A children's show about everything, especially music

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A children's show about everything, especially music
Joff Bush, the composer for “Bluey,” at his studio in Brisbane, Australia, Aug. 12, 2022. Bush said he draws from classical music because “these are great pieces of music, and they don’t have to be heard in a concert hall where we’re all sitting quiet. They can be for everybody.” Natalie Grono/The New York Times by David Allen.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- “Ladies and gentlemen! I will now play for you the ‘Rondo alla Turca.’ ”

From the first scene of “Bluey,” the hit Australian canine cartoon that amusingly, frankly and ever-so understandingly takes the hands of children and parents through the escapades of the Heeler family of heelers, classical music is as much a part of playtime as the toys scattered around their suburban Brisbane home.

Bandit — the stay-at-home, try-to-work father who, with Chilli, his wife, has become the idol and the envy of parents everywhere for his willingness to entertain his children anywhere, anytime, anyhow — is on the floor, with his 6-year-old daughter, Bluey, draped over his knees. He cracks his knuckles, takes on airs and tickles her mercilessly to the tune of the Mozart sonata. Bluey’s adorable 4-year-old sister, Bingo, watches, begging to be the piano herself.

“Magic Xylophone,” the first 7-minute installment of the three seasons currently streaming on Disney+, is notionally about the importance of taking turns. But like most episodes of “Bluey,” it’s also about far more than the immediate lessons it teaches through the Heelers’ antics, at least in the giggly way that the show is “about” everything from family and friendship to marriage and mortality.

Amid the slapstick, “Magic Xylophone” is about the power of music to transform us. Bingo finds a xylophone in a toy box, one with the make-believe ability to freeze people in place. Once stuck, they can be subjected to all manner of embarrassments — such as when the girls’ target is their father — or pleaded with to share, as when Bingo ensnares Bluey. All the while, we learn that “Bluey” is going to be no ordinary children’s show in another way, too: This is a show that repays listening, as well as watching.

As the girls have their fun, the Mozart sticks around, becoming the basis for a strikingly well-crafted score that stays enchantingly true to the spirit of the original material even as it deviates wildly while the girls argue with their mother, or suffers from comical wrong notes when Bluey and Bingo fight. By the end, Mozart’s rondo has found its way to major-key joy, and the girls have, too, sitting arm in arm as their father sprays himself in the face with a hose.

“Bluey” did not need to have music this good. “Peppa Pig,” for instance, its predecessor in fickle toddlers’ hearts, sometimes plinks and plonks to make a point, but its music usually does little more than start and end another episode in its endless cacophony of oinks.

But the producers of “Bluey” intend its episodes to be thought about as short films instead of televisual fodder, and the scoring has a cinematic quality that helps make it the kind of show that parents might want to actually watch rather than curse from a distance.

“I always knew that music was going to be almost half the show,” Joe Brumm, its creator, said in an interview, explaining his admiration for the role of sound in films such as “True Romance,” “The Truman Show” and “The Thin Red Line.”

“I didn’t want the usual kids’ TV scoring,” he said. “Some shows just use one track for an entire season, or a variation of it. I’d worked on ‘Charlie and Lola’ years ago, and they had a couple of musicians who played multiple instruments, and every episode had its own score. So that was the norm for me; it’s definitely not the norm for a lot of shows.”

The music of “Bluey” is a collaborative endeavor, but it is primarily the task of its composer, Joff Bush. Bush, 37, switched from jazz piano to composition as a student at the Queensland Conservatorium, and he later attended the Australian Film Television and Radio School. He leads weekly, hourslong Wednesday sessions, at which Brumm and others talk through the philosophy and the psychology of an episode while he improvises at the piano, before later writing a score. It’s work that Brumm is so proud of that he has given Bush his own character in tribute, a musician called Busker.

Far from every episode of “Bluey” uses classical music, and Bush’s tastes are eclectic. Some of its more than 100 shows take inspiration from folk, jazz or rock, and almost all of them are then filtered through what Brumm calls the distinctively “jangly” sound that comes from Bush’s collection of old guitars and his habit of ignoring his mistakes.

Even when Bush does color with the classical canon, there is a charmingly offbeat oddness to his work, something that helpfully reminds you that no real family could possibly be as agreeable, as forgiving or as functional as the Heelers, however much your children might reason otherwise.

“There’s a humanness to it, I hope,” Bush said.

There is a long history entwining classical music with animation, one that dates back well beyond Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit!” to strains of Wagner in “What’s Opera, Doc?” “If cartoons have become associated over time with any one musical genre, it is classical music,” musicologist Daniel Goldmark writes in his book “Tunes for ’Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon.”

But the Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930s to the ’50s used classical music as an “endless source of jokes at the expense of concert hall culture,” Goldmark writes. When concert music and opera were more prominent than they are now, many viewers had certain expectations about Romantic-era music — Wagner most of all — that could easily be subverted, and puncturing its pretensions with a cartoon rabbit was anyway inherently funny.

“We do actually steal that approach, sometimes,” Bush said, “taking these grand things and messing with them.”

Sometimes, Bush does that with glee: A squabble in “Ice Cream” gets sprinkled with absurd grace when Bluey and Bingo waltz, tongues wagging, to Tchaikovsky; their divalike cousin Muffin has become associated with music from “Carmen”; even Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” gets trotted out in “Escape” as the girls dream of chasing down parents who dare venture out for a night. Sometimes the nods are less obvious, as when Elgar drifts in to accompany a crowning ceremony in the backyard paradise of “Rug Island.”

Bush is certainly interested in breaking down elitist ideas of what classical music should be — in showing, as he puts it, “that these are great pieces of music, and they don’t have to be heard in a concert hall where we’re all sitting quiet. They can be for everybody.”

But Bush — unlike the composers of the Warner Bros. era, and at a time when classical music is less widely known if still set high on its lonely pedestal — tends to do this less through satire or mockery than by remaining somewhat faithful to the composers themselves, whether to the cheekiness of Mozart or to the intricacy of Bach.

And there is a lot of Bach in “Bluey”: a Brandenburg Concerto’s counterpoint as a girl-gang’s game of nail salon on a tree stump intertwines with their fathers’ manly-man efforts to chop it up in “Stumpfest,” for example, or a prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” its already disjointed theme broken up by Bush and made to flow only when the girls successfully deliver a love letter that resolves a parental fight about the trash in “Postman.”

There are also episodes that reward thought, such as “Bingo.” Bluey goes out for the day, leaving Bingo to struggle by herself while Chilli endures her own traumas trying to fix a toilet. Bush chose a solo piece to illustrate solo play, Mozart’s “Sonata Facile” for piano. “The melody is this little loop,” he said. “It’s this idea of Bingo starting again and getting stuck.”

There’s a deeper message in that choice of music. The Mozart looks so simple on the page — and sounds like it, too — that it’s easy to forget that it can be devilishly hard to get right. So, too, is playtime, for children on their own. Or plumbing.

“Any pre-Romantic music, you’ve got free rein,” Bush said. “So much of that is about the beauty of the music itself, rather than ‘This is a sad piece; be sad.’ You can really mess with the music a lot more, without hitting on any meanings.”

“There’s nothing worthy going on,” Brumm insists when asked whether this is all part of a grand plan to educate children in music appreciation, a la Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” even if, as an occasional classical listener, he sees nothing wrong with getting them interested in it. Bach is available to use without a licensing fee, after all, and the composer isn’t around to protest a misuse.

Bush feels likewise, as much as he revels in seeding slivers of Saint-Saëns across an episode so that he can drop the big entry from that composer’s “Organ” Symphony at the climactic moment in “Calypso.”

“I don’t think we ever approach it from the place of getting kids into classical music, or anything like that,” he said. “It’s always about the story, about what feels right and fits.”

Nowhere is that narrative honesty more brutally effective than in “Sleepytime,” Bush’s balletic masterpiece, which turns the nightly nightmare of getting a family some sleep into an outer-space emotional epic to the sounds of Gustav Holst.

Using “Jupiter” from Holst’s “The Planets” for “Sleepytime” was Brumm’s idea, but Bush’s execution is sublime. Carefully, he teases the intervals of its famous theme whenever we glimpse parental affection, giving it an ethereality when cuddles are involved, or an impudence when Bluey pops up to ask for a glass of water then inevitably needs Bandit’s help as she goes to pee.

Only when Bingo finally keeps her promise of sleeping in her own bed — “I’m a big girl now,” she tells the sun, a symbol of Chilli’s comforting embrace in a dream inspired by a book about the solar system — does Bush unfurl Holst’s melody in its full splendor, marking the glow, the nobility, the certainty of a mother’s love.

“There’s a time in a child’s life when they are starting to build their own identity, and their own independence,” Bush said. “The idea that they are going alone but their parents’ love will always be there is such a powerful one. It needed to be something like ‘Jupiter’ that is bigger than what it is.”

You know what’s coming, and when it does, it lands with the devastation of an asteroid strike; the domestic turns into something sublime. Good luck not crying.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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