Dickens Gets a Muppet Makeover
The following is an article from The Official Movie Magazine in the winter 1993 issue. The portion of the article that is about Jerry Juhl was written by Louise Gilkow, and the portion of the article that is about Paul Williams was written by Sheryl Kahn.
Screenwriting Jerry Juhl brings a new twist to an old tale.
How does a writer adapt to a story by a serious writer like Charles Dickens for a movie starring the Muppets? Very faithfully, according to Jerry Juhl, screenwriter for The Muppet Christmas Carol.
"This is one of the great stories in the English language," he explains. "It's a really dramatic, serious, and even scary ghost story. We wanted to preserve those qualities. The hard part was figuring out a way to be true to all these goofy Muppet characters at the same time."
As the former head writer of "The Muppet Show" and various Muppet scripts, Jerry has had a lot of experience in striking the delicate balance needed. In the end, he produced a screenplay that is true to the original while leaving the Muppets room to shine. Jerry gives Charles Dickens a lot of credit.
"It's interesting," he notes. "If Dickens had been alive in 1950 instead of 1850, he might have written for film and television. There were things I found in A Christmas Carol that translated so well into film, you'd almost think he intended it that way."
Jerry has been working with Jim Henson Productions from the very beginning. He was among the first people Jim and his wife, Jane, hired for one of the earliest Muppet TV shows, "Sam and Friends," a five-minute program that aired in the Washington, D.C., area in the early 1960s. Surprisingly, Jerry was hired not as a writer, but as a puppeteer!
"I'd been performing puppet shows ever since I was a little kid," he explains. "I met Jim and Jane Henson at a puppetry convention just as I was graduating from college. They were looking for somebody to hire, and I turned out to be it."
Jerry says he began to discover his talent for writing when he and Jim used to stretch out in a hammock in Jim's backyard, coming up with ideas for sketches, movies, and TV shows. Jerry started writing them down...and the rest is Muppet history.
For Jerry, the hardest part of writing the script for The Muppet Christmas Carol wasn't the writing at all-it was the casting. "Obviously, Bob Cratchit was easy. He had to be Kermit, and Robin was going to be Tiny Tim," Jerry recalls. "The next thing I did was to cast the ghosts. I thought one of them should be Piggy. I tried her as the Ghost of Christmas Present, but somehow she wouldn't sit still for that part. She wound up at Mrs. Cratchit. In a way, the role is wish fulfillment for Piggy-she gets to play Kermit's loving wife."
The idea of a narrator came to Jerry when he was trying to figure out how to make use of Dickens's prose. "I realized the way to do that was to cast Gonzo as Dickens. He delivers come of Dickens's greatest narrative, word for word."
Between Jerry Juhl and Charles Dickens, we get the best of two worlds: a literary classic delivered with the Muppets' inimitable spunk. Now that's Christmas spirit!
Composer Paul Williams strikes a Muppet chord.
It's 97 degrees in sunny southern California, and composer Paul Williams is singing about frosty winter winds. "When the cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone," croons the Grammy Award-winning music man. The lyrics come from a song he wrote to The Muppet Christmas Carol. This is Paul's third project with Kermit, Piggy, and the gang-and he has a few ideas about why their combination is a natural. "I can really relate to the Muppets," he explains. "There's something about their lighthearted mindset I find very easy to get into." He pauses and a twinkle comes to his eye. "And it probably doesn't hurt that some people even think I look a little like a Muppet!"
Paul first met the Muppets and their creator Jim Henson in the 1970s when he guest-starred on "The Muppet Show." "And After the show, Jim asked me if I wanted to write music for a Muppet special, 'Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas,'" he remembers. "I said yes, absolutely!"
After "Emmet," Paul was recruited to compose tunes for The Muppet Movie, the groups first feature film, which premiered in 1979. His song "Rainbow Connection" won several awards, including a Grammy.
When Paul was asked to write the music for the latest Muppet movie project, he jumped at the chance.
His first step was to meet with the scriptwriter Jerry Juhl and director Brian Henson. "We sat down and went through the story, picking out places to insert songs," recalls Paul. "Then I went home and got to work."
Paul describes his songwriting as a process that happens in bursts. "I'll have an idea; I'll write it down; then I'll ignore it for a couple of hours," he explains. "I'll read a good mystery or take a stroll on the beach. The rest of the pieces will just fall into place from there."
Paul confesses that he's not exactly sure where he gets the inspirations for his songs. "They just come to me," he notes. "Sometimes I'll be sleeping, and lyrics or a melody will drift into one of my dreams."
When it comes to writing special songs for different characters, Paul simply envisions himself in their shoes-or their webbed feet, as the case may be.
"My favorite song in this movie is one I wrote for Robin the Frog," he says. "Robin plays Tiny Tim, and I wrote him this song call "Bless Us All.' As I was writing it, I pictured myself as Robin, saying a little prayer. Now when Robin sings it-well, it's pretty heartbreaking!"
As for the nine other songs in the movie, Paul tried to vary the style of music from upbeat song-and-dance numbers to gentle ballads. "More than anything what I tried to do," he stresses, "is let the Muppets' personalities come shining through."