McKenzie and McBoing Boing

BOING BOING: Bret McKenzie is looking forward to narrating a Dr Seuss classic with music by Orchestra Wellington.
BOING BOING: Bret McKenzie is looking forward to narrating a Dr Seuss classic with music by Orchestra Wellington.

Bret McKenzie has his two young children to thank for being reacquainted with the classic story of a boy who "didn't talk words" but "went Boing Boing instead".

Dr Seuss wrote the children's book Gerald McBoing Boing. After its success when read on a children's record, it was made into an Oscar-winning short animated film in 1950.

McKenzie, who won an Oscar in 2012 for the song Man or Muppet from The Muppets, will read Gerald McBoing Boing, accompanied by Orchestra Wellington later this month as part of the concert Pita and the Wolf. The music will be based on the score from the animated film.

"Coincidentally we'd read the book to our kids. We'd started to work our way through the Dr Seuss catalogue in our house and the library's got a pretty good collection and that's the one we got out of Wellington library," says McKenzie, who has a son aged three and daughter, who will soon turn five, with his wife Hannah Clarke.

"It's a very funny story and we did find that [animated film] and watched it on YouTube. We get the kids to watch clips while we try to cut their nails."

But McKenzie, best known as one half of music comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, was surprised when out of the blue he was contacted by Orchestra Wellington's general manager Adan Tijerina. The orchestra was organising a concert that would include actor and comedian Dave Fane from Naked Samoans and Bro' Town narrating Pita and the Wolf, a Pasifika twist on the classic Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev. Actress Aroha White would also read new story Tane and the Kiwi to music by Wellington-based American composer Thomas Goss.

Tijerina, who McKenzie already knew through Wellington's music scene including "supergroup" The Eggs, wanted him to narrate none other than Gerald McBoing Boing with the orchestra.

Orchestra Wellington won't be the first to adapt the score for a concert. But McKenzie says the score was never written to be performed live, which is one of the challenges for him and the orchestra.

"We will play with it and we will have some rehearsals. But an orchestra is not like a band - you don't get to practise very much. You get 20 minutes or something," he jokes.

McKenzie, a former member of hit Wellington band The Black Seeds, says another reason he was attracted to the project is that he doesn't often get to orchestra concerts.

"But it is one of those things that I love doing. As an audience member it's one of those occasions where you are allowed to drift off - but in a good way. You just start to imagine ideas and your mind wanders - sometimes through the things you've got to do during the day. I kind of like the same thing about watching modern dance, where it doesn't really make sense, so you start putting your own narrative on to it."

While McKenzie's success has been through popular music via Flight of the Conchords, The Black Seeds, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, songs for The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted movies and a "solo" album under guise The Video Kid, he did have his classical phase. For a few years he was a member of Wellington Youth Orchestra, where he played oboe.

"The only thing about the oboe is that no one plays the oboe, so I automatically got in the orchestra. There were only two of us. I was terrible. But I am familiar with it [the orchestral world]."

McKenzie says that early experience and later studying music at Victoria University gave him some confidence when he found himself having to orchestrate songs for the two Muppets films.

"[It was] to be confident to be able to go, ‘Can we have more cello?' and to know what cello does. I didn't write the score [for the films] but we orchestrated the songs, so there is an orchestral part underneath the songs, so that meant working with an orchestra in LA. So it went from Wellington Youth Orchestra to LA session orchestras."

He also cites help for the Muppets songs from famed American arranger Chris "Kazz" Casswell - who has worked with many big names, including Willie Nelson and Daft Punk for their latest album.

"He and I have a really fine working relationship where I say, ‘I want to feel like a powerful 80s ballad' and I can articulate emotion and character through music."

Despite his international success as a musician and actor - which includes a starring role in recent American comedy Austenland, a guest appearance on The Simpsons with Flight of the Conchords Jemaine Clement and the coming The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, McKenzie continues to live in Wellington. But it has been on an on-off basis due to work commitments in the United States. Los Angeles has effectively become his second home over the past nine years, he says. Air New Zealand are so used to seeing him on flights to LA, they joke when he's not flying with his family.

McKenzie also has his own theory on one of the reasons why he's in demand in LA as a songwriter.

It's being able to decode people's ideas into music.

"It's the kind of skill that's weirdly become my job.

"You have a lot of people in TV and film who want music to work for them, but they can't describe why it's not working.

"It's hard to describe music between executives and musicians - so I can, like, translate."


Bret McKenzie narrates Gerald McBoing Boing with Orchestra Wellington at Opera House on July 27, 3pm as part of the Pita and the Wolf concert. 

The Dominion Post