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John Tartaglia Talks Hosting A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS and More

December 18, 2013

John Tartaglia, Tony-nominated actor who has appeared on Broadway in Shrek, Avenue Q, Hair and Beauty and the Beast, as well as TV's Sesame Street, has a long history of collaborating with The New York Pops.

He will reunite with the Pops' Music Director Steven Reineke this Saturday to narrate a brand new family concert version of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, based on the beloved TV special by Charles M. Schulz.

Tartaglia recently chatted with BWW about guiding the audience through what he hopes will become a new holiday tradition, using his family programming background to his advantage, and directing the new musical Because of Winn Dixie, currently running in Little Rock.

You're sort of "hosting" the show as the narrator. Can you talk about your role a little bit?
I'm super excited. I get to basically tell the story of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which everyone knows so well and loves so much, so it's a great responsibility. I get to play some of the characters, and I get to sing a new original song that's being written for the show, so it's really cool. It's a special that I've always been very endeared to and obsessed over as a kid, so it feels very real to make a part of the holiday season by telling it. My hope is I'm kind of like the audience's guide through the program.

Talk about working with Steven [Reineke] again. I know you guys have collaborated on a lot of different projects.
The Pops, they feel like home to me. I love everyone involved; the organization is amazing. And Steven is a great leader, and I respect him so much for the work he does. He's such an incredible conductor and musician, and he's so much a part of these concerts in the obvious way, which is his conducting, but also he has such a good understanding of storytelling and audience flow. he's just incredibly smart, and I love working with him. It always sort of feels like we're brothers collaborating on a project together; it's a lot of fun.

Do you have a favorite part of the performance?
My favorite part of the special, which is definitely going to be reflected, is when all of the meaning comes together at the end and the whole story of Christmas and the way Linus tells it so pure-of-heart. But also when all the kids come and decorate Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. I love that. I love the story of the little Christmas tree and how no one else sees it for what it really is except Charlie Brown. I've always been a sappy person, so I love everything about the heart of the concert. Of course, I also love the famous dance to the Vince Guaraldi music -- I don't know what it's officially called, that piece -- but [sings the tune]. I think it'll be fun to hear that played by a huge orchestra.

You've worked with Sesame Street and the Muppets for years -- how do you think that will help with this being a family show and also working with the kids from TADA?
I've done so much work for family and for young audiences, and I hope that all comes through. The one thing that the Muppets has taught me over the years is that kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Kids identify BS faster than anyone else does. So if you're not being honest with them, and you're not really talking to them on an equal level -- the minute you start treating kids like kids, they know. They pick up on it. And so I always try to remember how intelligent they are.

I think the best entertainment works on two levels. So, with something like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the reason why it's still so popular is not just because kids love it. It's because as adults you can watch it and see the meaning. The best kind of entertainment for families does that. It's not just something you bring your kids to and let them run around and clap their hands while you sit there texting on your iPhone, it's something where you are just as engaged as they are. And I think with A Charlie Brown Christmas, you couldn't pick a more beloved family classic.

You're also hosting a talk back the day before the show with some of the kids. That sounded like such a good idea to me! What kind of advice do you think you'll be doling out to kids who are just starting in the arts?
I always try to relate to kids that they should keep an open mind, and definitely have goals and have a set point that you'd like to get to, but keep yourself open to what is brought to you. I think that the reason I've been successful in what I do is because I never limited myself. And I think so many people spend more time focusing on what they don't have and what they're not doing than what they are. The most successful people I know are the ones that trusted what was given to them and moved along on the journey.

That's a big thing. If you have an opportunity to do sculpture, but you see yourself as more of a singer, take sculpture anyway. Learn about it; it'll come into play somehow. Or if you never dreamed of doing character voices but you have an awesome opportunity to do a voice on an animated show -- maybe you want to be on Broadway -- but do that. The more skills you have -- in any part of life, but especially in theatre or the arts -- the more valuable you are. So I try to always encourage up-and-coming artists to learn as many skills as they can, because it just makes you a better performer.

Is there anything about A Charlie Brown Christmas that you wanted to add?
Just that I feel very honored. It's such a poignant viewing every Christmas for so many people -- this particular special -- and this is the first time it's been brought to life like this, so it's kind of incredible. And I hear that there are almost no tickets available, but I would encourage people to try and come because hopefully this will be the beginning of a new tradition. Hopefully, every Christmas, this will be just like the special that airs and re-airs. And I hope the live version will be something that people count on every year.

Before I let you go, I have to ask you quickly about Because of Winn Dixie which in Little Rock. Could talk about directing that project and how it's going?
We really got lucky; we have the best cast, we have the best crew. And people seem to really be loving it. It's kind of the first step on our journey forward, but it's been really rewarding, and I'm really proud of it because the book is beloved by so many people, and we felt this great weight of responsibility to try to get it right and try to tell the story as much as we could, as lovingly as Kate [DiCamillo], the author, did. And I'm just really happy with where we ended up.