John Tartaglia is well known for his leading roles on Broadway, first in Avenue Q and now in Beauty and the Beast. He's loved puppets since he was 7 years old, and he began his professional career working under Muppets creator Jim Henson at age 16. He now stars in Johnny and the Sprites, a live-action, music-filled series for preschoolers which premiered in January 2007 on Playhouse Disney. Here, he takes Parent & Child behind the scenes of his new show.
Parent & Child: Where did the idea for Johnny and the Sprites come from? Why sprites, as opposed to another magical creature?
John Tartaglia: When I was 16 I had an idea for this magical place with these woodland creatures...at the time I didn't know they were sprites, I just knew they were fairy-like and pure magic. Then, one day, I thought, "well, sprites are magical, fairy-like creatures, so they're sprites!" and that's kind of how it happened.
P&C: What do you like about the idea of a magic portal? If you found one today, where would you want it to lead you?
Tartaglia: I like that it could be anywhere in the world, and take you anyplace in the world. Or even out of the world! Wouldn't it be cool if you found some secret portal in your backyard, and it would take you someplace you've never been before?! If I found a portal, I'd want to go to Grotto's Grove, where the sprites live, of course!
P&C: Off the set, how are you similar to and/or different from the character you play in this show?
Tartaglia: I think I'm very similar to Johnny. I love music, I love to use my imagination, I'm always up for playing a game, and I'm very optimistic. And, just like Johnny, I'm a klutz! I trip all the time over everything.
P&C: Have you bonded with the sprites like you did with the Sesame Street puppets?
Tartaglia: Oh yeah. All of the sprites and fuzzies on the show have such amazing personalities because of the performers who bring them to life, so it's easy to believe they're totally real. Sometimes, I'll find myself having a very serious conversation with Ginger, and I think, "wow, it's amazing how powerful puppets can be in that way."
P&C: Which sprite do you feel you're most similar to? Which do you get along with best?
Tartaglia: I think I'm pretty similar to all of them. I'm sometimes shy like Basil, I love to party and play like Ginger, I can be very dreamy and artistic like Lily, and I love finding out new things about the world like Root. I get along with all of them, and I like to think they all came from a special part of me.
P&C: Do you prefer acting and interacting with puppets to people? What is the difference?
Tartgaglia: Well, I like both! It's a different experience acting with puppets. Even though I've been a puppeteer all my life, it's sometimes overwhelming to act with a puppet. You have to make the audience at home believe that you're talking to a real creature. Hopefully, if I believe that, then the audience will too! There are also technical things to think about, like making sure you don't look at the puppeteer while they're performing, don't trip over the puppeteer below you, etc., but, it's all fun.
P&C: Are your Sesame Street puppet friends jealous of your new puppet pals?
Tartaglia: I hope not! No, I think they're excited to have some new friends in the neighborhood.
P&C: How do you decide which lessons to "teach" your preschool viewers in each episode of Johnny and the Sprites?
Tartaglia: That's a great question! There's something called a curriculum, which is a bunch of lessons we want to teach kids through the show. Before we ever started writing the show, we said to ourselves, "What are important things for kids to learn? Honesty, insecurity, working together, controlling your emotions, etc." So, a group of us meet together and talk about the curriculum, and what lesson we want each episode to be about, and why. Then, our wonderful writers go off and write an episode of the show that teaches the lesson. And all of them are fun as well as educational.
P&C: Which episode, so far, has been the most meaningful to you? Why?
Tartaglia: We did an episode called Ginger's Antennae Dilemma. Ginger feels insecure about her antennae and how they look. I could relate to that, because I think we all have something we're insecure about. I thought it was a really important lesson to teach. There's a beautiful song in it called "Muddle in the Puddle," and it's one of my favorites. I hope you like it too!
P&C: What do you do when you're not working on Johnny and the Sprites?
Tartaglia: I love to sing and perform whenever I can, and I also love to listen to music and read. I have a wonderful puppy that I love spending time with, and I like going to the park and traveling. Oh, and I'm a huge Disneyworld and Disneyland fan! I try to go all the time.
P&C: What plans do you have for the future of Johnny and the Sprites? Do you foresee any new characters joining the team?
Tartaglia: We have a lot of ideas for the show. I hope we can eventually go to other groves around the world. And we want to introduce new species of magical creatures to the grove and Johnny's backyard. There may be some new sprites, and, who knows — maybe Johnny will get to see the grove someday.