Dan Zanes Brings Show Tunes to Kids and Their Parents

Dan Zanes wasn't much for show tunes as a kid. The story has it that he started checking out Leadbelly records from the local library when he was just 8 years old.

"I come out of a folk tradition," says Zanes, in a phone interview conducted in hushed tones because he has a sleeping child in the back seat of his car. "But even Pete Seeger, even though he was rooted in the folk tradition, he was just looking for songs with good tunes that people could sing together."

And that could include, say, "76 Trombones," the signature song from The Music Man that is also the title track of Zanes' new collection of Broadway standards. The tracks range across decades of stage musicals, from Frank Loesser's songs for the 1952 show Hans Christian Andersen to one from the 1983 production of La Cage Aux Folles. Zanes renders them all in the folksy, family sing-along style that has made him a leader of a wave of what might be called hip music for children. (Or maybe music for hip children.)

American folk music and roots-rock have shaped Zanes' past records, starting with his years as lead singer of the Del Fuegos, the Boston band that scored a few medium-sized hits in the mid-1980s. After marrying, having a daughter, and moving to New York in the 1990s, Zanes connected with other musical dads on the playgrounds of Greenwich Village, and soon was almost accidentally embarked on a whole second career. His first children's album, Rocket Ship Beach, came out in 2000 and featured guest appearances by friends including Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega. That has been followed by nine more, the most recent of which is 76 Trombones, released last November.

The albums and accompanying tours and DVDs have turned Zanes into a star with the toddler-to-primary-school crowd, and with their parents, too. His friendly, free-spirited arrangements don't condescend to either his audience or his material, and his candy-colored suits and wild-man hair give him the air of a minstrel from Oz. On his current tour, which brings him to the Bijou Theatre this Friday, he and his band are celebrating the past decade's worth of music in a show that Zanes promises will be more about jumping and shouting than sitting and listening.

"The idea of a concert isn't quite as exciting as the idea of a party," he says.

In the mix will be songs from 76 Trombones, an album Zanes says came about "totally out of the blue." He got a phone call from a representative of Paul McCartney's MPL Music Publishing company, which over the years has accumulated the rights to thousands of songs of all kinds. That includes a sizable catalog of Broadway shows, and MPL wondered if Zanes would be interested in arranging and recording some of them for a new generation.

Zanes was intrigued and said he'd take a look through the offerings, most of which he had never heard. "We didn't listen to anything," he says. "We sat around the kitchen table, and I looked through hundreds of them and picked out the most interesting lyrics." He says he was looking for songs that he and his audience could both relate to: "The intention was always to make it as personal as possible."

After settling on a roster of 17 tunes—including multiple songs from The Music Man, Peter Pan, Hello, Dolly!, and Annie—talk turned to the question of guests. Most of Zanes' albums have included all-star cameos, with Lou Reed, Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, and others having turned up at various times. For this album, Zanes shifted his focus a little. "It just made sense to turn to the Broadway community this time around," he says, "because we'd always drawn from a different pool."

The Great White Way veterans on 76 Trombones include Matthew Broderick, Brian Stokes Mitchell (a Tony winner for the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate), and maybe most remarkably, the nearly nonagenarian Carol Channing. Channing lends her still lively voice to a version of "Hello, Dolly!"—probably her most famous song, in a career that has had a lot of them—and it sounds more apt than ever: "I hear the ice tinkle, see the lights twinkle/And I still get glances from you handsome men," she sings in an infectious rasp.

"We switched the lyrics and in a way the song became a character to her," Zanes says. "She really is that character at this point."

Channing, who still records and tours, is an embodiment of the spirit Zanes hopes to inspire in his own audiences. He laments that so many Americans grow up in families where nobody ever sits down to play piano or guitar or anything at all.

"For us," he says, "the goal is always, we hope that families and young people in particular will come away from it wanting to make their own music."