Veritable national treasure Lin-Manuel Miranda has a catalogue of brilliance so large I’d be remiss if I tried to discuss it all in one editorial. Instead, I’d like to draw attention to one specific work: his magnum opus, which melds an art form beloved by generations of Americans with modern style and diversity. It’s been viewed by thousands of fortunate souls. And, perhaps most importantly, it features a small Muppet sheep who raps in Spanish.
“Murray had a Little Lamb” is a criminally underrated Sesame Street segment that struck me as artistic genius from the moment I first experienced it. It was a regular feature in 2008, when my brother was three and at peak Sesame Street consumption, and though I was well past the target age range, I knew the premise alone was special: Murray, an orange monster who mostly yells in some sort of Midwestern accent, spends his days with Ovejita, a tiny and shockingly-cute sheep who speaks exclusively Spanish.
The theme song for their segment is described by Muppet Wiki as “Caribbean-esque … [with a] rap variation on the classic nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” performed by none other than Miranda. It’s as phenomenal as it sounds.
People close to me are acutely aware that I have an inordinate appreciation for Sesame Street; I found an excuse to write about it in my first Public Policy class and will likely do the same again because I find the program’s influence and history endlessly fascinating. Diversity was a cornerstone of Sesame Street’s philosophy long before it was expected in mainstream television, much less in a children’s show, and it has long relished the challenge of adapting challenging topics for their audience without dumbing things down.
Like most people in 2016 who possess ears and a heart, I also have an inordinate appreciation for “Hamilton,” and had just fallen in love with “In the Heights” when I had my Murray/Miranda revelation.
Lin-Manuel’s work is aligned with the unapologetically Hispanic sheep and her hip-hop spitting friend, in that they reflect the real world and leverage “real” music to teach their lessons.
There are no milquetoast 4/4 time melodies and baby-fied stories but interesting sounds and clever wordplay made with a wink at the audience who is assumed to be smart enough to keep up. Sound familiar?
In a way, “Murray had a Little Lamb” is a more effective deployment of diverse music and casting than “Hamilton”, which is inherently constrained by its existence as a broadway musical. Those lacking the resources to even hear music like Hamilton’s, let alone scrounge together the money to see it in person, are barred from appreciating its uniqueness.
It’s important to understand that diverse casting does not necessarily equate a diverse audience, particularly in a world as isolated to a certain race and class
Contrast this with “Murray had a Little Lamb”’s platform on Sesame Street. Public programming is the closest thing American children have to a universal experience. Regardless of their neighborhood or their school, a child with access to a television can see the same Muppets doing the same things as their peers can see. Ovejita will speak Spanish to a child who speaks only that just as she will to a child who’s never heard a word of a language
Those children’s parents can be thrilled about the representation or irrationally irritated that an adorable creature made of foam and fabric isn’t speaking English.
Ovejita and Murray, for lack of better words, keep it real by reflecting many cultures for each other in ways that don’t demean or bastardize to accommodate