Music student pens Mister Rogers score

For Bryan Senti MUS ’09, watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child has always been “a weird memory.”

“It was always a very transcendental experience,” Senti said, referring specifically to the show’s “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” segment. “I was always in total suspense. It was a very surreal, early-Tim Burton experience.”

So when Senti set about to write the score for a new documentary about one of the characters from the famed childhood television show, he wanted to recreate that heightened feeling.

“It was fun to play on that a little bit,” Senti said. “I painted the music a little darker than the picture to play on the weird other world that Mr. Rogers had.”

Senti, a 25-year-old student at the School of Music, wrote the score for Speedy Delivery, a new documentary about Mr. McFeely, one of the central characters on the famed children’s show, which debuted Feb. 19, 1968, or 40 years ago this week.

The role of Mr. McFeely — a deliveryman who would “deliver” videos of ballet performances, inside looks at crayon factories or other scenes intended to entertain the show’s young audience — was played by David Newell, who now serves as the director of public relations at Family Communications, the company that produced Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood starting in 1971. In his new post, which he took over after the show aired its final episode in August 2001, Newell helps create promotional material for the television show and fields calls from reporters.

But at 69, Newell also continues to make public appearances as his one-time character, using stops at county fairs, shopping malls and elementary schools around the country to try to teach children the qualities Mister Rogers so tirelessly promoted: character, kindness and the power of imagination.

“Mr. McFeely is part of [Newell’s] identity and part of who he is. It’s a heightened version of himself,” said Paul Germain, the director of Speedy Delivery. “For him, it’s not about doing this as a job. He loves to be there for others and deliver something special.”

Germain first thought to film a documentary about Newell in 2005 when he saw the fictional deliveryman at a shopping mall in Pittsburgh and was immediately curious about Newell’s life story.

After pitching Newell the idea for his documentary, Germain followed Newell around the country periodically from May to August 2006, filming him both in and out of the Mr. McFeely costume. For one typical segment that eventually made it into the movie, Germain filmed Newell as he greeted visitors at a Baltimore children’s museum, where, he said, both parents and their sons and daughters recognized the character of Mr. McFeely from their childhoods.

“I had all these questions about why he was still doing this, why he was playing this role for so long,” Germain said. “I thought that people could really benefit from someone so honest, authentic and passionate.”

That’s where Senti came in. Looking to create a film whose music would honor the complexity and depth of the childhood icon, Germain turned to Senti, a friend from his time studying at Carnegie Mellon University, for a musical score. And Senti — in a somewhat unorthodox move — accepted the offer.

‘It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive’

Writing film and television scores is new territory for Senti. The venture, he said, is “completely a different thing from what I’m learning in school.”

Senti said he has nurtured a passion for music since he was a toddler, but he never planned to become involved with writing music for films and television shows.

“There are at least some initial sentiments [among music students] that you look down on film music,” Senti said.

But Senti said he has found that scoring films is not only more collaborative and stimulating than a typical career in music composition but also more financially reliable. Although he said the thought of living on a shoestring budget is “glamorous,” he knows that having a steady career writing music for movies and television will give him the freedom to support other “creative ventures.”

“The starving artist didn’t appeal to me too long, even though I love that,” Senti said. “But there’s something about being able to live adequately and making a future rather than sacrificing everything. There are healthier ways to live and still make music — to have a family and healthy relationships, and not be a drug addict.”

Nevertheless, for now at least, Senti’s work is pro bono. If the film is bought by a distributor like PBS, Senti may receive retroactive payment for his efforts, he said, but at present he contributed his work for free.

The desire to make money out of a normally not very lucrative educational background led Senti to start a music production company, Found Objects Music Productions, which was recently incorporated in Connecticut. Senti co-founded the company with two friends from Carnegie Mellon, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in music composition and a master’s in arts management.

In addition to Speedy Delivery, Senti also worked on the score for the hit television show Law and Order last fall after winning the BMI Foundation’s Pete Carpenter Fellowship for aspiring film and television composers.

When Senti began writing the music for Germain’s documentary, he decided to create a dynamic that differentiated the Mr. McFeely alter-ego from Newell’s actual world. Senti kept the theme music from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but he then looked for a new sound to accompany the segments of the film depicting the real-world Newell when not acting as his character.

“We needed something to be the ‘ying’ to that ‘yang,’ but would still sort of flow with the music of Mister Rogers,” Senti said.

For Speedy Delivery, Senti decided on a mix of bluegrass and blues, “the music of the people,” he said. He spent from October to December 2007 writing and recording the music for 10 to 12 hours per day in a studio at his friend’s house while taking last semester off from Yale. Senti said he played 99 percent of the music in the instruments in the Speedy Delivery score, alternately juggling the piano, harmonica, violin, guitar and synthesizer.

Writing a score for a film is different from writing other types of music, Senti said, because the music has to match with the dialogue of the film. Every dialogue has a tempo, he said — conversations can be measured in thirds or sixteenths, as adagios or andantes. Music written for a scene can either match the beat of the dialogue or intentionally subvert it, creating an atmosphere of anxiety or confusion.

The music, Senti said, fits into the film like “a piece of a puzzle.”

“Music is always stating the subtext of what’s on-screen,” he added. “It’s the emotional barometer of the film.”

‘Everything grows together’

Germain, whose budget for the film totaled a mere $4,500, said he has submitted Speedy Delivery to 20 film festivals across the country, and Senti said he hopes to screen the film at Yale before the end of this semester. Were that to happen, Newell said, he would love to come to Yale as Mr. McFeely to help promote the film.

But Newell’s potential trip to New Haven and Senti’s School of Music classes on music technology, composition and German filmmaking — which he said were most helpful to him in crafting the score — are not the only ties between Yale the celebrated children’s television show.

Although Newell — like Fred Rogers — built his life’s work around communicating with children, Newell said, he has also maintained a strong relationship with the University. Six years after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered on national public television, Rogers received an honorary degree from Yale in 1974.

And on Dec. 2, 1988, Rogers came to Yale to speak about the role of men in child care to a standing-room-only audience in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. Some of Yale’s football players skipped Friday practice to attend the speech, Newell said. After singing one of his signature tunes, “It’s You I Like,” Rogers received a standing ovation, and several members of the audience approached him at the end to embrace him.

“I think Yale’s philosophy on child studies really coincides with Fred Rogers’ philosophy,” Newell said. “They really had a lot of mutual respect for each other.”

Although Newell is “concerned” about the direction of children’s television shows, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has found its own niche even after original episodes stopped airing seven years ago, he said. Now Mr. Rogers fans tell Newell that they TiVo the show and watch it on satellite television.

“I know Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood might not have the volumes of fans it had in earlier days, but I know there’s an audience that would like to continue to see it,” Newell said. “You don’t take Tom Sawyer out of the library because Mark Twain died.”

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was its own unique breed of children’s television show that served as a “monumental” part of the evolution of television, Germain said. Rogers respected children and made them aware of their uniqueness, and that balance between entertainment and education has never quite been recreated in children’s television shows, Germain said.

“He’s not changing the world every second,” Germain said. “But he’s helping someone feel a little special every moment.”

But for Senti, the magic of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is all about the music. Germain obtained the rights to use original music from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in his documentary, and that, Senti insists, ensured the integrity of his score.

“It was all done live by some very solid, fierce musicians,” Senti said. “It created this imaginary world. That music represents the world of Mr. Rogers.”

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