Dosh just sent “some random e-mails to friends,” he remembers, asking them to sing the songs of Mister Rogers. “Just record them into your cell phone, make it kind of low-fi, don’t even worry about going into the studio. Just send it to me and then I’ll sort of do my thing with it. I’ll chop it up, incorporate it into the score I’m working on.” The speed and enthusiasm of the responses surprised him. “People just got back right away. Everybody loves Fred Rogers.”
Those friends included Sylvan Esso, Andrew Bird, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, all of whom covered songs by Fred Rogers — yes, the late host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — as contributions to the soundtrack of Make Believe Neighborhood, a play now onstage at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis. Their vocals, and sometimes instrumental parts as well, are heard as part of a soundscape created live by Dosh, a Minneapolis musician who’s collaborated with theater artist Bart Buch for over a decade.
The play, conceived with the collaboration of artists including master puppeteer Masanari Kawahara, uses puppetry and video to tell the story of Rogers’s life and art. Vignettes about Mister Rogers alternate with stories about people in the theater’s Phillips neighborhood, illustrating how the TV star’s values of tolerance and compassion are being put into practice in the local community.
Minnesota musicians have also contributed to the score, which features the songs by special arrangement with Rogers’s estate. Among the contributing vocalists are Jayanthi Kyle (Gospel Machine) and Leslie Ball, who sings a heartrending version of “I Like You.” Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, sings “The Truth Will Make Me Free,” and Bird sings the show’s theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Many viewers aren’t aware that Rogers didn’t just host his PBS show: he also worked as a puppeteer and, holding a college degree in music composition, wrote the show’s songs. Most of the covers likely won’t be heard outside the context of the show, says Dosh, as the casual recordings weren’t intended for standalone release.
One exception: Sylvan Esso have released their rendition of “There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You.” As Dosh notes, the duo’s take on the song is a departure from their typical sound. “It’s just Amelia [singing], and Nick playing guitar. It’s not dance-y Sylvan Esso stuff, but it’s really beautiful.”
Like many of us gen-Xers, Dosh grew up watching Mister Rogers, whose ability to soothe and inspire is almost religious. “The things that he said, and the way that he relates to children, reminds me very much of how a priest would function — but in a secular way.”
Make Believe Neighborhood is playing at In the Heart of the Beast through Feb. 25.