If it weren’t for the Backyardigans, Evan Lurie might never have written Italian opera music.
As the composer for the cartoon characters’ ever-changing soundtrack, Lurie is one half of the creative genius that devised five new songs for each episode of the show, in a new genre every episode.
“It kept the music moving and it made the music always different,” he said by way of explaining the need to set such a daunting task.
From Balalaika Orchestra, a Russian string instrument, to Afropop, township jive, and the ever popular Klezmer music, used for the characters’ climb up the mountain, the show was seemingly insatiable, he said.
“Most television shows write a complete score and then start to reuse music, but because the genre changed with every episode, that wasn’t an option,” said Lurie.
Thankfully, his co-composer, Douglas Wieselman, was the perfect complement. Only once, to his recollection, did the pair start working on the same song. They would get the list of songs needed, and invariably, Lurie would start working out melodies for two or three themes only to find Wieselman had started on the remainder.
Altogether, the pair churned through 78 musical genres in their time with the goofy characters—an impressive body of work for any composer, let alone one tied to two-week timelines—it seemed there was never enough for the storylines.
“It did get harder and harder to do a clever pairing because we didn’t want to redo things,” Lurie recalled in an interview this week.
An early reggae episode, for example, included a ska tune they later wished could have been saved for an all ska episode—ska was the precursor to both rocksteady and reggae.
Needless to say, the work required anything but dumbing down the music for kids. To the contrary, the one-time member of The Lounge Lizards, an unconventional jazz group known for its genre-mixing style, Lurie said he never intended to write for the kids network Nickelodeon, or its spinoff Nick Jr., but now counts the work among his chief accomplishments.
He connected with this show through its creator Janis Burgess, who knew he had already worked on animated productions, like Nick Jr.’s series Oswald, and said the show ended up teaching him far more than he anticipated, even about how to do business.
“Doing that many recording sessions makes you really good at getting into the studio and getting the job done,” he said.
He learned to get his musicians into the studio at 10:30 a.m., as anything scheduled for 10 a.m. meant paying people to drink coffee for half an hour first. And he learned that each collection of tunes would take an immense amount of research.
“It’s pretty easy to write a reggae song, maybe even two, but once you need three, you have to listen to some music in order not to write another reggae that sounds exactly like the first two,” he explained.
And if there was a pitfall to the plan, it was that all of the research eventually unearthed the similarities in the music. J-pop, or Japanese pop, is basically American candy-pop once the Japanese language is stripped off, he pointed out, so they couldn’t really use it.
From Bollywood to Rockabilly, they broke down the music, composing for episodes like the psychedelic soul show and the parliament funkadelic episode. And yet the most rewarding result was simply hearing that the mermaid lullaby—written Johnny Cash-style—is used to sing at least one mom’s child to sleep at night.
You can hear a selection of the creative twists and turns the Backyardigans’ composers took when the stage production hits town next month.
Koba Entertainment presents two shows of the Quest for the Extra Ordinary Aliens, starring the Backyardigans, Sept. 14 at Kelowna Community Theatre at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $34.50, available through TicketMaster. Call 250-860-1470 or go to www.ticketmaster.ca.