Three Southern California singers once joked that they hoped to become "the Beatles of children's music." Today, they can repeat that goal with a straighter face: The Valley-based Parachute Express recently made a deal with Walt Disney Records.
In April, Parachute Express members Stephen Michael Schwartz, Donny Becker and Janice Hubbard began their first national concert tour. Sunday, they'll perform in Agoura Hills at Chumash Park; on June 22, they'll be at Anaheim's Celebrity Theatre.
In a recent gathering at Schwartz's airy, art-filled Glendale home, the group talked about its big new career boost.
Actually, talking is a tame word to describe what this irrepressible threesome does. They simultaneously break into song and act out lyrics, fill the room with easy laughter and comfortably finish each other's sentences.
"Disney is our Capitol Records," Schwartz said. "At the time the Beatles signed to Capitol Records, it was the key record company of the early '60s. For us, Disney is definitely that."
"We're literally waiting for the piece of paper you put your hand on," Althea Schwartz said. She's Stephen's wife and the group's manager, as well as its sounding board and frequent inspiration. "But the negotiations ended a month or two ago."
"It was a long, long process for everyone to get what they wanted," Stephen Schwartz said. Becker hunched over, pretending to be an old, old man. "Yep, we finally made it," he quavered, "the Beatles of children's music."
Disney's interest is not surprising. Parachute Express, for several years the "musical backbone" of the nationally franchised Gymboree play-movement program, provides an exceptional meld of sophisticated harmonies, exuberant lift and feel-good lyricism.
The group's high profile may open new doors, but some things won't change, they say.
"In writing our music," Stephen Schwartz said, "we've always looked at a broad age range" from about 16 months to 10 years old. "Janice often talks about how children can grow up with our music: A 2-year-old hears it differently than a 4- or a 6-year-old, who really start getting the concepts."
"The self-esteem songs, like 'Keep Your Sunny Side Up' and 'I Can Do That,' I get excited about," he said. " 'I may not be the strongest kid on my block, but I can make my daddy smile'--that's a pretty good thing. I'm really into those messages for kids."
The group tries out new material on Schwartz's 9-year-old son (by a previous marriage), and Becker's two, ages 7 and almost 11. A new critic is expected this summer--that's when Stephen and Althea Schwartz's first child is due.
Becker said: "We're really aware of the challenge of never losing--"
"--the simplicity and pure ideas--" Hubbard said.
"--of what a melody or idea needs to be," Becker said.
"That's the mistake a lot of people are making in children's music," he added. "You have to be able to walk out of the house and remember a melody, not because you saw it on a video or saw it in concert, but because it's--"
"--pure and simple," Hubbard finished.
A new album will be out in the fall and a bubbly music video of "Walkin' in My Neighborhood," one of the trio's many interactive songs, is running on the Disney Channel. Meanwhile, Disney has released three of the group's five previously recorded albums: "Feel the Music," "Circle of Friends" and "Sunny Side Up." The other two, "Over Easy" and "Shakin' It," will come out this fall or in the spring.
Despite repackaging, "they're almost exactly the same," Hubbard said, "except that we did eliminate the presence of Gymboree for the purpose of mass distribution."
"We had to change a couple of lyrics," Becker added.
Mark Jaffe, vice president of Walt Disney Records and the father of a 13-month-old daughter, calls himself an unabashed fan.
"The way they harmonize, the way they engage you works in the concerts and on the recordings," he said from his Disney office. "It's vibrant and unique."
Parachute Express is different from other children's singers because "their songs ask you to be part of them," Jaffe said.
"They sing with you; some performers sing to you. When you go to their concerts, there's an incredible three-way relationship between child, parent and performers. They have a gift for allowing you to enjoy your child, to allow your child to enjoy you and to let you experience something together."
Another difference is the theatricality of their performances. Schwartz, 38; Hubbard, 39, and Becker, 42, do much more than sing. Almost nonstop in their 65-minute show, they sing, dance and act and invite the audience to do the same.
They also do their own choreography. "Whenever we write new material," Schwartz said, "we come up against that moment where it's gotta be physicalized. It's like, wow, are we going to do this? We're really not dancers, but we just dive into the physicality of the song."
Asked how their knees hold up, they all laugh.
Hubbard said: "You should see us--"
"--in the dressing room," Becker said. "We're bundled up in Ace bandages."
"Back, knees and ankles," Hubbard said.
"It's kind of like stepping onto a very fast-moving train," Schwartz said. "There are moments when one of us will step out and the others will get a chance to breathe, but they're few and far between."
"The audience definitely gives that energy back," Becker said. "When we run out there and we first hit the stage, it's like you feel yourself elevated to new heights."
The three are unrelated, but the closeness that prompts them to speak as one is rooted in a unanimity of purpose.
"We've realized without it being spoken that we all have the same real vision," Becker said. "We realized soon after we started performing that something magical was happening.
"All of a sudden, it was so real we didn't question whether or not our music would be received well because we were having so much fun with it, not because we thought it was so great."
"We're finding our voice more and more," Hubbard said, "getting more confident in our ideas and stretching the limits that we feel have inhibited children's music. We're really trying to push closer to crossing over and blending in with adult music and have it truly be a family experience."
Parachute Express will perform at 6 p.m. Sunday at Chumash Park, 5550 Medea Valley Drive, Agoura Hills. Free. For information, call (818) 879-0544. Additional parking at Agoura High School, 28545 W. Driver Ave. Concert hot line, for information on upcoming shows: (818) 549-1496.