Speakeast with - Andre Benjamin

OutKast's André Benjamin remains the headmaster of "Class of 3000," even though Cartoon Network ceased production of the animated school daze comedy after 26 episodes. "Class of 3000" is transferring to a new medium, however, as the Alliance Children's Theatre presents the world premiere stage adaptation beginning Fri., March 6. Benjamin, the show's creator, executive producer and vocal star as the inspirational Willy Wonka-esque music teacher Sunny Bridges, discusses the TV series' origins and its transition to the stage.

Did you ever have an inspirational teacher like Sunny?

I've had a few in my lifetime. What inspired the character (played by Atlanta's Sinatra Onyewuchi at the Alliance) was the fact that I wouldn't want to be Andre 3000 forever. I'd eventually want to leave the stage. I never thought about being a music teacher, though. I wanted to be an art teacher, because I also draw and paint, and I remember art teachers who were like Sunny. My guitar teacher right now, Zaza, he's a teacher like that, too. He's a fun time, and I can enjoy that, even though I'm 33 years old.

How did you originate "Class of 3000"?

I was approached by Cartoon Network first. Once they gave me an offer, they wanted to see what show I wanted to create. Originally it was going to be an Adult Swim show, but the more I got into it, I started shaping it into a mainstream, prime-time kind of thing.

You provided a new song for every episode, five of which appear in the stage play. Was it different writing songs for a young audience, compared to your usual audience?

I wasn't trying to water down the music aspect of the show just because it was for kids. You watch old "Peanuts" or "Fat Albert" shows, they weren't necessarily kids' songs. On "Peanuts," you're listening to jazz by Vince Guaraldi. I want to make sure that kids had something to listen to that wasn't teeny-bopper songs – although we would do those, too, if they fit into the story. I wanted to give them a little jazz, ragtime, blues, funk music, with the hope that if kids heard those kinds of music later, they'd say, "Hey, I remember this kind of song!" I thought that was fitting, since I play a music teacher. I also wanted to show how different kinds of songs, like classical music, could be reinterpreted in new ways, which is what I like to do with my other kinds of music.

Did you apply your interest in visual arts to "Class of 3000's" animation style?

Yes. It took about a year and a half to get it exactly right. I'd never done animation, and though my partner had shows on Nickelodeon, he'd never done animation, either. It was an advantage in a way, since we'd come up with new ideas and try out new things. There was a trend at the time of animation that was square and boxy with thick lines, and I wanted characters to have fluidity and curvature for the musical or dancing scenes. If you look at old cartoons like "Fat Albert," you see that swirly look.

Has "Class of 3000" helped you connect to younger audiences?

The funny thing about doing "Class of 3000" was that people who don't know me from OutKast or the Benjamin Bixby clothing line would recognize me. Kids would recognize me as Sunny, especially in the summertime, if I'm wearing my straw hat. Once two kids saw me, and one said, "That's Sunny of 'Class of 3000!'" The other said "Who?" And the first one explained, so the other said, "Oh, Sunny!"

How did you decide to let the Alliance Children's Theatre adapt the show for the stage?

After "Class of 3000" had gone off the air after two seasons, the Alliance Children's Theatre was looking for a new show. They thought "Class of 3000" would be a good fit, since I'm from Atlanta and the show's set in Atlanta, so they reached out to Stuart Snyder, head of the Cartoon Network, and he contacted me, and I thought it was a great idea. What's funny is, you have these great stage actors jumping into the bodies of the characters.

I understand that you've seen the rehearsals of the show in progress. Did you have any "notes" for director and playwright Rosemary Newcott?

I just saw some of the numbers and some of the dialogue. It was pretty impressive. I just really let them know how much I enjoyed it. I asked, "Are we going to be able to film it? Or when you film a play, is it like blasphemy?" And Rosemary said that they will be recording it, but since it doesn't really recapture what it's like to watch the show, they'll encourage people to come out and see it.

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