Anyone who’s ever seen “Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D” can tell you the title of that elaborate pageant which Sam Eagle has put together to close out that show. It’s called “A Salute to All Nations, But Mostly America.”
Sadly, things don’t quite go as this self-proclaimed super-patriot had planned. As “Muppet*Vision 3D” predictably descents into chaos, Kermit the Frog asks Sam if that part of the show is now ready to go.
“It’s a glorious three-hour finale,” this American Eagle enthuses.
“You got a minute and a half!” Kermit responds.
And so, Sam is forced to present an extremely abbreviated version of his “Salute to All Nations, But Mostly America.” That is the way things have been going ever since “Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D” first opened at what-was-then-known-as Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park back in May 1991. For the past 25 years, Sam has never been able to pull off the sort of elaborate patriotic pageant he has always dreamed of staging.
Beginning last month, Sam began appearing regularly in the second floor windows of Heritage House in the Liberty Square section of WDW’s Magic Kingdom, and– on occasion – in the Hall of Presidents cupola. From this patriotic perch , he tries to tell Guests down in the street below the true and inspiring story of Paul Revere’s Ride and the Signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“That was the original concept for this show,” Tara Anderson, the co-director of “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History” explained. “That Sam Eagle would interact with Guests all by himself. But then we thought: Wouldn’t be it far more entertaining if Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and The Great Gonzo were to suddenly kind of horn in on Sam’s patriotic presentation? So that these much-beloved characters could then present a live show about American history that – as we like to say – the Muppets get it partly right but mostly wrong.”
“What’s great about building this show around stories that most of your audience – really all of your audience – already recognizes in some way, shape or form is that this then provides us with a great palette or platform to build comedy on. Create these fractured moments of character-driven comedy by retelling these well-known historic tales in a somewhat hysterical fashion,” said James Silson, the other co-director of “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History.”
WDW Creative Entertainment began developing this project began back in the Spring of 2014, right after Muppets Most Wanted had been released to theaters. But because the primary performance venue for this new live-for-the-theme-parks show was supposed to be the second story windows of Liberty Square’s Heritage House … Well, that then meant the “Great Moments in American History” team faced problems that few producers have ever faced.
Take – for example – those majestic trees in this corner of the Magic Kingdom that really make Liberty Square look like a snapshot of Colonial America. Because there were some branches on these now-45 year-old trees that blocked Guests’ views of Heritage House’s second story windows, Walt Disney World’s Creative Entertainment department had to call in Horticulture. With almost surgical precision, they approached the trees in question and determined which specific branches had to be cut back and/or be removed entirely.
Even the Muppets themselves needed some special treatment before making their debut at Liberty Square. Muppets, after all, have always been built to be seen on a television or movie screen – not from the perspective of an audience standing in the street below looking up at a show presented in Heritage House’s second story windows.
WDW’s Creative Entertainment had to make some tweaks to the Muppets themselves to make sure that the characters looked the way they normally do. The puppets used in “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History” are actually 5% bigger than the ones used in TV and movie productions.
“The talented people who build the Muppets for our television and movie productions also created these puppets,” explained Debbie McClellan, the vice president of The Muppets Studio “We worked very hard make certain the characters you see at Liberty Square are exactly like the characters you know and love on the screen.”
Now that these characters looked right in their new performance venue, it was time for Creative Entertainment to make sure that the two scripts that they had developed for “Great Moments in American History” sounded authentically Muppet as well.
“That’s why we suggested that Jim Lewis be brought into consult. Jim has been writing for the Muppets for over 30 years now, and as he often says, they kind of live inside his head,” McClellan continued. “What Jim wound up doing was fine-tuning the scripts Disney World’s Creative Entertainment department had developed for these shows. He would point out a punchline that would work better for Fozzie, or come up with a bit of comedy business that spotlighted the peculiar talents of Gonzo or Miss Piggy. And of course, as anyone who’s watched the Muppets knows, you can almost always make a scene funnier by throwing in a few chickens. Our goal was to present real history, but with lots of surprises and inspired Muppet silliness.”
Now what’s especially intriguing about “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History” is that Creative Entertainment opted to take a different approach with each of these Liberty Square shows.
“And that was a deliberate choice on our part because we wanted to give our guests different experiences,” Anderson stated. “So the Declaration of Independence show – the one that involves James Jefferson, the town crier of Liberty Square – that the “Muppets Present” show features a lot more audience participation. People get to shout out the responses that JJ calls for. And – at the end of that show – there’s even a moment where a child from the crowd gets selected to ring a bell.”
“Whereas with Paul Revere’s Ride, we just wanted a show where the Muppets could do their thing for the guests. Which – in Miss Piggy’s case – meant that she kept changing her outfit. Which is why we finally had to put our foot down and tell Piggy ‘Only three costume changes per show,’ “ Tara laughed.
And then – because so many of our favorite Muppet memories are tied to music – Walt Disney Creative Entertainment hired Brendan Milburn & Valerie Vigoda to write a brand-new song for this show. Which actually manages to tie “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History” directly in with “Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D” by having Sam sing about how this new Liberty Square show (which – according to this feathered super-patriot – will be “ … wholesome, through and through”) will present “ … Great Moments in History, but only the American Parts.”
The end result is a charming new Magic Kingdom show that’s now regularly filling the streets in Liberty Square. Largely because it then gives WDW guests the chance to see the Muppets live and in person up-close.
“These characters have been part of entertainment for decades now. Our parents were very familiar with the Muppets. My generation grew up watching these characters on TV and at the movies. And now we’re sharing our love of the Muppets with our kids. So there’s this whole range of people who already know these characters but have never had the opportunity to get face-to-face with the Muppets,” Silson concluded. “And what “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History’ does is that this show actually gives people that opportunity. When they’re performing up on the second floor of Heritage House, the Muppets are so close to the audience that you feel like you could really reach out and touch them. And that experience – having the Muppets performing live, right there in front of you – that makes everybody feel like a kid again.”
Except, perhaps, for Sam Eagle. Who starts out each “The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History” responding to a line in the show’s theme song which states “… your hair will stand on end from all the history and such” by saying “ … unless – of course – you’re bald like me. In which case … Not so much.”
“This is what we strive for: classic Muppet nonsense – lively, foolish and funny,” McClellan concluded. ”Jim Henson used to say: “It’s silly...but it’s worthy of us.” We’re pretty sure Jim would enjoy every minute of this.”