BWW Interview - John Tartaglia Gushes Over Netflix Co-Star Julie Andrews, Talks Broadway Return Hopes & More!
Puppeteer and Broadway alum John Tartaglia (AVENUE Q, SHREK THE MUSICAL) lends his voice and talents to the role of 'Hank' the resident musician of the new Netflix series JULIE'S GREENROOM. Starring legendary actress Julie Andrews, the series is an all-new arts educational show for young children, brought to life by the ingenious minds at Jim Henson Studios.
Hank is described as "an avid baseball fan and talented virtuoso, proving boys can love sports and theater. He doesn't let anything hold him back, including his wheelchair, and he fills the Greenroom with his big personality and favorite melodies."
Today, Tartaglia speaks with BWW about this important new series that teaches kids, "the arts don't discriminate."
Theater fans are so excited with your new Netflix series JULIE'S GREENROOM.
Yes it's been amazing to see their reaction. People just love it.
So I have to begin with the obvious question. What is it like to work with theater royalty, Julie Andrews?
Um...it's amazing to say the least! She is just as warm and gracious and giving as you would hope she would be, and probably the hardest worker you could imagine. That's what I am most in admiration of. She wants everything to be as good as it can be, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to get it there. And she's passionate, she's very passionate about the show, and about arts education for kids. But on top of all of that, she's so much fun. We constantly kid around with her as our characters, as ourselves, and she is always game for that. I was also impressed by how much she is in appreciation of what we do as puppeteers, and at how much she appreciated all of the different guest stars, and their talents. She's really a great appreciator of talent and of art.
How did you first become involved with this project?
Well I have been working with The Jim Henson Company for a very long time, and I was out here in Los Angeles on the Henson lot working on my TV series on PBS, SPLASH AND BUBBLES, and I heard that Julie Andrews was going to be on the lot. You know, we're so lucky to have a lot of amazing celebrities on the lot all the time, but to me, she's one of my heroes. So I was like, 'What is Julie Andrews doing here? What is happening right now?!' And one of our producers informed me that they were working on a new TV series with her. So I knew from that moment, I was like, 'Oh my God, I would do anything to be a part of this project!' So I had to audition, I had to be part of that whole process, but I wasn't shy about the fact that I was really interested in working on this project with Julie Andrews. I put the word out there to the universe!
And it sure paid off.
Yes it did!
That is true, yeah. So for about 22 years now, it's been part of my life. And it's kind of
full circle in a way, to have started so young as a puppeteer and a performer, and of course, The Jim Henson Company is and was such a huge part of my life, as was the arts, and now to be doing a show about that for the next generation. I wish I had a series like this to inspire me when I was a kid.
Can you talk a little bit about the concept of the show?
Well basically, Julie Andrews plays a character named Miss Julie, she doesn't play herself, she plays a woman named Julie who runs a small theater. And as part of the theater they have an after school arts class for kids to learn all about theater. There are five different kid characters, I play one of them named Hank, who get dropped off after school by their parents and they take these amazing master classes led by Julie and her assistant Gus, and all these amazing guest stars, including Alec Baldwin, Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Chris Colfer, Carol Burnett, Idina Menzel, I mean, you name it. And each episode in the first season focuses on a different skill, or a different art. So we've covered singing, songwriting, writing the script to a show, props, costumes, circus, just about everything.
And what's really unique about the series, and what I really enjoy as an actor, is that it's linear, so each episode leads to the next, and it all culminates in the end with a big show that the kids put on. And I think that is really awesome for kids because they can begin to see the process of what goes into putting on a show, and that you can't rehearse a scene without a script, and then you need to write songs, and so on, and I just love that. Julie Andrews, and her daughter Emma, the creators of the show, were really passionate about really showing what that process is.
What do you see as the overall message of the show?
I think the overall message is that the arts are for everyone. One of the lines that a lot of the reviews have picked up is when Julie says 'The arts don't discriminate.' And I think that is very true. No matter what your interest is, there's something for everyone in the arts. So for example, we have a character on the show named Riley and she thinks her parents signed her up for a Robotics class, because she's really into robots and mechanisms and how things work. So by her first instinct, she's not really into the arts. But then she learns that, 'Oh I can put those skills towards creating special effects and lighting.' So I think that's the message, that everyone can find something to relate to in the arts, no matter what it is. Maybe you like classical music, maybe you like stagecraft, maybe you like writing, maybe you like singing, and I think that's such a great lesson - you don't have to be a performer to appreciate the arts.
Were you involved in the creation of your character, Hank?
I wasn't unfortunately, but I was really happy to see that there was a character who was represented in a wheelchair. I thought that was something important to be seen. And what I love is that when Julie and Emma and Lisa Henson, who is the executive producer, talked about that character, they didn't want to shy away from the fact that he is in a wheelchair. In fact in one of the first episodes, one of the younger characters asks Hank 'Why are you in that chair?', and he responds, 'Oh, I was born this way, but it's okay.' You know he is such a great example of, 'I figured out how to find happiness the way I am and to do things the way I learn how to do them', and I love that spirit in him. So I try to take that and put it into his character - that idea that he's always really positive and he's always looking at the positive side of things. And that's the feedback
we get from a lot of parents whose kids are in wheelchairs, they're so happy that there's a character who is in a wheelchair, not just to represent these kids, but also to show that he doesn't look at it as something that holds him back from anything. He just looks at it as an opportunity to do something differently.
From a technical standpoint, how difficult is it to manipulate both the puppet and the wheelchair at the same time?
Well it is definitely a challenge because I don't think we've ever done anything like this before. What's amazing is The Jim Henson Creature Shop, which builds all the puppets, built this beautiful contraption where I am basically sitting on a wheeled platform and the chair is rigged above me, and that's what you see on the screen. And then it takes sometimes one or two other people to help me. So I'll do Hank, the puppet, and his voice, and then there's another puppeteer named Kenny and sometimes another named Johnny K, who do the wheels, do the hands, and actually propel me around the set. So it's really a wonderful collaboration, sometimes with three people, to bring this character to life. And hopefully if we do it right, it looks very effortless on the screen.
It's wonderful that you're still being challenged in new ways at this point in your career.
It is. And one of the things I like about performing Hank is that he is just one of the kids. There's one episode, the ballet episode, where he's worried he can't do ballet. We have Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck come and teach the kids a master class in ballet, and of course Hank is watching and seeing them do all these amazing dance moves, all these different kicks and turns, and he worries about how he is going to participate. And then he and Spike, another character on the show, come up with a way for him to dance in his wheelchair. And he watches a video about this wonderful group of people with different disabilities that dance.
So he learns that you don't have to dance like someone else is dancing, you can find your own way to dance. And I am just so inspired by that because it reminds you that there are different ways to do things. And even if you're not a kid in a wheelchair, it's a great lesson for anyone to learn, that there's not just one way to do something. So yes, this was a unique discovery to make at this point in my career and it's wonderful to try something brand new as a puppeteer.
Was there one person or show that initially inspired you to go into puppeteering?
The show that kind of changed my life, and I love it still to this day, is "Fraggle Rock". I was kind of on the cusp, I think I was seven or eight years old, when it was on the air so I was old enough to know that they weren't necessarily real characters, but I was fascinated at that age because all of a sudden it occurred to me, 'Oh my gosh, there's people who are making this happen.' And I suddenly got really interested because I grew up in a performing family, my mother's an actress, my father's a musical director and a pianist, so I grew up backstage and grew up going to theater. I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't seeing shows. And so I was always fascinated by performing. So to realize that in that show, there were people doing those voices and making those puppets move and figuring out how to do all that, it kind of changed my life, because it made me appreciate that there are other kinds of performing arts besides singing and dancing. And then I was able to find ways to take the singing and dancing and funny stuff I liked to do as a kid and put that into puppetry. Of course I then became crazy-obsessed with the Muppets, and Jim Henson and Sesame Street and anything puppetry-related, and I knew it was something I really wanted to do.
You are so busy these days, but may we hope to see you back on Broadway at some point?
Oh absolutely! I've done three Broadway shows already and I feel so spoiled in that way, because I've gotten to achieve two major dreams in my life; to work with THE MUPPETS as a puppeteer, and also to be on Broadway. And I know that SHREK, which is the most recent show that I did, is not the last. You know it is such a great privilege and I hope that people who work on Broadway nowadays look at it that way. I remember standing on stage the night we closed SHREK on Broadway and just thinking, 'This is such an honor to follow the amazing talents that have appeared on this stage over the years.'
So the short answer to your question is yes, I'm always open to it, I would love to be, and it's about finding the right thing at the right time. And I still have an apartment in New York City so it's there to inhabit if I need to - let me just put that out there so everyone really knows I am available!
Season One of the original kids' series JULIE'S GREENROOM is now available on Netflix. Watch the official trailer below:
About John Tartaglia: Tartaglia is perhaps best known for lending his voice and musical talents to THE VOICE of Princeton and Rod in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical AVENUE Q. He most recently appeared on Broadway as 'Pinocchio' in the 2008 stage adaptation of SHREK THE MUSICAL. Other Broadway credits include the role of 'Lumiere' in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
Tartaglia began his career in puppetry at the age of 16, taking on severan minor characters on Sesame Street. Recently, he created and wrote John Tartaglia's ImaginOcean which ran for two years at Off-Broadway's New World Stages. The show was nominated for the 2010 Drama Desk Award, Unique Theatrical Experience.
Headshot, AVENUE Q: Walter McBride / WM Photos
JULIE'S GREENROOM photos: Ali Goldstein/Netflix