Dan Zanes on why sensory-friendly shows are ‘the future of family entertainment’

Dan Zanes
Washington Post

When Dan Zanes won the Grammy for best musical album for children in 2007, it ratified the success of his second musical career. After fronting the new-wave band Del Fuegos in the 1980s, he reinvented himself as a children’s music artist and has become a major figure in the genre, with 16 albums and tours across North America, Australia, Spain and England. So when the Kennedy Center was looking to commission a musical for all ages, Zanes was a natural choice.

“Night Train 57,” starring Zanes and his fiancee, Claudia Eliaza, has been promoted as a “sensory-friendly folk opera” in advance of its world premiere this weekend at the Kennedy Center. “Sensory-friendly” is the new buzz phrase in family entertainment, describing performances that are welcoming to audience members who are struggling with autism, verbal expression, overstimulation or short attention spans.

Zanes did his first sensory-friendly show two years ago in Pennsylvania. “My show was exactly the same, but the venue had changed things out of consideration for different audiences,” he says. “The sound was kept at a more moderate level. The lights were kept up in the house more, because more people were getting up and moving around. Language was posted in the venue that all behavior was welcome, that all reactions were acceptable. Within five minutes, I realized this was the future of family entertainment.”

He did some research and discovered that the Kennedy Center was leading the way. The venue’s 2013 guidebook “Sensory-Friendly Programming for People With Social & Cognitive Disabilities” had become “the bible for this movement,” Zanes says. He and Eliaza were in Washington in December to work on an album, so they asked to come to the Kennedy Center to talk about the movement.

“It was such an incredible moment when we met with them,” Eliaza recalls. “After a long conversation about sensory-friendly performances, they said, ‘How would you like to create such a show?’ . . . We came up with this idea for ‘Night Train 57,’ a musical about a train that can fly through the galaxies. We would be the conductors that helped the audience get to where they wanted to go. Kids find trains fascinating, and it seemed a cool way to talk about leaving the super-familiar to go someplace unfamiliar.”

The railroad has long been part of Zanes’s music. He won the Grammy for his album “Catch That Train!,” and his new album, “Lead Belly, Baby!” boasts the immortal train song “Rock Island Line.” That tune was made famous by the folk and blues musician Lead Belly and was a hit for Johnny Cash and Lonnie Donegan, who kicked off the skiffle craze that inspired the Beatles. Zanes encountered the song as a 7-year-old in 1968, when he found Lead Belly staring out from an album cover at the local library.
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