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Beethoven's Wig

The Maestro

OPENING BEETHOVEN'S DOOR

A lyricist tampers with the classics, adding words to draw kids into a new world.

March 03, 2003

OPENING BEETHOVEN039S DOOR
"Here's a short Beethoven piano piece. He wrote this piece, just for Elise. It's all about a fellow named Maurice, who came from Greece, with a valise." - Sung to the tune of Beethoven's "Fur Elise."

So begins "Just for Elise," a musical tale of mystery and intrigue crafted by wickedly ingenious lyricist Richard Perlmutter, whose classical music children's album, "Beethoven's Wig: Sing-Along Symphonies," has become a surprise hit.

Perlmutter, who's been compared to Allan Sherman and P.D.Q. Bach, has his way with 11 famous works. Among them: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is an ode to classical "long-hairs" ("Beethoven's wig / Is very big"); Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" becomes "Please Don't Play Your Violin at Night"; and Delibes' "Sylvia," is a pizzicato plumbing disaster ("Drip, Drip, Drip"). Haydn's Surprise Symphony is given a more teacherly tack: "Did that outburst startle you? Well, that's what it was meant to do."

"In the beginning, I had some questions about whether this was a wise thing to do, to sort of mess with the classics," says Perlmutter, who will perform a playful solo version of "Beethoven's Wig" at Storyopolis on Saturday and at the Geffen Playhouse on March 22. "But as I kept going, I realized that it had value. And I really enjoyed doing it."

A few purists have snubbed the concept, but the Rounder Kids release, which also includes straight orchestral renditions of each piece, has received promotional support from classical radio stations across the country in addition to winning a host of awards from national parenting, educational and library organizations.

It's been profiled on the "Today" show and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and earned top slots on the sales charts at Amazon.com and other music Web sites. The icing on the cake: a Grammy nomination for this year's best musical album for children. (Riders in the Sky's "Monsters, Inc.: Scream Factory Favorites" won.)

"The album was released on March 5 of last year, and less than 10 days later, Richard was sitting in NPR's studios here in Los Angeles," said Regina Kelland, head of children's marketing for Rounder Records' kids division. "The response has been astounding."

The accolades are sweet music to Perlmutter. Because his day job is advertising, he spent five years of weekends, early mornings and late nights coming up with lyrics that not only would match melody, meter and harmonic layers of well-known classical works, but also would humorously impart a bit of real information about the composers or the pieces.

"People think that writing music for children is easy, that it doesn't take as much work," Perlmutter said, "but I think that it takes just as much if not more. I did a lot of research, and I feel I've gotten to the essence of what these pieces are, for this medium.

"In a sense," he added, "this is a pop introduction to classical music, opening it on one layer. A few people have mentioned that they will never think of these works the same way again, but if this serves as a gateway, where [kids] actually start liking classical music, they'll be able to get rid of those lyrics pretty quickly and say, 'Wow, I hear that first melody that Richard was singing, but now I hear all this other stuff.'"

Perlmutter started as a guitar-playing art major who ended up a Yale grad with a business degree. He chucked it and moved to Nashville in 1980 to try to make it as a country star -- "it wasn't a good fit" -- before returning to Southern California and studying composition, arranging, orchestration and classical guitar.

He segued into a career in advertising when he fell into commercial jingle writing.

Along the way, he produced a few independent releases, including his own and ex-"Saturday Night Live" star Victoria Jackson's children's albums.

"I guess if I can get one thing across here," says Perlmutter, who is at work on a follow-up, "it's that I love music so much."

Gary Hollis, an on-air personality for L.A. classical station KMZT-FM (105.1) frequently features Perlmutter and his CD on his "Curtain Call" interview show. Hollis, who started out working backstage at Carnegie Hall during Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts," is one of "Beethoven's Wig's" biggest boosters.

"Lenny taught me to appreciate classical music with robust enjoyment," Hollis said. "What Richard has done is bring that joy and humor and fun to classical music to make it accessible to children. He's doing the next generation of classical music fans a great favor."

by Lynne Heffley, Los Angeles Times

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updated: 4 years ago