Interview: Songwriter Paul Williams on Bringing Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas to the Stage
Williams is perhaps best known as the cowriter of the Kermit the Frog hit, "Rainbow Connection."
Few songwriters are more iconic than Paul Williams. The lyrics "Evergreen" from Barbra Streisand's A Star Is Born are his; so are "Rainy Days and Mondays" by the Carpenters, Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," and the theme from The Love Boat. To a certain demographic, though, he's best known for his collaboration with Jim Henson and the Muppets, cowriting, among other classics, the Oscar-nominated "Rainbow Connection."
Williams's earliest musical collaboration with the Muppet family — beyond a guest appearance on The Muppet Show in 1976 — is the 1977 TV movie Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. Not the best-known Muppet work, this Gift of the Magi-style story about a poor family of otters who enter a talent contest for a chance to win $50 has a place in the hearts of many diehards. Now, it's coming to the stage.
After a premiere at Goodspeed in 2008, Tim McDonald and Christopher Gattelli's theatrical version of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas will run at the New Victory Theater December 10-January 2 (and streaming nightly from December 17). The show features all of Williams's tunes from the movie, plus four new ones, including a more complete version of a song he's long been asked about. Here, he tells about his history with the Muppets, and what we can expect from this new production.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you first get involved with Jim Henson and the Muppets team?
I went to appear on the first season of The Muppet Show in England in 1976 and it felt like family. It was like you were part of a fraternity or something, which I had never experienced before. In those days, there were a variety of substances involved, although I've been sober now for almost 32 years, but I remember being on the road in the middle of someplace and you'd turn on the TV in the morning and watch Sesame Street. It was the hippest and funniest show, and we also learned our alphabet.
So, I was already a fan when I showed up, but walking around and seeing Gonzo and Kermit made it the best gig ever. It's like you're watching a little kid playing. There is a floodgate of creativity. You see a level of commitment to the role-playing that is just fantastic, and that's the way I responded to Jim Henson and his crowd. A lot of it is the humor. There is some wonderful edgy humor in Jim and the Muppets' work through the years. It doesn't get too rainbows and unicorns. It has a nice little bit of edge to it.
How was the original Emmet Otter film project pitched to you?
Jim sent me the original book [by Russell and Lillian Hoban] and Jerry Juhl's script. The songs and even the underscoring happened very quickly. I was on the road in Vegas and I went into the studio with my road band and I was singing and even playing lines of underscoring. It was very organic and it was so enjoyable — there was an enthusiasm that I felt that was bounced back at me. It's interesting; there's something about the Muppets that unleashes kinds of music in me that I had never written before.
Did the stage musical happen the same way?
One of the really amazing things was that we had had a conversation with Tim McDonald about a couple of things, and we talked about Emmet Otter, which we all thought was just a natural. Right after that, he reached out to Chris Gattelli, and out of the blue, Chris said he wanted to do Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas as a musical. All of a sudden, it was like we were getting a nudge from Jim Henson's ghost or memory. We did it at Goodspeed two years in a row, and now it'll be nice to see Emmet after all these years again.
Tell me about the musical material that you added for the stage show.
I wrote four new songs, but it doesn't feel like a major change from what I wrote originally and what I added. The spirit of Emmet and Ma and all the characters pretty much lives on. There's a visit from Pa Otter who reassures Ma that she's not an old dreamer. It becomes this song "Alice, keep dreaming/I'm right here beside you/I'm close as the sun/when it's warm on your fur." Everybody always asks me about "Born in a Trunk," which was cut from the film and why there isn't a full version of it, so I wrote a full version of it. "I was born in a trunk in the great oak tree that was used to build the stage of the Palace." When I can have that much fun writing, it just isn't work.
What's your takeaway from the 2021 reappearance of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas after all these years?
One of my favorite things to remind myself is "don't call something a failure just because it doesn't get done right away." You know, Phantom of the Paradise, which was a Brian De Palma movie I did in 1974 had the world's tiniest audience. And now, Daft Punk and Edgar Wright and all these people have showed up saying "I love that movie." It's not too late.
The quality of acting and that mixture of Muppets and live actors in Emmet Otter on stage is a really interesting combination. I think that it has the sentimentality, but Tim and Chris maintain the level of edgy humor that is just so important in everything Jim Henson ever did. I think you will be really, really pleased.