Instrumental music tends not to charm children, unless an ice cream truck is playing the tune. And a classical piece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Not a good bet.
But what if that work had words? Imagine that those indelible opening notes weren’t just the orchestra booming, “Da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum,” but a chorus singing, "Beethoven's Wig is very big," followed by even sillier lyrics. Would a Baroque bad hair day lead to good young listeners?
“I recall really clearly having this image in my mind of kids singing these songs in a playground,” said Richard Perlmutter, the creator of "Beethoven's Wig" an hourlong multimedia show on Saturday at the N.Y.U. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. “I tried to write them so the hooks are ones kids could be singing.”
“Beethoven’s Wig” began more than 15 years ago, when Mr. Perlmutter, 67, a father of three, started infusing excerpts from classical masterworks with Seussian whimsy. Then a writer of jingles and commercials, he made the 2002 album, Beethoven's Wig: Sing Along Symphonies," which featured a vocal quintet and orchestral accompaniment. It led to four more albums — and four GRAMMY AWARD Nominations - and eventual touring.
“The lyrics are often about the composer or the piece,” Mr. Perlmutter said. In "Franz Liszt he Famous Pianist" (the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2), children will learn that “everyone who saw him all agreed/No one could match his finger speed.” “Liszt was kind of the first rock star,” Mr. Perlmutter explained.
Saturday’s performance, part of Skirball's Big Red Chair Family Series, will let children star a bit, too. Preshow activities include cancan lessons, preparation for Mr. Perlmutter’s riff on Offenbach's "Can You Can Can?"
Although he now mostly performs solo — he plays piano, mandolin and guitar, and his orchestral numbers have recorded voices and instruments — Mr. Perlmutter is not, strictly speaking, alone onstage. Beethoven appears, too, along with a raccoon, a frog, a robot, an alien and a dinosaur: all cartoon characters, voiced by actors and projected on a screen.
“Beethoven jokes with me, and he claims he didn’t wear a wig, and I prove potentially otherwise,” Mr. Perlmutter said. “I hope he’s not stealing the show from me, but he might be.”
Not that Mr. Perlmutter would really mind. Songs like the "La De Da Sonata," which analyzes how Mozart composed his Sonata in C, demonstrate the reverence behind Mr. Perlmutter’s irreverence. And his collaborations with centuries-old composers have enabled him to leave the advertising world behind.
“Everybody dreams of a music career,” he said. “Now I have one.”
(Preshow activities at 1 p.m.; show at 2 p.m.; 566 La Guardia Place, at Washington Square South, Greenwich Village.)