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Mo Willems' naked mole rats owe their rock 'n' roll sound to this composer

Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma writes music for Mo Willems' musicals including <em>Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock</em> <em>Experience</em>. A new animated version is on HBO Max.
HBO Max
Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma writes music for Mo Willems' musicals including Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience. A new animated version is on HBO Max.

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 Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience, now airing on HBO Max.

Why naked mole rats?

"They're weird. They're yucky. They're inherently outsiders," Willems says with his trademark subversive glee.

"It's the same thing as a pigeon. Everybody else is going to do wonderful bears and bunnies and all these adorable fluffy things, so take the terrible thing because then it's yours."

For <em>Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience</em>, Mo Willems and Deborah Wicks La Puma channeled their favorite bands from the '80s including AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Elton John.
/ HBO Max
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HBO Max
For Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience, Mo Willems and Deborah Wicks La Puma channeled their favorite bands from the '80s including AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Elton John.

In Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, a naked mole rat named Wilbur (Jordan Fisher) discovers clothes in a culture where they're banned.

And once he does, he really likes it. In an epic, emotional, Freddie Mercury-style rock ballad, Wilbur unleashes his joy.

"I kept crying when I was writing that song," says La Puma. "Even though obviously the song is about a rodent who's putting on clothes, I mean, it's very silly. But it touches those deeper themes of discovering who you are, embracing who you are, and then having that courage to live that life."

Willems says he loves working with La Puma because she knows what kids like. But also, "she laughs all the time but she's also very serious about the work."

True to form, La Puma laughs when she remembers wondering how Willems "would navigate the slightly problematic word 'naked,'" when writing the lyrics for the colony's underground (get it?) rock band's opening number in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

"And then I got his first draft of the lyrics and they were, 'Naked, naked, naked, naked, naked mole rats.' And I was like, 'Ok, this is how we're going to work. We're just embracing it. We're repeating this word and everyone's gonna get over it right in the opening song.'"

When Willems and La Puma were thinking about the kinds of songs they wanted for their rock opera, they put together a playlist of their favorite music from the '80s, including Elton John, Queen, ACDC, Bryan Adams, The Who and Pink Floyd.

Deborah Wicks La Puma has composed music for 18 children's theater productions including Mo Willems' <em>Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus</em> and Karen Zacarias' <em>Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans</em>.
SARAH MORRIEM / Deborah Wicks La Puma
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Deborah Wicks La Puma
Deborah Wicks La Puma has composed music for 18 children's theater productions including Mo Willems' Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus and Karen Zacarias' Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans.

La Puma may be a natural choice, because she once dreamt of becoming a rock star herself. Born to a Mexican mother and a father who grew up in Southern California, La Puma was a Navy brat whose family moved around a lot: Europe, South America. When she was a teenager she was in a rock band called "Technical Difficulty."

"Then I sort of came to the realization, I'm not quite cool enough to be a rock star. But I might be cool enough to be a composer for musical theater."

It turns out, she says, that writing music for children was a great career move because it's so hopeful, and such an effective tool for teaching empathy and community.

La Puma wrote an epic, Freddie Mercury-style ballad for Wilbur, a naked mole rat who dares to get dressed in a culture that bans clothes.
/ HBO Max
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HBO Max
La Puma wrote an epic, Freddie Mercury-style ballad for Wilbur, a naked mole rat who dares to get dressed in a culture that bans clothes.

In the early 1990s, La Puma began a longtime partnership with playwright Karen Zacarias. They've written 10 children's shows together, many of them inspired by 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 likes working with La Puma so much is that she's not afraid to throw out a song she's written if it's not working.

"She has no ego . . . she comes and listens. That doesn't mean she doesn't have opinions, but she comes in with an open heart and always wants to make the work better," Zacarias says.

Zacarias was a little worried when La Puma started working with Mo Willems. "I was like, that man's gonna snap her away from me," she laughs. "And sure enough..."

Zacarias has a message for him: "I'm so happy to share Debbie Wicks La Puma with you, Mo, but just know she was my collaborator first."

Deborah Wicks La Puma and Mo Willems' Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience is on HBO Max.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.