Adios, 'Ugg A Wugg': Native Composer Updates Song for NBC's 'Peter Pan Live!'

For Peter Pan Live!, NBC enlisted Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate to help rework a song that plays to racist stereotypes of Native Americans.
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Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate was recruited by NBC to devise changes for the song "Ugg-a-Wugg" for their upcoming broadcast Peter Pan Live!, which will air on the network December 4th. The production is a revival of the 1954 Broadway stage version and it includes a reimagined version of the song retitled “True Blood Brothers.”

(Note: The 1954 Broadway musical is not to be confused with the 1953 Disney animated feature. A key difference is that, in the stage musical, Tiger Lily is the leader of the group of Indians; the big-nosed, guttural Chief character and his musical number "What Made the Red Man Red?" are completely absent.) 

Tate has composed symphonic, choral, and chamber works, including an upcoming opera, Shell Shaker, commissioned by the Oklahoma City Opera and he was appointed Cultural Ambassador for the State of Oklahoma in 2008. 

With change comes criticism, and it's easy to find musical-theater fans online who aren't happy that something—anything—has been altered. Sondra Lee, who originated the role of Tiger Lily in 1954, told the New York Post she won't be watching Thursday's broadcast, and said that she is disappointed that "Ugg-a-Wugg" has been revamped. "If you have a classic, don’t mess with it," says Lee. "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!" Ain't broke? Really? The contingent of Native Americans who've consistently objected to depictions of their languages as meaningless savage grunting would disagree with her assessment.

How did changing the song come about?

NBC initiated these changes, and it is not just “Ugg-A-Wugg”; they added some more music, it was re-orchestrated, and basically the entire musical was given a facelift. Their goal was to make this have staying power, both artistically and culturally, and part of the process was this song “Ugg-A-Wugg”: it’s one of those uncomfortable moments in theater. 

You can find Sondra Lee's "Ugg-a-Wugg" from a 1956 broadcast on YouTube, as well as the audio from the Original Cast Recording, complete with the phrases "smoke-um peace pipe" and "brave noble redskin":

(laughs) It’s kind of weird; it’s kind of surreal to watch it. The network reached out to Sonny Skyhawk, who is the CEO of American Indians in Film and Television (AIFT). Sonny made some recommendations and I was one of the people that he recommended, so NBC called me and after the interview they decided to hire me on as their consultant for that particular song.

Did you actually re-write the piece?

I’m not the composer, nor am I the musical director, I’m literally a consultant. The music director, David Chase, is the guy who actually penned some of the actual musical differences. There were three major things that I addressed in that particular number: first, the opening rhythm where the strings play a col legno [striking the strings with the stick of the bow]. We talked about how to make that sound more like an Iroquois Smoke Dance rhythm, which was appropriate for that region. [The creator of Peter Pan, Scottish author J. M. Barrie, is believed to have been inspired by the Indians of the Northeastern U.S.]

It’s not the stereotypical repetitive beat of ONE-two-three-four?

It’s still the same count, but it emphasizes the second beat, just like the smoke dance does. It’s a really small adjustment, but it was one worth addressing.

The second thing we talked about was what I call the “Indian breakdown” where they have that “tomahawk chop”-sounding melody. I was looking for possible tunes to replace it, but nothing would have made a difference because the way it was orchestrated was what made it sound so tomahawk-choppy. David came up with a different orchestration and a different stylistic sound; it’s a Latin rhythm that made it sound more like a fun tune rather than something that sounds so horribly stereotypical. It’s the best anyone could do with that particular phrase of music.

The third thing was the lyrics, and there are two components to it; first the name of the piece, “Ugg-A-Wugg” which was changed that to “True Blood Brothers.” Since “Ugg-A-Wugg” was the word that Tiger Lily and Peter agree on as their call for help, we decided to go back and look at the Wyandot language for an actual word that still fit that rhythm in the music, but was an actual American Indian word that had the same meaning. I went through the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma and talked to Dr. Craig Kopris [a foremost authority on the language] and we came up with the word “OWA,HE”, the Wyandotte word for “come here.” It fit beautifully, it’s a 3 syllable word, and it still has the same rhythmic integrity for the music

Also, there was the issue where they have stereotypical Indian gibberish throughout the song, so David’s solution was to replace that gibberish with existing nursery rhymes, which was perfect because it’s related to what the musical is about; it’s a fairy tale.

That song got a really good facelift and I think this is a much better version.

When you took this job were you worried people would think you were an apologist for NBC putting on this production?

There’s nothing to really apologize for. I think it’s important to remember that musical theater, as a genre, is based in stereotypes. I can’t think of one musical that isn’t based on stereotypes, we're talking Grease, Les Misérables, Mrs. Saigon, Oklahoma, South Pacific; all musical theater thrives on stereotypes, that’s just the style of it. There are a lot of musicals that have kind of funky numbers like that. I’m not looking to cover anything up; I was just trying to bring more integrity and authenticity to that particular song.

How do you find the right balance between updating the musical while maintaining the integrity of the original work?

What drives me is my gut feeling. There’s not necessarily a written book, or a standards, it’s more of a gut feeling. It’s a very subjective thing and people are going to have different feelings about it. When I was asked about this particular job I watched “Peter Pan” and my gut told me there were things to be done to salvage it in a way that I was comfortable with, personally. In talking to David Chase and Amanda Green [the Tony nominated daughter of Adolph Green who reworked her father’s original lyrics for this production], I felt that their musicianship and their intentions were so strong, and so solid that I really trusted them so, mostly, it was instinct on my part.

'All musical theater thrives on stereotypes,' says Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate. 'That’s just the style of it.' Photo courtesy Jerod Tate.

Is changing the stereotypical parts something that is happening in musical theater revivals today?

I have never heard of this before, personally, and as far as I can tell this is the first time any of us have experienced this. I feel everyone has been very genuine in their desire to make things better on many levels, and this may happen to other musicals because it happened to this one. But that’s also a touchy subject because not only are we addressing subjectivity in terms of races but, as a fellow composer, I’m helping alter music that was written by somebody else, and that can also be very sensitive. If somebody changed orchestrations to my flute concerto I would be pretty upset (laughs). But NBC was diligent and the family that owns the rights have agreed with these changes and signed off on them. So fortunately we got the thumbs up from the composers’ families.