Q&A: Sean Altman

I chatted with performer Sean Altman about “Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego” and his new gig “Jewmongous.”

 

Q: Talk about your childhood, where you grew up, etc.

I grew up in the 1970s rough’n’tumble Bronx, NY, where life was cheap and a scrawny Jewish kid named Sean better watch his Ps and Qs lest he get socked in the kisser. Ok it was actually the leafy, suburban section of the Bronx called Riverdale (no, I don’t know Archie Andrews), which I affectionately call “the fake Bronx”. I was bar mitzvah’d in the only synagogue in Riverdale that would take me on a mere year before the actual bar mitzvah (typically it takes years of Hebrew school but to hell with that). Thus I had the equivalent of Popeil’s Bar Mitzvah-matic, a 365-day crash course in how to memorize and confidently regurgitate the ancient language of my ancestors in front of friends and family while wearing a cheap suit. Apparently I was pretty damned good.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a singer/performer?

My parents were musical but I’m the family’s first professional entertainer (everyone else has better health insurance). I recall singing in the back row of my first grade chorus in the Bronx and thinking “Hmm, there sure are a lot of kids here singing off key. What do I know that they don’t know?” I’ve also always been a joke-teller class clown-type (it helped me not get the crap kicked out of me when I was growing up). My “a-ha” moment was at age 16 when I was working a summer job as a busboy and spot-light operator at a Catskills resort hotel. That summer I was exposed to a barbershop quartet and fell in love with vocal harmony, and I also saw my first stand-up comedy shows and fell in love with schtick. From age 18 I’ve done nothing but sing in many groups: folk, jazz, acapella, New Wave, funk, rock, and more recently comedy.

Q: Who inspires you?

Musically my influences are The Beatles, the Ramones, Simon & Garfunkel, Louis Prima, The Persuasions, Elton John, The Platters, The Mills Brothers, The OJays, The Chi-Lites, Harry Belafonte and some barbershop quartets whose names I can’t recall. Now I have a nine-year-old daughter so I’m immersed in Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, that sassy “All About That Bass” lady, and Hamilton: The Musical (his house is in my Harlem neighborhood). Lyrically, I try to channel my inner Lenny Bruce via John Lennon, but sometimes it comes out as my inner Al Goldstein via Rick Astley.

Q: What are some pros and cons about life on the road?

I absolutely love to perform and create. Unfortunately, the dirty little secret of showbiz is that you spend 99.9% of your career NOT performing or creating. It’s all hustling, pitching, promoting, driving in the rain and being ordered around by cranky Google Maps lady, shlepping heavy speakers, packing the van, eating shitty food at rest stops, peeing in rancid bathrooms, and figuring out how you’re gonna pay for that hip operation. And those are the pros!

Q: How did you come up with Jewmongous?

In my late 20s, while enjoying a successful career in Rockapella as the undisputed “Father Of Modern Acapella” (ok, maybe I gave myself that moniker), I started to feel the tugs of my ancestry: I longed to feel more connected with my people, but in a way that didn’t involve praying to a God I never believed in or strapping a box to my head (yes, that’s a thing!). It’s not that I wasn’t observant; I’ve always been observant in that I like to observe *other* Jews practicing the religion. Serendipitously, I was contacted by a fan — a prominent rabbi— who gave me a song-writing assignment which he claimed would make me feel more connected to my forebears: he asked me to pen a song which tells the story of “Pesach”, which is apparently just a fancy, more phlegm-producing word for “Passover.” I composed the song “They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” and I was off and running on my way to becoming a bona fide Jewish novelty song musician. I realized that the only things I knew how to do were sing, write songs, crack wise and awkwardly strum a guitar. Presto: my newfound way of communing with my Jewish heritage is penning and performing Jewish-themed novelty songs under the nom de guerre Sean Altman’s JEWMONGOUS. I invite the audience to join me on my Quixotic quest to re-connect with my Hebraic roots. I’ve honed my craft in the years since; now I have songs that tackle the sensitive topics of mixed marriage (“Just Too Jew For You”), the ancient papal roots of anti-semitism (“Blame The Jews”), circumcision (“My Phantom Foreskin”), Jesus Christ’s bar mitzvah, the insidious blood libel (“Christian Baby Blood”) and the even more preposterous “Protocols Of Zion”. I like to confront the outrageous stereotypes head on — like a middle-aged matador — and puncture them with tuneful humor and meticulous attention to rhyme scheme. No one gets hurt.

Q: What is your song “Trump Stump” about?

Don’t get me started. Damnit, you got me started. I’m convinced that his royal orangeness has spent his crass, shameful life compensating for something, and I’m pretty sure it’s that he sports a micro-penis. Hey, you asked. Please enjoy the surf-rock video on YouTube!

Q: I’m honestly geeking out a little here. You wrote the theme song to “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego.” How did that come about?

I co-founded Rockapella and led the group from a Manhattan street corner to mid-level TV fame as the house vocal group on the daily PBS series “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?”. When we got cast they asked us to write music for the show, and I co-wrote the ubiquitous theme song (ch-ching!) with my high school pal David Yazbek, who is now a successful Broadway composer.

Q: What has been the reaction to the Jewmongous tour so far?

People of many stripes love it, but the audience is quite self-selecting; the name JEWMONGOUS is a pretty good indicator that the concert is irreverent, possibly even profane. The only time I get a less than stellar reaction is when I’m asked to do a JEWMONGOUS song at someone else’s variety show for an audience that isn’t expecting me. Out of context the lyrics can be jarring, but in the context of my concert the audience gets to know me, like me, swoon over my lovely melodies and forgive my potty mouth.

Q: Are you excited about your Christmas night show here in Annapolis?

Yes, I love Ram’s Head and Annapolis, and I haven’t performed JEWMONGOUS there in several years. My guests will be the brilliant percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Hunter (who also produced the new JEWMONGOUS album “The Least Jewy Jew In Jewville”), and the hilarious singer-songwriter Cynthia Kaplan. May I suggest that there’s no better way for Jews and Jew-friendly types to spend Christmas Night than with me! Prudish Parental Advisory: JEWMONGOUS welcomes all creeds, faiths, and even the faithless, but it is not appropriate for pre-teens unless you’re training them to be sailors.

Sean headlines Rams Head Annapolis Christmas night!

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