While children socially distanced with their families and attended school from home throughout the pandemic, their crafty and interactive learning activities were restricted within their virtual classrooms. As parents have searched for new ways to engage their children in story time and interactive play, the new Reading Rainbow Live virtual series aims to serve as a reminder that “learning is magic.” Executive producer Steven Beer has reimagined the beloved Reading Rainbow children’s program, now streaming in a musical book story format for children to read, dance, sing, and play along. Nectar News had the privilege to speak with Steven (over Zoom) to hear about his extensive career as an entertainment law professional and his passion for encouraging learning through creative expression. Read on for more:
Nectar News: To start off, can you tell me a little about what you do?
Steven Beer: I’m the National Chair of the Entertainment, Media and Sports practice at the national law firm called Lewis Brisbois, Bisgaard, and Smith. In addition, some folks know that I wrote a book that’s pretty popular. It’s called Your Child’s Career in Music and Entertainment: The Prudent Parent’s Guide [from Start to Stardom]. The book is like a chicken soup for stage parents. Dan Schneider was a big supporter, a champion of mine. And so, it’s fun for me to be an advocate. Which is why I went into entertainment law in the first place, to be an advocate for creators.
NN: I’m sure you’re utilizing so much of that in Reading Rainbow Live.
SB: Oh, yeah. Don’t get me started.
NN: That’s exactly what we’re here to talk about. Let’s get into Reading Rainbow. How did the idea come about to create this new version of the show?
SB: It came out of my experience in working extensively with the classic Reading Rainbow brand team. It was through that experience [as a strategic partner] that I understood the vast potential of this iconic brand, but also the challenge of how to take this brand forward. How do you honor the brand, but take it to a new place? The good news is that you’ve got this pristine, beautiful brand that is connected to a generation of young people, many of whom are now parents with kids they would like to share it with. This is something that feels really good to them. It’s something that’s also a little bit different than what the kids are consuming now. So many kids are really involved in a digital culture where the things that they’re reading are electronic with animations and just very, noisy. So, parents yearn for the nostalgia of the things that they grew up with. We all do, it’s part of our experience. I just felt like there was a demand for that sort of a rise in appreciation for nostalgic brands that were part of our youth. Additionally, as a parent of three kids, I observed both in my family and then just out and about, how kids responded to creativity. There are all different kinds of learning styles out there. Some kids enjoy sitting down with a book in a quiet place and flipping through the pages. And that’s classic, and we would love that. But some kids like to engage in reading and like to do active things and use the book as a springboard to other activities. And that’s what I saw as the possibility for Reading Rainbow.
I had been a champion with the brand of finding a way to incorporate creative elements to get people excited about books as a springboard to imagination, creativity, and adventure, and we thought that active play, music, and dance could really figure into that. That was really what I had in mind. Then, at the beginning of COVID-19, in the quarantine, we transitioned to a virtual world in a lot of respects. Our business meetings went from face-to-face to online with Webex, Zoom, and all kinds of other digital platforms. As a result, I started to see how film festivals were transitioning to a virtual experience as well. And as I started to look at the various streaming platforms out there, I was really taken with Looped which had an interactive element. I thought about how that interactivity combined with streaming could be a huge boom to education, where kids weren’t getting out, they weren’t socializing. They weren’t vaccinating little ones; they were really falling behind. The parents were really frustrated as well. Suddenly the kids are home and the offerings for kids were really limited. It just felt like well, maybe this was an opportunity.
So, I went to my client with an idea that I had for Reading Rainbow Live. In the classic Reading Rainbow, there was a dynamic lead host, his name was LeVar Burton. But I felt like even though LeVar was really capable, and it was really part of the magic of Reading Rainbow, it was time for a different approach. One that could be better manifested through an ensemble, which I call the Rainbows. There’s the Wiggles and all that stuff, that was an ensemble too, but we didn’t need to be silly. Our aspiration was to be a little bit more relatable. The Rainbows are a diverse group of musical theater 20-somethings that viewers ages 4 through 8 could look up to almost like camp counselors or babysitters or older cousins. The goal was for kids to be able to find a connection to at least one of them. And these artists, the Rainbows, they’re not perfect, they’re real. We really like that. They all have their own story. They’re talented but most importantly they are relatable. They are just individuals, people that bring something special that you can connect with. They’re not so polished and perfect that they’re going to intimidate you, you’re not going to be nervous around them. But you’re going to want to learn from them and maybe be like them a little bit. They’re not superheroes, they’re just regular people that are happy, they like to sing, like to dance and they love books. And wow, what a fun thing to share, the opportunity to really break through the noise of this sort of narrow digital culture where you’ve got anime and baby shark and all these things. To come in with something else a little bit old-fashioned, but also including basic creative things like reading and play, active play, and music. We have three original songs in every episode, with books and authors. It’s a kind of magic, it’s reading magic. It’s like a musical book party. So those are the things that we were thinking about. It was my idea and I brought it to the folks at Reading Rainbow and they loved it. But I didn’t hesitate to bring in professionals to help me develop it.
I represent and know a lot of producers in my business. There was one person I thought could really spark the idea and he [Mark Harris] brought it to his production company, Ohana Pictures. They became our production company. In assembling a team, I also remembered one of my kids had a fascinating almost Mary Poppins-like kindergarten teacher 20 years ago. I would see her on social media because she became a children’s book author and a reading activist. I always liked her and thought that she understood that there were all kinds of dimensions to the process of learning. She’s a person who really was instrumental in demonstrating that for me, so I reached out to her, and my timing could not have been better. She was just in the process of winding down her days in education as a teacher and she was looking for a new challenge. It really worked out that way.
NN: Absolutely. Speaking of someone else you collaborate with for Reading Rainbow Live, there’s fellow Flobel advisor, Mustapha Khan. What is it like working with him as the creative producer of the show?
SB: So, Dan Schneider introduced me to Mustapha, when I told him I was working on developing Reading Rainbow Live. Dan suggested I reach out to Mustapha because he is a legendary, successful producer and director in the children’s entertainment world because of his work on Sesame Street and other projects. I reached out to him, and we had a great conversation. I could tell that he was really interested and compatible. I introduced Mustapha to our producers, and he just fit in really well. It’s been a great journey so far in developing and now producing this show. I have learned from every person on our creative team, but I have especially learned a lot from Mustapha. He’s really sharp.
NN: That’s great. And I wanted to talk about your son, Maxwell, who is one of the Rainbows. Is this the first time you’re working on a project together? How has it been?
SB: Yes, and Maxwell is also a Flobel advisor. So, how did this really come about? It came out about in a variety of ways. This is a little bit of a secret but turns out that you can really learn a lot from your kids. And I learned a lot from Max. He used to take me to Broadway show after Broadway show, and he would point things out to me in every show that involved craft. Sometimes it was behind the scenes. Maybe it was the musical arrangement or the director’s fine touches. Perhaps it was the lighting or the composer or the score, there are just a million things that contribute to musical theater. I took Max to his first Broadway show 20 years ago. That just lit his fuse. He’s seen probably 300 or more shows, since then. Anytime I go to the theater with him, and even when I don’t go with him, I always ask him questions. And he just respects the craft.
And now, of course, Max is not a kid anymore. He’s 25. He was recently nominated for a Grammy Award and he is prominent in the world of Broadway musicals. He was the executive producer and engineer of a Burt Bacharach musical and we went to the Grammy Awards together. He was a professional actor and musician as a teenager and because of that experience I wrote my book. I made all the mistakes stage parents can make even though I’m an entertainment professional, and a former manager [Britney Spears, Aaron Carter and more]. So I wanted to share what I learned.
As part of his work, Max was involved in a children’s musical performance. He was an instructor with a company called Little Maestros, which was training for infants. The kids he worked with were too young to read so the work was very different from Reading Rainbow. Max was one of the performers playing live instruments. I watched him perform and he was just all in and I just saw the way kids responded to that. So, what do you know, just another area where I learned something from my son. Since. coming on to Reading Rainbow, Max has written the original songs for the musical book party and I think they are the spine of the book. I think the music is extra special. It’s kind of memorable.
NN: So, we talked about the incorporation of song and dance. But are there any other aspects of the episodes that are new additions to the series? The types of books that are featured, or the field trips they go on?
SB: Yeah, I think the kinds of books that we choose are really important. We are very focused on shining a light on new voices and telling new stories. And because that’s the most important part we are not just relying on the classics, but introducing new classics that folks can relate to. We have a diverse country, and it’s not just homogenous so it’s really nice to present different stories from different places and different perspectives. It feels very inclusive and appropriate.
NN: Agreed. So, the first episode premiered on March 6th, have you heard from any of the families who have watched it?
SB: I’ve heard amazing feedback. There’s only one negative. Universally, people really like it. It’s entertaining and really moves along nicely. The only negative I see or hear is that it’s $9.99 for the general admission, and in a perfect world, we would have this out there for free. But, in order to accelerate the development process and to get it available, while it was still winter, and people are shut-in, there was a real call to action, given the circumstances of COVID-19 and the weather and such that we never could have gotten it on broadcast media. We couldn’t make it available for free because the pipeline charges us money.
We were out there actively, aggressively searching for partners that can help subsidize or just create and support access so that everyone can enjoy Reading Rainbow Live. But hopefully, the conversations that we are having will bear fruit, and partners will come along and help us to make Reading Rainbow Live accessible.
NN: Yeah, that’s great. And what other kinds of feedback have you been hearing?
SB: People really like the music. There are three original songs, and people are singing and playing them over and over again. Someone asked to break them up and put them on YouTube as a music video. Someone else asked when we can take the music and put it on Spotify, so they can listen to it in the car with the family. We really like that. And people really like the user content that we incorporate into it. Whether it’s the book reviews or the dance break; we have a dance segment, a movement section, which is really fun, kind of like the seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game. So they like that, and they really like the Rainbows. So, yeah, so we’re getting a lot of nice comments, great feedback. Several people have said that they prefer the Reading Rainbow Live theme song to the classic Reading Rainbow song which is really flattering because the original song is iconic. It’s a really fun song and very memorable, but I think the Reading Rainbow Live song is a lot of fun too and very memorable, sticky.
NN: Very catchy. What do you and everyone involved want young children to learn and take away from Reading Rainbow Live?
SB: The magic of storytelling, reading, and imagination. Books really can take you anywhere and every book is a magic carpet. It’s fun to watch content on screens, but it’s even more fun to read stories, unique, special stories with beautiful illustrations. And not everyone has the chance to travel everywhere. But with a book, every book is like a vacation, it’s like an exotic trip. And the potential for a ride to interesting exotic places is just priceless. I think that’s the biggest takeaway. I think Vlad [Vladimir Duthiers] from CBS also has a great takeaway. He says, “Use your imagination, if there’s anything you want to do, just be passionate about it and you can do it. You can put yourself into it and make it happen.” When he talks about himself during his segment when he’s reading the Rube Goldberg book, he says “If you’re passionate about it and you really want something, you can do it, you can make it happen if you really love it.” And I agree.
For those hoping to join in on the magic of storytelling, they can watch Reading Rainbow Live’s premiere event and learn more at https://readingrainbowlive.com/.