Interview with Muppet Performer John Tartaglia, Part 2
Conducted by Ryan Dosier
Be sure to read Part 1 of our interview.
RYAN: The Carnegie Hall show was, of course, not your first foray into the world of musical theater. You made a big splash by playing the lead of Princeton in the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q. As I’ve told you before, I adore the show and the music. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the show and won the lead?
JOHN: Thanks Ryan! Well, it was such a once in a lifetime kind of showbiz story. I was working at Sesame Street with all of us who ended up being in the show and Rick Lyon called and mentioned they were going to be doing this reading of a new show–which at the time was going to be a TV series for something like Comedy Central–and they wanted a young leading guy kind of Musical theater type (I was young at the time, a-hem). They wanted to do a live presentation and see how people reacted. At the time, there was no through-line to the show, it was only like six songs (including some that were written by other composers) and a couple of scenes. The two moments that actually have ended up being fairly close to what they started out as are “If You Were Gay” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Anyway, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Rick, Lara MacLean (the original Mrs. T–Jen Barnhart joined us later), and I did this live presentation of the show and it went over like gangbusters. And the idea quickly went from being a television series to being a live theater piece and from then on we did lots of readings and work sessions on it and it continued to evolve.
The funny thing is, none of us (at least not the performers!) ever had any idea or desire that it would go to Broadway! We were jubilant when we got the word we would be off-Broadway. It just shocked us how much people loved it as much as we did. As far as my participation in it, I said yes to that first presentation (which is something I always tell people–say yes!!!) and then kept waiting to be replaced at each new incarnation by a big Broadway star! I really was expecting to get the call “Hey John, thanks for all the work but Neil Patrick Harris will be playing your part, buh-bye!” So, it was thrilling to ride the show all the way and it says a lot about the producers and the creative team that they kept us all involved. When you think about it, we had no stars, five of us had never been on Broadway before, etc. It was a big risk, but I guess it paid off!
RYAN: What do you think of the lasting success and popularity of the musical?
JOHN: It’s honesty and observations about life. There’s a timelessness to the show in its characters and stories. I’ve recently taken over maintaining the show off Broadway and we’re about to celebrate its 10 year anniversary. It’s very sentimental for those of involved since the beginning. I still get chills when I’m at the show taking notes and watching this new set of fresh talented faces keeping it alive. But yeah, I think the story of finding ones reason for being is the kind of story that will always be relatable.
RYAN: How do you think that puppetry and theater intermingle and influence each other? Do you think that they mix well together?
JOHN: Oh yeah. I think puppetry is incredibly theatrical in so many ways and it’s a truly limitless art form in a theatrical setting. I think directors love using puppetry in theater because it allows them to visualize things in a way that nothing else does.
RYAN: You returned to the stage this summer for Disney’s Aladdin stage musical in St. Louis, Missouri. This is where we met, as you know. Can you tell us a little bit about this show and playing the coveted role of the Genie?
JOHN: It was a dream come true! For so many reasons. I had always heard about the fabled MUNY and how much people loved seeing shows there but also working there and now I can see why. It’s just this huge, gorgeous theater (it’s over 10,000 seats!) and the productions they do there are mind blowing. In our show alone we had three live camels, a motorcycle, an electric car, a flying carpet. I mean, come on! As far as playing the Genie, wow. It was incredible. What’s funny is I had been in talks to play the Genie in another production and it just didn’t work out timing-wise which killed me. I really wanted to play it. But, I thought “Well, it’s not to be” and let it go and not even two weeks later I was asked to play him at the MUNY and I said yes without a second thought. I think I might have literally screamed yes loudly into the phone!
But, to have the opportunity to stand on a huge stage in front of over 10,000 people laughing, cheering, etc., is just unforgettable. I never thought I’d have that chance. I can see why rock stars love it! I mean that’s a LOT of folks! And the Genie kind of felt like I was getting a chance to be an overly caffeinated version of myself! Aladdin is one of my favorite movies and scores. So much so that it was harder un-learning the movie music and lyrics I knew so deeply from my childhood to learn the newer musical versions of some of the songs. Singing “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me”… man. As I told you last summer, it’s one of the highlights of my life that I still get chills thinking about.
RYAN: One of your biggest successes came with your own children’s television show on Disney Channel, Johnny and the Sprites. Where did the idea for this show come from? What was your favorite part of being on it?
JOHN: Well, funny enough, I had the idea for it when I was 16! Well, a version of it. At the time, I had this idea for a puppets-only show that took place deep in a magical forest with these Sprites that had their own magical world and had never heard of humans before. I even wrote down the names Basil and Ginger and some illustrations. Then I put it away and never thought about it again. Fast forward 10 or so years and I had just been nominated for a Tony for Avenue Q. Rich Ross, who was president of the Disney Channel at the time, had seen me in the show and asked to meet and he basically offered me the opportunity to have my own show on the channel. After picking my jaw off the floor I kind of stuttered out without thinking about this sprites show and he seemed to like that and offered to set up a meeting with his VP and head of development. Well, I went home and found that old notepad that I had written that idea down on long ago, and myself and four wonderful co-creators came up with the show that ended up airing. The funny thing is I never thought of myself being onscreen. It was one of my co-creators, Jill, who suggested it. In fact, I completely disagreed with it! I guess it’s a very good thing she pushed me to be a part of it, and there ya go! It was a glorious few years of my life. I really miss it.
RYAN: Most Muppet fans are labeled “different” or “weird” in the eyes of “normal” people. Did loving the Muppets when you were young help you if you ever felt “different”?
JOHN: It’s what literally got me through my childhood and adolescence. Literally. My parents divorce was hard as it is for any kid, and that’s right around the time I found Fraggle Rock, which became my escape. The world I lived in for awhile. Then the Muppets and of course, Sesame Street. And from my initial love of the shows, came my interest and geekiness over puppetry itself and all of these amazingly talented people who were like me! I wanted to be one of them! But, I suppose most importantly, puppetry was an outlet for creativity for me and let me express myself. I mean, I never directly used puppets as therapy or anything like that, but I was able to play characters and create and use my imagination and that’s what I love most about it. Muppet fans are weird and we’re awesome darn it!!!! Normal people are boring!
RYAN: What advice do you have for young Muppet fans who dream of performing or working with the Muppets some day?
JOHN: Hmmm… it’s funny because it’s all changed so much even since I was a kid. You have to remember that everything’s different now- the characters are owned by three different companies, there’s many less television series with puppetry than there used to be, etc. We used to have these big auditions and workshops because we needed so many puppeteers and those haven’t happened in awhile. I have a lot of younger fans who want to know exactly how to become a Muppeteer and here’s the truth- there’s no right or wrong way. If you line up all of us, we all entered into it in different ways, in different times of our lives, and for different reasons. I will tell you this- get as MUCH experience in every aspect of performance you can. I get a lot of younger folks who are fantastic manipulators but dont have confidence as performers when it comes to voices, etc The only way you can get better at that is to “do”. Take improv classes, take dance, take sculpture, take mime, take voice lessons, take accent lessons etc. There’s so much theatre based puppetry work so try to focus there. The more skills you have, the more you stand out and become a unique “voice” or talent that is needed. I think there will always be a need for a new generation of Muppeteers, but just make sure you have as many tricks up your sleeve as you can. And practice, practice practice!
RYAN: What’s next in the slate of work for John Tartaglia? Anything exciting coming up that you can share with us?
JOHN: Well, we’re moving along with The Jim Henson Company on developing ImaginOcean for television using the HDPS system and it’s incredibly exciting. The HDPS is allowing us to do so many things we could have only dreamt of before. I’m also developing two shows for Broadway that I’m attached to as director and creating some new live shows for Carnival Cruise Lines. And I’m going to be heading back to the MUNY this summer, this time directing Shrek the Musical which I’m really really excited about. They’ll be lots of puppets in this production! And, I’m continuing work on Sesame Street which I just love. It’s home to me.
RYAN: John, thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
JOHN: Thank YOU Ryan for providing such an awesome place for us “weirdo” Muppet fans!!!!
All of my thanks go out to my friend John Tartaglia! You’re the best, John. Can’t thank you enough… for everything!!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org