Boynton spreads 'serious silliness' Songwriter: From the woman who gave us a pun-filled world of hippos, piggies and kitties, comes a collection of lighthearted yet complex songs for children.

November 13, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

It is long past their bedtime, but that only jazzes up the already hyper dancers in their mini-mosh pit at the Zany Brainy toy store in Rockville. And when Robin Williams look-alike Adam Bryant delivers a rousing encore of the rocker "Bad Babies," the toddlers bounce and frolic with abandon, while bedraggled parents hold coats and hats and wait for another long day to come to an end.

Looking on is a smiling Sandra Boynton, that same Sandra Boynton who has delivered millions upon millions of punny greeting cards featuring lovably plump hippos, piggies, kitties and dinos to the world.

After 22 years of designing cards, children's books, chocaholic confessions and plush merchandising spinoffs, Boynton, 43, has returned to an original love: musical theater. The quick concert Monday night, with the audio cassette and illustrated song book it promoted, is her baby.

"Rhinoceros Tap: And 14 Other Seriously Silly Songs," (Workman, $15.95), a collaboration between Boynton and composer Michael Ford, features 15 children's songs, inflected with jazz, blues, rock, a cappella and standard panache, and all polished with a show-tune sound.

Boynton hopes that the project expresses the spirit of her other work, that it is something "complex and wholesome and not mean-spirited."

She dismisses much children's music as "singsong garbage," white-bread stuff that doesn't nourish its audience. Boynton and Ford worked to make every song sound unique and lyrically challenging.

Once the songs were written, Boyton had to put them in storybook form in a way that was as "visually tickly" as the music, itself. Different type faces and sizes, selective colors and Boynton's merry critters do the trick.

This is the first time Boynton has toured to promote her work. Her husband, Jamie McEwan, a former Olympic whitewater canoeist, convinced her it was important. She would rather remain on her family's 40-acre Connecticut farm, with her husband and her four children.

But here is Boynton, wearing a blue satin "Rhinoceros Tap" tour jacket, listening as Bryant croons a ballad about peas:

O, lonely peas,

So green, so round, and so small.

O, lonely peas,

There's no one who loves you at all.

There's no one who loves you at all.

Later, moms and dads line up to have Boynton "personalize" their purchases of Boynton books and "Rhinoceros Tap." One gushing parent says she gives a copy of "Hippos Go Berserk" to every child born to relatives and friends.

Dara Levy is there with 22-month-old Brandon, who has learned "cold," "hot," "huge" and a roster of other adjectives from Boynton's pre-schooler books. "I really wanted to meet her," says Levy, who grew up in Baltimore. "If her books are that good, her music must be just as good."

And though she is far from home, Boynton's friends and relatives arrive throughout the evening to give her a hug and say hello. Her best friend's parents arrive, as does the daughter of her editor. Boynton's niece appears with husband, kids and friends and their kids. Noting the $3.95 stamped on a board book, the niece exclaims, "Man, good deal, Aunt Sandra!"

In one book, Boynton draws smooching rhinos.

"Oh, you drew some. How perfect!" says the Zany Brainy special events coordinator.

"These are relatives," Boynton says, pointing to the customers.

Boynton's theater career was interrupted by the birth of her first daughter and her phenomenal success as a greeting card designer. She never completed her graduate degree at Yale Drama School, and her last directing efforts -- a trio of Noel Coward plays at Dartmouth summer theater -- was decades ago.

More recently, after Boynton began seeing plays again, she considered a return to theater, "If the plays were good, I wanted to direct and if they were bad, I wanted to direct," she says.

Boynton launched an effort to build a theater devoted to the classics, but pulled the plug when she realized that she would likely be a fund raiser and administrator, not a director.

"I don't like schmoozing and I don't like administering," she says.

Still, the process served her well. Boynton and her oldest daughter Caitlin, now 17, attended untold theatrical productions and she was able to rescale her ambitions into something more manageable: "Rhinoceros Tap."

By now the children, relatives and friends have left. The ring of mini Naugahyde furniture is empty. Boynton is speaking of her kids, their schooling, her schedule. She is holding up under the din of the promotional tour. But clearly, home, her sunny studio in a refurbished barn, and the clatter of the family that inspired "Rhinoceros Tap," is on her mind.

At a moment like this, it's impossible not to wonder why Boynton, who has earned stratospheric sums from her creations, continues to put herself out there. Why not stay on the farm? She can't help herself, it seems. The wheels are always spinning. The ideas are always birthing.

In tandem with "Rhinoceros Tap," comes a production geared toward adults: "Grunt," an illustrated book and CD package parodying the Gregorian music recording, "Chant." According to its foreword, "Grunt: Pigorian Chant from Snouto Domoinko de Silo," sung, of course, in Pig Latin, was "discovered, translated, notated and illuminated" by one Sandra Boynton.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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