early childhood music companies, do not take music seriously. The truth is quite the contrary, and they have two Grammy-nominations to prove it.
Why puppets? And how do you take a puppet and make it come alive, with its own voice and personality?
JACOB: To kids, puppets are real.
JASON: It’s just a great place to inhabit the reality of those characters. If you’ve ever played with a doll and you made it talk, you’re puppeteering. So it’s inherent to people.
JACOB: The first thing you do when you pick up a puppet and you look it right into the eyes. That tells you where the puppets eyes are (for the audience) but it’s also playing with that puppet. For me, the moment I know when a puppet is alive is when it says something I didn’t expect it to say.
JASON: After I make eye contact with the puppet, I will hear the puppet. And if I don’t, maybe it’s not the puppet for me. Maybe it’s a Jacob puppet. I’ll just hear it and I’ll know what it wants to sound like.
All your performances and videos are high-energy, fusing color, sound and animation with the charisma of your characters. How do you keep up the momentum?
JACOB: I think that, first of all, as any performer, the job is always to show up somewhere and do it like you’ve never done it before. That is your job no matter what. That’s the first thing you have to remember. The second thing is it’s really magical. Kids and adults are a genuine audience, with their laughter and their smiles. It’s a pleasure.
JASON: And energy drinks don’t hurt.
How is making music for children different than making other music?
JASON: The Pop Ups are basically founded on the principle that kids music doesn’t have to be any different than other music. You don’t have to compromise. You don’t have to dumb it down in any way. And that’s what we were feeling. There’s this excellent use of utility.
JACOB: There is something — kids recognize when there is something extra built in for them. I think that music can work the same way. I love “Alice in Wonderland.” I love “Where the Wild Things Are.” To try to be that excellent with music for an audience is really a joy.
JASON: The artistry in kids music is, people think it’s all “The Wheels on the Bus.” If you look at “In the Night Kitchen” it’s like poetic, [but] there’s like full frontal nudity. It’s one of the most profoundly beautiful works of art. It’s transportive.
JACOB: And that’s what art is: Making something that the artist would want to look and listen at and experience.
You have videos on topics ranging from using the potty and recycling bins to cheese and house plants. Are there any subjects that are off limits?
JASON: Politics. We made a conscience decision not to do politics in the Pop Ups. In the old Sesame Street there was a character who died and they did this whole episode on death. It was wonderful. It was good. We believe in the intelligence of kids. They can handle anything.
JACOB: But I have to say this – in an era where talking about recycling and the environment turns out to be a very political statement, we stand behind messages of diversity and environmentalism and if those are political, so be it.
One of the most interesting things about the Pop Ups is that it introduces the idea of inanimate objects speaking in first person. It’s a departure from shows like the Muppets and Sesame Street, which feature main puppet characters like Kermit and Elmo. What was the thinking behind “Make it a Puppet?”
JASON: It’s like how much fun is that? How awesome is that? How cool would it be if you could put eyes on something and it talk to you? It’s magic. Everybody can do this magic. The idea is our highest compliment would be if a kid puts googly eyes on something.
JACOB: It’s the deeply crazy or kooky question “What would a house plant say if a house plant could talk? And what would it sound like?”
OK, but the potty song…
JASON: We decided that the potty would have to be happy about being a potty and not absolutely mortified that we brought him to life. We don’t pretend we’re children. We just are human beings that can be curious about anything.
What are your hopes for your show in Miami?
JASON: That everybody has a great time. We do what we do because we can’t do anything else (laughs). We’re just trying to give every last bit that we can so they have fun.