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Raposo writing Broadway shows for families

COMPOSER Joe Raposo, the ``big daddy'' of the musical ``Raggedy Ann,'' is trying to toss off a few notes at the piano. But there are interruptions: ``Camel, you can continue to get dressed,'' booms a voice over a loudspeaker, and the show's blue camel suits up. Raposo has a three-octave smile and the enthusiasm that only a guy who wrote both the music and lyrics for two dozen songs in the show can muster. His fingers prance into the ragtime hit of the show, ``Rag Dolly,'' as he carols the words of the song that will be his calling card on Broadway, when the show opens Oct. 16.

For Raposo, a ``Sesame Street'' creator, Grammy and Emmy award winner, and Muppets court musician (``It Isn't Easy Being Green''), is taking the giant step of going to Broadway with a musical he says isn't just for kids:

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``Our hope is that people not misunderstand -- that it is not a kiddie musical. It is a big, full-blown Broadway musical, which happens to deal, `a la `Peter Pan' and `The King and I,' with lots of universal themes and just happens to be accessible and entertaining for the family in general.

``I think our audience is the audience that kept `Peter Pan' running for several years. Our audience is the audience that kept `Cats' running. `Cats' is a wonderful proof of what an audience is out there, untapped. People do want a theatrical experience for their children. . . . There is nothing like sitting in the dark in the theater and watching something that makes you feel good.''

Joe Raposo radiates geniality and warmth. He is an ample man in a navy blazer and tan trousers, with an open, boyish face punctuated by wide brown eyes under a thicket of dark hair. If he were onstage in ``Raggedy Ann,'' he'd be a huggable, show-biz teddy bear with a running patter of jokes, stories, songs, and an occasional soft-shoe number. But teddy bears don't major in music at Harvard and the 'Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, study composition with Nadia Boulanger and conducting with Walter Piston, write a ``secular oratorio'' like ``Sutter's Gold'' with Sheldon Harnick, compose ballet music and violin concertos, or write hit songs for Frank Sinatra or music for Brecht and Shaw plays.

Right now, Joe Raposo also has two other Broadway shows in the wings waiting for their cues after ``Raggedy Ann'' opens. One of them is ``Wonderful Life,'' a musical loosely based on a 1946 Frank Capra film, which starred Jimmy Stewart as the gangling, good-hearted guy who saved a town from the depths of the Great Depression. Raposo has been looking for a talented actor who can also belt out a song to fill the Stewart starring role. He mentioned Kevin Kline, Barry Bostwick, and Mandy Patinkin, ``because the show is demanding, vocally.'' It's already had a run-through student performance at the University of Michigan. ``We're hoping to go into rehearsal as soon as `Raggedy Ann' opens,'' he says. And Raposo also has several songs done already for ``The Little Rascals,'' a musical based on the old ``Our Gang'' movie comedies.

But launching ``Raggedy Ann'' is first, and the show may have a problem. Raposo's lilting, bouncy score for this show is as appealing as a wicker basket full of kittens. It softens some of the more frightening, violent edges of this musical, whose creators want to attract a family audience. The talented playwright William Gibson (``Two for the Seesaw'' and ``The Miracle Worker'') has written a sophisticated book for ``Raggedy Ann,'' and it is not all gingham and buttercups. It deals with a young girl named Marcella, who has been told by doctors that she's fatally ill and has only till dawn, when death in the form of a horrific looking villain named General D (for doom, decay, and dissolution) will claim her.

Marcella's father is a drunk; her mother has left them both to run off with another man; and the audience soon learns that, if Marcella is dying of anything, it's a broken heart. She is comforted, though by a lovable Raggedy Ann doll, stitched up by her tailor father. The rag dolly comes to life and turns out to be the spunky, invincible heroine of the show, leading Raggedy Andy and a host of other toys against General Doom and his forces of darkness. There is a happy ending. But some of these scenes are pretty grim for kids: an attempted suicide in ``The Grisly Woods'' and General D's threat to cut them up as fodder for a ``blood and guts'' smokehouse.

``Mommy, I'm scared, and I want to go home,'' said a small, quavery voice in the next row at one matinee; she was not alone in that reaction.

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Joe Raposo has an answer for that: ``In attempting to do a great classic fantasy tale that appeals to all age groups, . . . I'd like us to be in the ballpark with what used to be Disney films and now have become Spielberg films, like `E.T.', where you begin to explore a fantasy level where there is something threatening. . . . If you remember all the great Disney classics -- Bambi's mother is shot and killed before his eyes, and in `Snow White' the woodsman is sent to cut Snow White's heart out, and in `Fantasia,'' look at `Night on Bald Mountain' -- I mean, wow!'' He pauses for an eighth note.

``So I think that in telling fantasy stories, there have to be bogeymen. There have to be terrifying things, because it is what counterbalances the love and sweetness and the triumph of virtue over evil.''

Joe Raposo is a father himself, with two sons, Joey and Nick, from his first marriage to Susan Nordlund, and a daughter, Elizabeth, and third son, Andy, by his second marriage to television critic Pat Collins.

The musical force behind ``Sesame Street'' confesses, ``I've never written music specifically for kids, even for `Sesame Street.' I think . . . children's music is music into which not much thought has gone, and it's meant to be slightly diversionary in a namby-pamby way. I've never done any of that. Every time I've gone out to write a song I'm trying to reach an entire audience.''

He grew up a cherished only child, in a Portuguese-American family in Fall River, Mass. His mother, one of 10 children, kept the house filled with relatives: ``I lived in the middle of a soap opera.'' He also lived in a perfect hothouse climate for a budding musician, with a father who taught violin at the Boston Conservatory of Music and a pianist mother. The house was filled with the sound of music from Bach to Vivaldi. His mother also kept a piano bench filled with old ragtime music from her girlhood. So even as a child he was fascinated by ragtime and later decided the ragtime style seemed just right for several of his songs in ``Raggedy Ann.''

How does Raposo, who seems a human cornucopia of music and lyrics, do his composing?

``By and large, when I'm looking at a typewritten page I will think of several melodies and then make a decision as to which is most important. I could set the music 100 different ways . . . ,'' he says, as he ripples off two versions of a song. For a moment it's like a scene from one of the MGM musicals, when Irving Berlin sits down at the old upright and bats out his latest Tin Pan Alley hit with a tentative smile at the camera. One version is good; the other isn't. ``It's a question of talent, training, experience, and it's a gift from God. The French have the best expression for that; it's dor'e, gifted.''

We are talking about ``Raggedy Ann'' and Joe Raposo in a wood-paneled room at Kennedy Center, where the show ran several months after touring in the USSR, as part of a cultural exchange that resulted from the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva. But he can't resist telling a few stories about some of the greats he's worked with. (For starters, he was an apprentice to Richard Rodgers.) He tells two stories, in particular, that he seems to relish, because they're about the craft of the great ones who work hard to make it all look easy:

``I'd always heard, `Oh, Sinatra's such a natural. He just walks into the studio and does it in one or two takes. He doesn't work hard at all.' But I saw him swimming laps in the pool so he could work on his breathing, and then working with his accompanist. You know the effortless Sinatra phrasing, how he breathes so naturally? Yeah. He had gone through five or six copies of each song with different colored markers, mapping out different breathing patterns . . . in the phrases of the songs.''

Working with Fred Astaire once on an arrangement of a Gershwin song, he noticed Astaire ``kept going over four phrases where he wanted to transfer his handkerchief from his right pocket, mop his brow, and then tuck his handkerchief in his left pocket. We must have gone over those four bars for an hour and a half while he practiced the casualness of the move . . . .''

That's show biz, and Joe Raposo fuels on it.

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