© 2023 WGLT
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Cavorting With Big Bird: A Journey From Normal To Sesame Street


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on Sesame Street? Paul Rudolph doesn't have to guess. He works there.

Rudolph, who grew up in Normal, is the vocal music director of the show. As such, he wears many hats—composing, arranging and recording many of those catchy tunes that stick in the minds of children and not a few adults. He recently won his second Emmy for music editing on the show.

"We joke that it's the Carnegie Hall of puppeteering," he says of his Sesame Street work.

Rudolph's first introduction to the magical world of Jim Henson creations was when he worked as a a composer's assistant the on the Muppets Tonight ABC-TV show in the 1990s.

The biggest challenge writing music for puppeteers, he says, is helping the performers sing within their character's range.

"When you're singing in character you might be singing much higher or lower than you would normally sing or even talk in conversation. Especially with a character like Cookie Monster or Grover, you're talking in this gravelly voice, and your singing range can be limited," Rudolph said on GLT's Sound Ideas in a phone interview from New York.

Composing songs for Sesame Street is no different, he said, than writing for a Broadway musical.

He describes some of the songs on the show as "Sondheimesque," referring to the famed Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, known for his complex melodies and clever lyrics. 

"What I really like about the Sesame Street music is that it doesn't pander to children. Yes it's a teaching tool, but we're writing music of high quality with melody and chord progressions. That's something I think the adults, the caregivers, watching the show appreciate."

Rudolph has his own band called Clank that makes music through percussion instruments he forges out of found objects.

One of the favorite songs he says he's composed for the show is called "Bike Shop with a Beat." The lesson is that you can make music with just about any object. "So they're tapping on fenders, bike chains  and bike seats," he said.

Rudolph attended University High School in Normal and the University of Illinois, where he majored in music education. He worked as a band director in a few central Illinois towns before moving to Los Angeles to focus on composing. He worked for the Tracey Ullman show before moving to Muppets Tonight and then Sesame Street.

His wife, Leslie Carrara, plays the character Abby Cadabby and has also been nominated for an Emmy for her work on Sesame Street.

As a boy, Rudolph said his favorite character was The Count, because "as a kid I was obsessed with numbers," and making music, as any composer will tell you, is also an exercise in mathematics.

Over the years, he has worked with a variety of guest musical artists on the show, including Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Tony-winning musical, "Hamilton."

One of the most memorable visitors to Sesame Street, he said, was Elvis Costello who performed a duet with Elmo called "A Monster Went and Ate My Red 2" based on Costello's song "An Angel Went and Wore My Red Shoes."

"So basically you have Cookie Monster eating this red 2 with Elvis Costello and Elmo looking on," Rudolph said.

Rudolph had to perform the Sesame Street parody for Costello before the taping. "He's probably performed this song 10,000 times. I was thinking, is he going to be bored with this, is he going to like it, because we're changing the lyrics, we're parodying his song?"

Costello loved it. "When he was on the set, he was just a dream to work with," Rudolph said.

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.