How a composer’s accidental career builds on the legacy of ‘Sesame Street’ 

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Jeff Zorabedian

“The best thing about children’s music is that you have a minute and a half,” says composer Bill Sherman. "It’s got to be catchy verse, catchy chorus, and that’s something I think I’m pretty good at."

You might not know the name “Bill Sherman,” but if you’re a parent, chances are you know his work. 

Tapped to act as the musical director for The Electric Company reboot in 2008, while he was starring in Freestyle Love Supreme and working on In The Heights alongside his buddy Lin Manuel Miranda, Sherman went on to make his mark on the sound of a whole slew of PBS Kids shows, including Nature Cat and Alma’s Way.  And as musical director of Sesame Street since 2010, he estimates he’s written somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000 songs.  

Sherman composed most of those songs for kids’ programming, even though that’s not something he ever set out to do. “I don’t know that I intended to get really involved in children’s music,” Sherman says.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going be the next Joe Raposo’ or whatever — and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I am,” he says, referring to the composer who co-created Sesame Street. “I just never thought this was my thing and so I sort of fell into it. But now I just love it.” 

Working on Electric Company threw Sherman into the deep end of children’s television, he says. His experience there, making 60-odd shows within one year, taught him to love the challenge of writing for kids’ programming.

Now, he thrives on bouncing from genre to genre based on whatever the script calls for, and he knows how to stick to the time constraints set out for him. “The best thing about children’s music is that you have a minute and a half,” he says. “You have to pack it all in. It’s got to be catchy verse, catchy chorus, and that’s something I think I’m pretty good at. I like that it’s all killer, no filler. 

“I just jokingly said to my songwriter friend the other day that I haven’t written a bridge in 15 years, like ‘I don’t even know how to do that anymore,’” he adds. 

On ‘Sesame Street’

When Sherman was brought into the Sesame Street fold, it was as part of an overhaul of the show’s departments. By his estimate, that’s  something that  happens about “every 10 to 15 years” at the children’s TV mainstay. Working on set gave him opportunities to meet people like David Rudman, who plays Cookie Monster and who runs his own TV production company, Spiffy Pictures, alongside his brother Adam. 

One of Sherman‘s latest works for PBS Kids is the theme song for “Work It Out Wombats!” He collaborated with Nina Woodford on the composition.

The Rudmans hired Sherman to compose music for Nature Cat, which he’s worked on since 2015, as well as Donkey Hodie, a show he’s been involved with since its inception. He also penned the theme song to Alma’s Way alongside Miranda, after the latter was tapped by Alma creator and Sesame Street legend Sonia Manzano.

One of Sherman’s latest works is the theme to Work It Out Wombats!, which launched on PBS Kids earlier this year. Sherman collaborated with lyricist Nina Woodford to compose a charmingly repetitive and jangly theme song for Wombats. His work on the show grew from his long standing working relationship with series co-creator and EP Marisa Wolsky  of GBH. 

“They sent me all these briefs about how characters live in a tree and how the creators wanted the song to sound like it was made of found objects or things you were hitting on the tree, like what I call the ‘Stompiness’ of it,” Sherman says. 

“Having the concrete direction was really nice,” he adds. ”When you’re creating theme songs, they’re definitely more under the microscope because they’re going to be heard so many times. You always want to put extra sauce on something like that.”

‘Everything is faster’

Part of what makes the Wombats theme so effective is the speed and tempo with which it drives home the gist of the show. It’s on trend with what’s happening now in children’s music — and attention spans — but a world away from the older songs that have become kids’ classics like “Rainbow Connection” or “I Don’t Want To Live On The Moon.” Sherman can’t see kids sitting through those now.

“I don’t know what that says about us as a culture. I can’t see the small children I know today being enthralled by a ballad,” he says. “That sounds terrible coming from me of all people, but that’s just the nature of where we’re at.” 

Today’s kids are growing up on faster, more beat-heavy pop music, Sherman says. Some songs are even more repetitive than the hit “Baby Shark,” which got huge only seven years ago. “Everything is faster,” he says. “It’s the TikTok generation now and that can really guide what we do. People’s appetite is for content and for things that are just happening.” 

“You don’t hear ballads in children’s music so much anymore,” he adds. “The subject matter and the things we’re trying to teach don’t lend themselves to that sort of thing for the most part anymore, either. My children, at least, are just constantly bombarded by things, and I think that sort of has dictated where we’re at now.” 

Creating the ‘perfect song’ 

When Sesame Street has musical guests on, Sherman pens songs to suit their strengths. He  throws heavier beats into a track like “I Wonder, What If, Let’s Try” for Hailee Steinfeld and encourages artists like Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak to put their own spins on his work. He has also taken a tip from his And Juliet collaborator Max Martin, who advised him to collaborate with as many songwriters as possible to keep his work fresh and free-flowing. 

With that in mind, Sherman has stretched his budget and expanded his team at Sesame Street, all in service of creating the best possible song. “I have a whole team of writers and composers,” he explains. “I know that this person is … really great at pop songs, and this person can do vaudeville or whatever it is. The job now is trying to find the perfect fit to write something — if it’s not me — in order to make it the most convincing and perfect song for the show.” 

Every season, Sherman aims to bring a new composer into the Sesame fold. He’s tapped legendary songwriters like Butch Walker (known for his work with acts like Weezer, Pink and Avril Lavigne) and Greg Wells (who has collaborated with Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and the cast of The Greatest Showman, among others). 

Sherman succeeded at recruiting big name music talents to Sesame Street in part because some are parents and fans of the show. The sterling legacy of composers like the late Joe Raposo have also helped attract them to work with the show. Raposo wrote the Sesame Street theme and many of its most indelible songs. 

Sherman describes Raposo as monumentally important in shaping Sesame Street. “He created a whole thing. While I’ve been able to take his level of cool musicianship and continue it into this generation, that’s all I can take credit for,” he explains. 

“The genesis of the whole children’s music thing, in my opinion, comes from just one guy,” Sherman adds. Raposo “took really sophisticated music and made it work for kids.” 

Of course, Sherman has left his mark on Sesame Street, and not just because of the sheer breadth of material he’s contributed to the show. He’s won multiple Daytime Emmys, including one for a song he wrote about songs for Sia. Still, he says he can’t know how long he’ll be with the show. 

Working at Sesame Street is really important, he says. “If you ever feel like you’re not doing the job or you’re not holding it in some esteem, then you should leave — because it’s more important than you.” 

One reason why Sesame became “the pinnacle of children’s television,” he says, is because certain people worked there for so long, he says. Another is that they knew when it was time to pass the torch. 

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