John Tartaglia: No Strings

John Tartaglia: No Strings The star of Avenue Q and Shrek the Musical prepares for a cabaret gig at Feinstein's in Manhattan.
John Tartaglia
John Tartaglia

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Ever since he popped up in Broadway's Avenue Q, John Tartaglia has been whizzing through his show-biz career like a modern-day Peter Pan. During his year and a half in Q, the Tony-nominated actor charmed audiences with his mastery of puppetry, sparkling smile and golden tenor tones. Afterwards he briefly went west to Vegas with the show before zooming back to Broadway and stepping into the role of Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. While singing "Be Our Guest" eight shows a week, the energetic Tartaglia did double duty, by day starring in his own self-created children's TV show, "Johnny and the Sprites," on the Disney Channel.

Although "Johnny" only lasted two seasons, it didn't deter Tartaglia from plowing ahead. Indeed, he's happily back on Broadway this season, watching his nose grow nightly as Pinocchio in Shrek the Musical. And for a single performance on March 30, Tartaglia will use his Monday night off to debut a brand new cabaret show at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.

"Because of all the great names that have played there," Tartaglia says with sincere humility, "I'm so honored that they even asked me."

No stranger to cabaret, Tartaglia held court at Joe's Pub during the run of Avenue Q for several outings, which, he says, "was a blast. But the shows I did down there were a lot more goofy and campy then this new one's going to be." Promising that his Feinstein's show will still have lots of laughs, Tartaglia jokes, "It's a 'refined camp,' if you will, because this show has a slightly more serious side. Though it definitely won't be one of those one-man shows where the guy says, 'My father beat me and now I'm going to sing about it.'"

Having begun his professional career as a puppeteer on "Sesame Street" at the astonishingly young age of 16, Tartaglia says he's often asked how he veered onto such a mainstream musical theatre path — albeit one with a consistently family-friendly theme. "I love kids," says the New Jersey native, "and I love entertaining them!" Still, the Feinstein's show, which will employ a band and back-up singers to join Tartaglia on a mix of theatre, pop and children's songs, is for adults.

"I'm certainly putting some of the personal aspects about how I got in with Jim Henson and the Muppets into the show. Because what I love about having done 'Sesame Street' and 'Johnny and the Sprites' and 'Avenue Q' is that I have this sort of universal fan base. It's been a blessing when it comes to a show like Shrek. Now when I meet people at the stage door, the kids are like, 'Johnny! Johnny!' because they know me from TV, and then their parents go, 'Oh, I loved you in Avenue Q.' It's definitely the best of both worlds."

John Tartaglia
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Pondering the idea of having children of his own one day, the 31-year-old says, "I feel like I'm a lot of kids' big brother. But since I already have a dog and three cats... really, I'm already a daddy!" Although his Pinocchio has no solo number in Shrek, the actor says, "If I can goad Jeanine [Tesori, the composer] into doing it, I'm hoping to sing a song at Feinstein's from the show which was cut in the workshop. It's this tongue-twisting, almost psychotic 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' that she wrote for Pinocchio."

Laughing at the memory of the song, Tartaglia acknowledges, "It totally wasn't right for the show. But I told her, 'You just know this is gonna end up on the back of someone's album one day.'" Or on the boards at Feinstein's one night.

(David Drake's Cabaret Beat column appears in the monthly subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)