Yes, Lyric’s long-awaited backstory is upon us. Your village looks like a nice place. Hope nothing happens to it.
Last Thursday, I had the rare pleasure of attending Animaniacs Live when the show performed at the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall in Pittsburgh. Animaniacs Live is sort of a musical variety show based on the Animaniacs cartoon show from the mid 90’s. Lead Actor, Rob Paulsen and composer Randy Rogel perform some of their favorite musical numbers from the TV series and also tell a few stories about how these songs were written.
I’ve heard that when the show plays at some of the bigger, west-coast venues, actors Tress MacNeille and Jess Harnell will sometimes drop in too. This sound like ordering a delicious slice of cake, only to find that the kitchen had decided to garnish it with a second slice of cake.
Long time readers of this blog will understand what a big deal it is for me to attend a show like this. For most of my life, I’ve been a cartoonist with an unusually strong auditory memory. When I was around five years old, I started noticing how the characters in some cartoon shows had the same voices as characters in other shows. When I was 13 years old, I started reading the show credits so I could memorize the names of these performers and keep track of which characters they played (back then, the internet wasn’t good enough to do that for me.) From then on, I was following cartoon voice actors the way normal people follow Hollywood A-listers.Well, as usual, normal people are missing out, because cartoon actors are generally kinder and more interesting than your typical celebrities. But even among cartoon actors, Rob Paulsen is one of the special ones. He is known as “The Mayor of Voicetown.” His acting career spans over 30 years, he’s had minor and major roles in over 400 TV shows, movies and commercials. Basically, if you’ve ever watched anything, you’ve probably heard his voice. A lot. He also runs a pretty cool podcast about what it’s like to act for cartoons. So, if Rob Paulsen was putting on a show in Pittsburgh, you’d best believe I was getting a ticket.
I invited my sister Liz, who is an accomplished musician and fellow cartoon fan. On our way to the theater, we discussed how much cartoons and cartoon music must have influenced us as we grew creatively. Nowadays, I draw comics, Liz writes character-driven shows, and both of us are founding members and lyricists for that video game opera, which we perform with our talented friends. Yes, we did take art and music classes and we trained diligently in our creative pursuits, but I wonder if we would be quite as sharp today if we didn’t have TV animation planting some of these seeds of inspiration way back in our grade school days.
At this point, I want to endorse the show. I want to tell you that the show was amazing and if it ever comes to your town you should run out and get the best seat money can buy. But you already know that I’m a fan and my opinion is biased. So, I am going to try to take a step back, compartmentalize my own emotions, and I can give you a fair and objective review.
The show was amazing and if it ever comes to your town you should run out and get the best seat money can buy.
Seriously, if you are a hardcore Animaniacs fan or even a casual fan of cartoons in general, you will find something to love about this show. Rob Paulsen and Randy Rogel play well together in both the musical numbers and the funny banter they perform between songs. And even though the jokes and such are scripted, you won’t feel like you are watching actors perform a scene. You’ll feel like you are watching two close friends tell funny jokes to amuse their other friends. Some of the songs are accompanied by video clips from the show, but most of them are sung Rob and Randy with Randy playing live piano. The animated clips are a nice touch, but I was glad that they didn’t use them the entire time. When the performers weren’t stuck keeping up with a video, they were able to be more flexible, more spontaneous and, most importantly, they could make funny faces at the audience. Watching the whole performance sort of felt like watching a cartoon, then popping the screen out of the TV set and flipping it around to see how all the clever little things inside were making that cartoon happen. (Disclaimer: This is a metaphor for a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. Actually taking out your TV screen while the cartoons are on would probably sting.)
I don’t know either of these guys personally, but I’d like to give you some of the impressions I got of Randy and Rob from listening to their stories:
Randy Rogel is smart. He remembers so many little details about how he wrote these songs and what inspired him. You would think he wrote the music last week instead of 20 some years ago. He a very confident performer as well. He has no hesitation about singing different parts for different characters. He even made some quick, on-stage adjustments to his keyboard without any (visible) fear of messing it up in front of a crowd.
Rob Paulsen is the most upbeat person on the planet. He seems to have super-human cheerfulness. And it’s not a naive optimism either, because that guy has been through some stuff. Yet, he talks to people with such openness, you would think that no one on this earth has ever harmed him. That kind of cheerfulness sounds annoying, but it’s not. It’s infectious.
One of my favorite moments in the show occurred close to the ending. That night, I had decided that I would wear my “lucky” T-shirt to show a little support. It’s a black shirt from Rob Paulsen’s Talkin’ Toons podcast that reads “LAUGH FROM YOUR SOUL” in large, blue letters. I expected to see quite a few people wearing such a shirt to an event like this. But, while there were a lot of fan shirts, I believe I was the only person with a podcast shirt. I had no idea how well the performers could see the audience from the stage, but, right before the finale, Rob Paulsen pointed right at me and said, “There is a woman near the front who is wearing my shirt.” I freaked out a little and put my hands over my face. Liz started punching me in the arm and gasping about how I got a shout out from the stage. Rob went on to discuss how the phrase, “Laugh from your soul” was such an important philosophy and how humor can get you through just about anything. I gave him a quick salute and he smiled. I felt really cool.
After the show, Liz and I stuck around for the cast meet and greet. I probably geeked out more than I’m proud of, but both Rob and Randy were gracious. I told them about being a cartoonist with auditory memory and how I followed the careers of voice actors. Rob told me that we were like old friends meeting for the first time. Randy asked if I still drew stuff and I was proud to answer, “Every day, sir.”
Animaniacs Live is really just getting started. It’s probably going to grow into a big event where the other actors can join regularly and they will play with a bazillion-piece orchestra, like they used do when they first recorded the soundtrack back in the 90’s. My advice to you is to go see it now while it’s still small and intimate. Then see it again when it’s grown huge and grand. The show is a labor of love; love for the music, the humor, and the joy of sharing these things with fans who get treated like friends. Go to the show and even if you don’t get a shout out, I can confidently say that someone will make it special for you.