Reimagining Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood through Children’s Television

It is with a certain, special nostalgia that we hold Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in our hearts. Maybe it was his sweater, his smile, or his canvas shoes, maybe it was the way he spoke and made everyone feel at home, maybe it was the simplicity of his routine at the start of each episode… maybe it’s nothing in particular, or a combination of things.

In the last few years Mr. Fred Rogers and his television program have seen new light through the release of a documentary on his life and show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; Tom Hanks played Fred in the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; and the children’s television program, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. First aired in 2012 on PBS, Daniel Tiger brings Mr. Rogers’ world to new audiences through a re-imagined lens. The show, a lovely cartoon, follows 4-year-old Daniel Tiger, the son of the original show’s Daniel the Striped Tiger, on his adventures through The Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

“With the help of Daniel and his friends, preschoolers have fun and learn practical skills necessary for growing and developing.” (Source)

In this article, I sit down for an interview with three of the music producers / composers responsible for the musical landscape that brings Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to life: Graeme Cornies, James Chapple, and Brian Pickett, members of VooDoo Highway Music Group.

From the art of meaningful children’s television, to their work on the Daniel Tiger show, to the legacy of Mr. Rogers, our three interviews below — it is my hope — will hold a little something for everyone. I’ve divided the blog into three parts, though each links together intrinsically.

Left to right: Brian, James, and Graeme

Graeme, James, and Brian have also produced musical scores for other popular children’s series like Paw Patrol, The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, and Charlie’s Colorforms City.

Part One: An Interview with Graeme Cornies

“I’m one of the songwriters on each episode and I’m also one of the composers on the underscore team. I often get to sing on Daniel Tiger songs too. Most often I’m the unseen musical narrator singing on one of the strategy songs, but occasionally I get to be a choir of singing root vegetables, a singing kitchen utensil, or a group of frogs in harmony. It’s a jovial way to spend a day when those opportunities come around.”

Andrew Cheek: When working on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, what was your process for finding the balance between creating/producing music that is both message-forward yet still entertaining and enjoyable to hear?

Graeme Cornies: I generally try to trust the feeling that I have when making the music and listening back. If I’m having fun, I tend to trust that there will be like-minded people out there picking up on it and feeling the same. Writing music to a creative brief is inevitably a puzzle. You have the time constraint of how long the piece needs to be and a bunch of must-have learning objectives that need to be addressed. The fun part of the puzzle is actually finding a way to check those boxes while creating something pleasurable and novel.

By the time it’s complete, the script writers have also weighed in with advice from consultants and child researchers, so I’m confident that the messaging is working if our collaborators are satisfied, but when it comes to entertainment value, I just try to trust my own barometer of fun.

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, 2019, holding Daniel Striped Tiger

Andrew: Could you describe some of the challenges you faced in the adaptation from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood? For example, in rewriting the theme song.

Graeme: With the theme, two of our versions were short-listed as front-runners. They liked different aspects of both versions so the challenge was for Brian and I to combine our versions into a song that everyone liked more than what we came up with individually. Of course, there’s no guarantee that merging two things that you already like will create something that you will like even more, so perhaps we lucked out.

It helped that we both based our own versions on Fred’s song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” That was the common thread that made our final merged version possible. In the end, it was true collaboration.

Andrew: What makes this show unique from other re-imaginings of Mister Rogers’ world (the documentary, the Tom Hanks film, for example)?

Graeme: I’d say that the other works you mentioned focus on Fred’s life, whereas Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is actually a continuation of the original show. The land that Daniel Tiger and his friends inhabit is the “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” Fred’s own invented world! Now that The Neighborhood of Make-Believe is animated, it has been a chance for a whole new generation of creatives to build on the kind of emotional learning objectives that the old show spoke to.

It’s a piece of Fred that lives on and continues to play a meaningful role in the lives of families everywhere. I think part of the beauty of Daniel Tiger is that it doesn’t just celebrate the man Fred was, it aims to continue to carry out the objectives of the man that deserves all of that celebration.

Part Two: An Interview with James Chapple

“I am one of the composers/songwriters for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Along with Brian and Graeme I help workshop the strategy hooks, write the lyrics and music for songs, and compose the incidental underscore for the series. I have also had the opportunity to voice some minor background characters throughout the series’ run, which is always an added bonus as we don’t typically get to be the voice-talent on the shows we work on. As a pianist, I tend to do a lot of that classic Fred Rogers jazzy piano for the show when it is called for, either in a song or in the underscore.”

From left to right: Graeme, James, and Brian

Andrew: In terms of adaptation, did Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood being a cartoon change how you approached the musical score? (As compared to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which was not a cartoon.)

James Chapple: I’m a huge fan of TV and film, and one of my favorite things to geek out about is continuity, especially when it comes to a musical score. When there are sequels to my favorite shows or movies, I want to hear those established themes and live in that same musical world. When we first started working on Daniel Tiger I was relieved to hear that the production team wanted to keep the music in the same area code as the original show.

I think the fact that the music on the original series was essentially just Fred singing along with a live piano player, kept the tone relaxed, grounded and organic; a simple musical flavor that children could digest easily. This is the tone we’ve tried to achieve with Daniel Tiger as well. Except for some of the larger scale “musical” episodes (where we were able to add some orchestral elements), the score remains in that relaxed jazzy world that colored my childhood, and I’m thrilled to be able to share that kind of music with an entirely new generation of kids and carry forward the continuity from the original show.

Andrew: There’s something unique to Mr. Fred Rogers, maybe it’s his gentle quiet friendliness, his cardigan, the way he sings and his voice — it’s no one thing but it’s special and is part of what captivated television audiences for so many years. What would you say that special essence is in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and how does that get represented or complimented musically?

James: Well one of the highlights for me each season is when we are tasked with doing an updated version of one of Fred’s classic songs. First of all, it takes me back and helps me get in tune with what the original Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was like musically. As a fan of the original show, being able to have fun in this job is a wonderful bonus.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, learning one of these old songs helps inform us on how to approach the other musical elements of the show, like the underscore. When I’m learning one of Fred’s songs I’m always struck with how cleverly it is written. Fred was a monster songwriter, and his chord progressions and jazzy voicings are very impressive. It is truly a good way to study certain techniques that we can then incorporate into the underscore and give the series that true feeling of musical legitimacy. So really, that special essence in this show is having Fred’s spirit and the DNA of the original show incorporated throughout the songs and score.

Andrew: Off of that, how does the music in the show — as well as in other children’s television you’ve worked on too, perhaps — relate to other aspects of television?… colors, the animation style, dialogue, sound effects, etc.

James: I feel like the shows that we’ve had the good fortune to score are a real gift, and while I absolutely love scoring action sequences, comedic chases, and high concept musical numbers, the thing that I truly love about being able to work on Daniel Tiger is that it’s different from every other show we work on. It’s true to Fred’s original vision of presenting a calm and gentle world.

To me, it’s a wonderful palette cleanser from the more bombastic music we tend to write on other shows. It’s a unique show in that it aims to play a meaningful role in family life for those who watch the show regularly. It’s truly a privilege to be invited into the homes of millions of parents and children across the country, and to actually have our music be part of their problem-solving strategies. As a musician, that’s the best thing you could ever hope for: to have your music actually have a positive influence on people’s lives. It’s been a very personally rewarding experience to work on this series.

Part Three: An Interview with Brian Pickett

“I’m also one of the songwriters and underscore composers on the series. Sometimes I end up singing on the series as well. We always sing our temp lyrics with the understanding that the cast will end up singing, or Graeme will sing them. The odd time, feedback will come from the producers saying that they’ve fallen in love with the vocal performance in the demo phase, and will decide to keep me as the narrator voice. That’s always sweet because I’ve never considered myself a lead vocalist.”

Three friends. L-R: Brian, Graeme, James

Andrew: In what ways, through technique or feel, do the themes and contents of the show come through in the music?

Brian Pickett: One of the amazing things about working on the series is how music-centric it is. The internal lesson of each episode is sung as a jingle throughout. We workshop and test each ‘jingle’ to make sure it’s catchy enough to stand on its own. This is so that kids will be able to recall these little earworms whenever they are faced with a challenge, and it seems to be working for a lot of families! The jingles then become blown out songs that are sung at the end of each episode, and expand on the lesson.

Outside of that, I find the Daniel Tiger music very soothing to compose and to listen back to. The whole vibe of the series is so much different from other cartoons. It relaxes children, then teaches them to be mindful of others and mindful in their own actions. I remember when my kids were young, after watching a Daniel episode, they would get along so much better!

Andrew: Children and people at large face different challenges now then they did when Mister Rogers first aired in 1968. The way children grow up now in some ways is far different than back then, with smart phones, the internet, and social media being so prominent. Could you speak to some of the ways in which Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood embraces these changes while still being true to the spirit of Mr. Rogers?

Brian: Daniel Tiger stays true to some simple principles that I think are timeless, yet more important now than ever. Namely, being kind and respectful to others, celebrating each others’ differences, and loving one another through our actions. If kids (and adults for that matter) can remember these lessons, especially in regards to social media and online interaction, many of the current negatives could be a thing of the past.

I never really thought about it until now, but The Neighborhood of Make-Believe has very little technology. I’m not even sure if I’ve even seen a home phone or a computer in the series, let alone a smart phone. What a great way to bring human interaction back to the basics.

Andrew: How can music, broadly but specifically in the context of children’s television — such as in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood — further the learning and development of children?

Brian: Music can be a valuable tool to learn. In advertising, a lot of companies strive to create catchy jingles to keep their names or phone numbers top-of-mind. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood really takes advantage of the same principal of using music as a memory aid, with each life-lesson acting as the musical hook of each episode. Our goal is to make these lessons catchy.

Also, I believe music in general is an important element in good mental health. For me growing up, music was an escape and a second home. It was always there when I needed it, and it has been nice to hear from some of the people who have written to us over the years, expressing how this music has helped them in some way.

Want to Keep Reading? Check out my interview with Back to the Future stunt man or follow me on Twitter for all the latest news you may or may not want to miss.

Till next time. -Andrew

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.

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