'The Muppet Movie' turns 40: The surprising stories behind 'Rainbow Connection' and the other classic songs

Gwynne Watkins
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

When Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher were hired by Jim Henson to write the songs for The Muppet Movie, they started with Kermit's opening number. That song, "The Rainbow Connection," would become a signature ballad for the Muppets, and over the years has been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Gwen Stefani. But before the song could become a classic, it had to have a title.

In honor of The Muppet Movie's 40th birthday (it opened in the U.S. on June 22, 1979) and its return to theaters this summer, Williams sat down with Yahoo Entertainment and explained how the phrase "the rainbow connection" was born. Watch that video above, then scroll down to watch the extended cut, in which Williams for the first time tells the stories behind every single song from The Muppet Movie.

Kermit sings "The Rainbow Connection" in 'The Muppet Movie' (1979) (Henson Associates courtesy of Everett Collection)
Kermit sings "The Rainbow Connection" in The Muppet Movie, 1979. (Photo: Henson Associates courtesy of Everett Collection)

"Oddly enough, everything came except that title until the very end," Williams, now serving as the president of ASCAP, said of “The Rainbow Connection.”

When he and Ascher started working on Kermit's big number, they had "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Disney's Pinocchio in mind. "We wanted to do something for Kermit that had that kind of impactful moment," said Williams, "where you you saw into the depth of his soul, where you realized that he had an inner life, and that he thought about spiritual and weighty things. You know, a deep-thinking frog."

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 11:  Singer Paul Williams attends the 2017 Pre-GRAMMY Gala And Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Debra Lee at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
Paul Williams attends the 2017 Pre-Grammy Gala and Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Debra Lee at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

During a meeting with Muppets creator and Kermit performer Jim Henson, puppeteer Frank Oz and Muppet Movie producer David Lazer, Williams learned that the film opened with pre-fame Kermit sitting at home in his swamp, strumming a banjo. So the songwriters started brainstorming things that Kermit could see in a swamp that would inspire a song.

"There's water. There's air. There's refracted light. There's… rainbows!" said Williams. "Oddly enough, we actually wrote ourselves into a terrible corner, when you think about it. Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what's on the other side?”

Williams and Ascher actually finished the whole song, including the lines "Someday we'll find it… the lovers, the dreamers, and me" without the title. They were searching for a way to tie the rainbow theme back to the chorus, or as Williams explained to his then-wife over dinner: "We're looking for a rainbow connection.” Her response: "Why don't you call it 'The Rainbow Connection?' You've said it like five times in a row!"

The finale of 'The Muppet Movie' includes a reprise of "The Rainbow Connection"(Henson Associates courtesy of Everett Collection)
The finale of The Muppet Movie includes a reprise of "The Rainbow Connection." (Photo: Henson Associates courtesy of Everett Collection)

The eight-song Muppet Movie soundtrack charted on the Billboard Top 100 and won a Grammy in 1980. "The Rainbow Connection" was a breakout hit, nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

How to explain its longevity? Williams told Yahoo that "there are magical elements to that song that I don't feel we had anything to do with putting in there." Or maybe it was simply "the right place at the right time, and the right frog singing."

Here, some trivia behind the Muppet Movies’ other songs. Watch our extended conversation with Williams below for even more insight.

"Movin' Right Along" — Kermit and Fozzie's classic road song contains one of Williams's proudest rhyming couplets: "Hey L.A., where have you gone? Send someone to fetch us, we're in Saskatchewan."

"I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" — Gonzo is Williams' favorite Muppet, and his ballad is close to Williams' heart. As a skydiver himself, Williams thinks of both himself and Gonzo as "landlocked birds," and he loved the idea of Gonzo going back to the sky. Jim Henson added Gonzo's balloon-flight scene to the script to support the song, and in his will, Henson included it among the songs to be played at his funeral.

"Never Before and Never Again" — Piggy's dramatic love song was written for Frank Sinatra and recorded by Johnny Mathis, but ultimately given to the pig herself. "I thought she sang it beautifully," said Williams.

"Can You Picture That?" — One of the Muppets' rare forays into what Williams calls "deep, hardcore rock and roll," the song performed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem also reflects one of Williams' personal beliefs: "When we dwell on something, we help to create it."

Watch the full interview with Paul Williams:

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle's newsletter.