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Jonathan Rockefeller brings Sesame Street to life Off-Broadway

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the world brings us anxiety, little kids can rely on a "Sesame Street" song performed by the Muppet Gabrielle.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Gabrielle, singing) Put your hand on your belly, belly, if you're nervous and your legs are like jelly. Breathe in through your nose. Look - your belly grows. And out your mouth a breath goes.

INSKEEP: Maybe adults could use that too. The song "Belly Breathe" and Gabrielle are featured in a new off-Broadway show called "Sesame Street: The Musical." This show is specifically for toddlers, which means theater producers are bending some of their rules. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Every kid is here to see a different star.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Cookie Monster.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Oscar the Grouch.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Rosita.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Elmo.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Elmo.

BLAIR: But even the stars of "Sesame Street" had to practice before their big show.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cookie Monster) All this talk about cookies is making me hungry. It's cookie time.

JONATHAN ROCKEFELLER: OK, can we hold, please? Hold. Just a couple of really quick notes.

BLAIR: That's "Sesame Street: The Musical's" producer and director, Jonathan Rockefeller, giving the puppeteers feedback. They can't see what's happening on stage.

ROCKEFELLER: I always describe our puppeteers as athletes.

BLAIR: They're scrunched beneath the stage, following marks on the ground.

ROCKEFELLER: Imagine going an hour with holding your arms in the air, while scooting around on your butt to make sure that the puppets are upheld in the best way possible for the audience.

BLAIR: If the puppeteers don't quite make their marks, that's OK because the premise of "Sesame Street: The Musical" is the Muppets are preparing to put on a show.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Ernie, singing) Warm up the spotlight, and tune up the band.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Grover, singing) Can anyone tell me where I'm meant to stand?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Abby Cadabby, singing) We've been practicing hard, and now it's time to share.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Feel that buzz in the air.

BLAIR: Rockefeller has made a career out of turning children's classics into musicals for 2- and 3-year-olds - "Winnie The Pooh," "Paddington Bear," "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." And he's always thinking about what kind of theater experience the very little ones will sit through. A big one? No shushing.

ROCKEFELLER: We don't have a shushing policy because they're viscerally responding to what's in front of them, and to see them excited is important. That sort of age range, to talk in the theater is totally acceptable.

BLAIR: Babbling is also acceptable.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: I'm - (inaudible) - Elmo.

BLAIR: Elmo.

Phyllis Sulyman and her 2-year-old daughter talked and babbled together throughout a recent preview. Rockefeller keeps his shows to about one hour. Sulyman says that's the limit.

PHYLLIS SULYMAN: The mark for these 2-year-olds is about 45 minutes to an hour. When we went to the circus, we realized the same thing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: (Inaudible).

SULYMAN: So it was like, at 45, 50 minutes, she got antsy. She was ready to, you know - but she did want more bubbles.

BLAIR: Spoiler alert - there are bubbles in "Sesame Street: The Musical."

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Ernie, singing) Rub-a-dub-dubby (ph). Rubber ducky, you're so fine. And I'm lucky that you're mine. Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of you.

BLAIR: I went to the very first preview. The cast and crew had been waiting for this moment because it's only with a live audience that they know what's working and what's not.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep. Oh. Oh. (Imitating ring).

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Afterwards, Rockefeller reflected on the moment.

ROCKEFELLER: Nothing really prepares yourself when you're going to a theater audience of seeing kids enjoy themselves because it's just unmitigated joy.

BLAIR: You almost seem emotional.

ROCKEFELLER: I am a little. It's been a long couple of weeks (laughter).

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cookie Monster) Yum, yum, yum. Cookies, mmm. And more cookies. You know what? Who care about other things?

BLAIR: With "Sesame Street: The Musical" and his other shows, Jonathan Rockefeller wants to turn kids into the next generation of theatergoers.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cookie Monster, singing) C is for cookie. That's good enough for me. Oh, cookie, cookie, cookie starts with C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.