Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma has written music for a pigeon, an elephant, and a pig…and now, a colony of naked mole rats. That’s what you do when you work with Mo Willems, the author and illustrator of Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus and other children’s books.
Their latest collaboration is the new animated version of Willems Naked Mole Rat Dress Up: The Underground Rock Experience, now streaming on HBO Max.
Why naked mole rats?
“They’re weird. They’re disgusting. They’re inherently alien,” says Willems with his characteristic subversive glee.
“It’s the same as a pigeon. Everybody’s gonna make wonderful bears and bunnies and all those adorable fluffy things, so take the terrible thing because then it’s yours.”
In Naked mole rat dress upa naked mole-rat named Wilbur (Jordan Fisher) discovers clothes in a culture where they are forbidden.
And once he does, he really love it. In an epic and moving rock ballad à la Freddie Mercury, Wilbur unleashes his joy.
“I couldn’t stop crying when I was writing this song,” says La Puma. “Even though obviously the song is about a rodent putting on clothes, I mean, it’s very silly. But it touches on these deeper themes of finding out who you are, embracing who you are, and then having the courage to live this life.”
Willems says he enjoys working with La Puma because she knows what kids like. But also, “she laughs all the time but she is also very serious in her work”.
True to form, La Puma laughs when she recalls wondering how Willems “navigated the slightly problematic word ‘naked'” while writing the lyrics for the underground rock band’s opening number. the colony in Naked mole rat dress up.
“And then I got his first draft of the lyrics and it was, ‘Naked, naked, naked, naked, naked mole rats. And I was like, ‘Okay, that’s how we’re going to work. Let’s get started. We repeat this word and everyone will recover from the first song.'”
When Willems and La Puma were thinking about the types of songs they wanted for their rock opera, they created a playlist of their favorite 80s music, including Elton John, Queen, ACDC, Bryan Adams, The Who and Pink Floyd. .
The Puma is perhaps a natural choice, as it once dreamed of becoming a rock star itself. Born to a Mexican mother and a father who grew up in Southern California, La Puma was a Navy kid whose family moved around a lot: Europe, South America. When she was a teenager, she was part of a rock band called “Technical Difficulty”.
“Then I kind of realized that I’m not cool enough to be a rock star. But I might be cool enough to be a musical theater composer.”
It turns out, she says, that writing music for kids was a great career choice because it’s so promising and such an effective tool for teaching empathy and community.
In the early 1990s, La Puma began a long-standing partnership with playwright Karen Zacarias. They have written 10 children’s shows together, many of which draw on their shared Latinx heritage, including Ferdinand the Bull, Looking for Roberto Clemente and Cinderella eats rice and beans.
Zacarias says one of the reasons she loves working with La Puma so much is because she’s not afraid to throw out a song she wrote if it doesn’t work.
“She has no ego…she comes and listens. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have opinions, but she comes with an open heart and always wants to improve the job,” says Zacarias .
Zacarias was a little worried when La Puma started working with Mo Willems. “I was like, this man is going to take her away from me,” she laughs. “And of course…”
Zacarias has a message for him: “I’m so happy to share Debbie Wicks La Puma with you, Mo, but know that she was my collaborator first.”
Deborah Wicks La Puma and Mo Willems Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed Up: The Underground Rock Experience is on HBO Max.