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Schoolhouse Rules

school bus
Christine Alicino

Get on the Bus: Whenever producer and director Scott Guggenheim and choreographer Shannon Guggenheim mention 'Schoolhouse Rock Live!' to Gen-Xers, they hear, 'Yeah, cool, when's it happening?'

'Schoolhouse Rock Live!' for Gen-Xers derives from something more honorable than a cynical desire to cash in on the '70s nostalgia boom

By Kerry Reid

Quick, finish this sentence: "Conjunction junction ..." If you came up with "...what's your function?" then you're probably one of many Generation-Xers whose long-term memory is disproportionately filled with musical tidbits from the ABC-TV series Schoolhouse Rock! The Emmy Award-winning animated shorts, originally created 25 years ago, set principles of math, history and science to a funky beat and ran for 13 years, between Saturday morning cartoons and commercials for junky toys and diabetes-inducing cereals.

In the past few years, the songs have made a comeback via new recordings and pop-cultural references in everything from Reality Bites to The Simpsons (which brilliantly scrambled the SR! classic "The Preamble" and came up with "The Amendment": "I'm an amendment to be, yes, an amendment to be, and I'm hoping that they'll ratify me. There's a lot of flag-burners who have got too much freedom. I want to make it legal for policemen to beat 'em ...").

Now Gen-X nostalgia buffs (and their kids) can recapture the fun in Schoolhouse Rock Live!, opening in San Francisco in October. Guggenheim Productions, in association with TheatreBAM of Chicago, presents the 90-minute, 21-song extravaganza. TheatreBAM's original production ran for five years in Chicago, and also had successful runs in New York, Boston, Atlanta and Virginia Beach, Va.

According to Scott Guggenheim, producer and director of the San Francisco show, the idea of staging the animations occurred to him and his partner in life and art, choreographer Shannon Guggenheim, about the same time that TheatreBAM beat them to the punch and successfully applied to ABC for the rights.

"It took a long time to get to a point where TheatreBAM was ready to work with us, to allow us to do the West Coast run," Scott says.

Scott, Shannon and Scott's brother Stephen, who is serving as musical director for the show, have long and varied résumés in everything from opera to community theater to, most appropriately, children's theater--Scott spent seven years as artistic director for the children's company California Theatre Wing. So their interest in Schoolhouse Rock Live! derives from something more honorable than a cynical desire to cash in on the '70s nostalgia boom.

"As producers of theater for youth and family," Shannon says, "it has long been our frustration watching all the various types of children's programming out there that are either condescending and patronizing or in just grossly bad taste. It's very exciting to get a piece like this that can work commercially."

The team already has presented a live version of Rocky and Bullwinkle as well as many shows adapted from classic children's literature such as The Phantom Tollbooth and Pinocchio.

The storyline for Schoolhouse Rock! is featherlight: A young man named Tom, nervously preparing for his first day as an elementary school teacher, turns on the tube and hears the Schoolhouse Rock! theme. The stage fills with characters from the show, including My Hero Zero and Interplanet Janet. With the help of high-energy musical numbers (and the audience), they convince Tom that he has the right stuff to inspire children to learn.

"We're not literally recreating the cartoons. We're celebrating the music," Scott maintains.

"Our audition process was really funny," Shannon says. "We had actors sending us cover letters with rewritten song lyrics--'I'm just an actor. Yes, I'm only an actor, but you've got to see me'--all kinds of things like that. Even people who couldn't sing or dance still wanted to get in."

Obviously, the Guggenheims hope the high level of interest will carry over to Bay Area audiences. Given the dearth of family-appropriate shows in the downtown area, and the ongoing love affair Generation X has with the icons of its youth, it seems to be a can't-lose proposition. "If we mention the show to anyone between the ages of about 22 and 36, they scream and say, 'Yeah, cool, when's it happening?' " Scott says.

But in the unlikely event that the show fails to catch fire, the Guggenheims could always see if Drew Barrymore, an avowed SR! fan, would like to step in as a guest star. Just think how different little Drew's life might have been if SR! had come up with a catchy song about substance abuse:

"I'm just a pill, yes, I'm only a pill, but you don't want to mess with me. ..."

Schoolhouse Rock Live!, Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St.; Oct. 18-Dec. 28, Wed.-Thu. 8pm, Fri. 7:30 and 10pm, Sat. 5 and 8pm, Sun. 2 and 5pm; $18-$28; 415/441-4042.

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From the October 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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