While Tony-nominated actor John Tartaglia rocketed to fame for his roles in the adult-themed puppet show Avenue Q, he has recently returned to his children's-television roots with a role starring as Lumière in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast and with a new Disney Channel show Johnny and the Sprites (premiering full episodes Saturday, Jan. 13, at 10 am/ET). It's all a pretty natural fit for someone who started work on Sesame Street when he was a teenager. In honor of Johnny's return, TVGuide.com spoke with Tartaglia, and for this interviewer it was quite a delight.
TVGuide.com: I just want you to know that I had to fight for this interview with Raven, the other mom and theater addict in the office.
[Laughs] I'm glad you won, though I don't know what kind of lengths you had to go to.
TVGuide.com: What was your inspiration for Johnny and the Sprites?
It started when I was really young, about 16. I used to accompany my father, a musical director, to his rehearsals, and one day I was sitting there sketching to keep myself busy. One day I had the idea for these sprite characters. I didn't know who they were, or what they were or what their world was like yet, or anything like that. I just had this visual image of these woodland sprite creatures, and then I kind of forgot about them. When Avenue Q first opened on Broadway, Rich Ross, who is president of Disney Channel, came and saw me in the show and asked to meet with me. He said, "I want you to create a show for me."
TVGuide.com: We should warn the parents out there that Johnny is very different from Avenue Q.
Very different! Very, very different. A little more kid-friendly. Nothing too uncomfortable. [Laughs] I was honored to be asked to create a show, so I went and did some thinking and went through my old stuff. I found a notepad, and it reinvigorated these characters for me. It was wonderful to, 10 years later, stumble on it again.
TVGuide.com: The colors are so vibrant. I want to take the sprites home and cuddle them. They are really cute.
[To the Disney Channel publicist in the background] Dana, did you hear that?
Dana Green: Yes, I did. I want one, too.
TVGuide.com: The five-minute shorts that aired on the Disney Channel earlier last year were very popular.
Yeah, you think, "It's five minutes a day, who is going to see it?" but apparently the reaction was great. I get stopped a lot on the street from parents saying, "My kid loves Johnny and the Sprites." I'm always like, "Really? They know who it is?" It is a neat feeling that even the shorts have gotten the characters out there and gotten the message across.
TVGuide.com: You've got a ton of amazing Broadway songwriters doing music. How did that come about? Did you call in some favors?
We've got the best of the best doing it. I've been so blessed to work on Broadway with these wonderful composers. I went out to dinner with Stephen Schwartz as friends, and he asked me about the show and what it was and said, "I'd love to write your theme song." I'm like, "Oh, OK." I grew up listening to [Schwartz'] Pippin! So all of a sudden to have the composer of Wicked writing your theme song — and a great theme song at that — has been an honor. Our musical director, Gary Adler, has been fantastic, and he wrote a lot of the songs, too. We're lucky to have composers who do all different styles of music. Kids are going to hear country, and rhythm and blues, and jazz, and rock, and everything you can imagine.
TVGuide.com: Between this and Beauty and the Beast, you are going to get mobbed by kids. The Wiggles have got nothing on you.
There you go. [Laughs] I'd be honored!
TVGuide.com: In addition to playing yourself on Sprites, you are also performing as an older, wiser puppet.
Yes, Sage. Johnny is kind of the best friend. He knows a lot about the human world, but he doesn't know anything about the sprite world. We realized we needed someone who was the common ground for them and could answer their questions. I think the reason he's so much fun is that even though he's wise and intelligent, he's kind of doddering, too. He can be very silly.
TVGuide.com: I watched the video-game episode and thought that was very timely.
It is a big problem. There is basically a team of five, including myself, who create the show, who sit and decide which issues children's television isn't addressing or what lessons these characters could come across. With the video game one, I think of how many kids don't go outside. We have a huge obesity problem in this country, and these kids are just surviving off personal appliances. That's fine, there is a place for it, but we reversed roles by having Johnny be the one with the problem. And if you think of the Sprites as kids, they figure it out before he does. Since they are not from his world, they don't get why he's addicted to it, and they don't even know what a video game is. They are like, what's the fun in that? It was a great opportunity to take the opposite role. It wasn't the parent telling the kid how bad it was, it was the other way around.
TVGuide.com: How are you managing to juggle this show and your Beauty and the Beast gig?
[Laughs] It is pretty exhausting. But I am pretty lucky, and I sometimes forget how lucky I am. I get to come here and edit my TV show during the day, and then perform on Broadway at night. As exhausting as it can be, I have to step back and remind myself, "Who gets to say that?" So I can't really complain.
TVGuide.com: I heard you perform at a "grown-up" benefit a few years back, where you sang one of my favorite songs, "Taylor the Latte Boy." Any plans to put out your own CD?
We're talking about it. What I'm hoping is that this show brings a crossover opportunity for me, and I can release something that families can enjoy and adults can enjoy. I'm kind of a rarity in that I'm coming to a children's network having already established myself as an adult, so it is this neat combination of my two skills. It is nice when the parents are as excited about the music as the kids are. I hope that eventually that's something on the horizon.
TVGuide.com: Well, even on Johnny and the Sprites, the music seems to be as enjoyable for parents as it is for kids.
Thank you. That was the goal, that adults and parents can watch the show with their kids and get something out of it.
TVGuide.com: There isn't a lot of repetition or explanation of every single word, which is nice. It doesn't talk down to kids.
I don't believe in talking down to kids and shortchanging them. I think kids are a lot smarter than we are. I learn a lot from kids. I think when you tell them good stories and you give them something to believe in, and you don't lessen their intelligence but challenge it, they tend to appreciate that.
TVGuide.com: Having worked on Sesame Street for a long time, do you have a favorite character? I know you got to do Ernie for a while.
That actually was my favorite. I was really honored to do Ernie for one season of Play with Me Sesame. Jim Henson was my hero, and the reason I am here now. So to actually have his character and to work with it and that voice and to make that relationship happen with Bert, I was just really honored. You feel like you are a part of history. I was at Sesame Street for 11 years. It is like extended college.
TVGuide.com: You started there when you were really young.
I was 16. I didn't go to college; I moved to New York City when I was 18. I spent those years when you are growing and learning who you are at Sesame Street. They really kind of raised me. It is neat to look back and realize that the time I had there was immeasurable.
TVGuide.com: Any particularly fun Sprites episodes to look forward to?
There is a really amazing holiday episode that I'm proud of. Everyone keeps saying that it is like the old Christmas specials that you grew up with as a kid. And we have a really fun show called "The Fuzzies' Day Off." The Fuzzies are these little fuzzballs that live in the dirt, and they take a day off and we have a huge beach party in my backyard. It is very "Frankie and Annette." We have an episode with Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie), who won a Tony. She plays my sister, and the Sprites have never heard of sisters and brothers, so the whole episode is about what a family is. We have a really funny show called "Laugh, Sprites, Laugh." There is this kind of flower that grows, [called] Laughing Lilacs, and once you hear them laugh you start laughing uncontrollably, and it is contagious. So basically you get to watch me and the Sprites look like idiots for an entire half hour.
TVGuide.com: Is it strange for you to interact with the puppets and not be the one working the puppet?
It is funny because we'd give the humans and celebrities a hard time when they came on [Sesame Street], when they were talking to the puppet and they'd look at the puppeteer and at the monitor that the puppeteers watch to perform. My first two days of shooting were really weird. I kept looking at Leslie [Carrara-Rudolph], who performs Ginger, and I'm like, "What am I doing? I know better than that!" It is challenging at first, but the puppeteers we have on the show are the best of the best, and they always make me believe that they are real. It doesn't take much to believe for a little while that you are talking to these real creatures.
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