Josh Green: Welcome back to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column focuses on the hidden treasures of The Muppets, Sesame Street, as well as any projects involving Jim Henson. Examples of this will consist of segments or characters that wound up on the cutting room floor, or were used, but not to their fullest extent. I had the pleasure of interviewing puppeteer, Matthew Furtado!
Josh Green: Can you please tell me about your career and how you got involved with Henson productions? Was it Jim Henson himself who gave you your big break into showbiz?
Matthew Furtado: I was never fortunate enough to meet Mr. Henson but grew up loving his work. I was really into puppetry, magic and acting from a very early age, putting on my own shows, performing with the educational puppet troupe, Kids on the Block throughout middle school and later getting hired to play a character who could only speak through a puppet in a regional production of the play Red Noses. I always dreamed about working with the Muppets.
After I graduated with a BA in Musical Theater from Rhode Island College, I was cast in VEE Corporation’s production of Sesame Street LIVE: Elmo’s Coloring Book, also having the opportunity to be involved with the puppetry for their Dragon Tales tour. I was the live-mic human character in Sesame Street LIVE and we got to perform all over the world, on NBC’s Today Show and at Madison Square Garden where Jane and Cheryl Henson came to see us and gave us the opportunity to visit the Henson Workshop. It was a great experience.
After 600 shows on the road with VEE, I auditioned in New York for Martin Robinson and the creative team of the world premiere stage production of Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. I had the opportunity to work closely with a terrific group of people including director Christopher Gattelli, composer Paul Williams and veteran Muppet performer Tyler Bunch who, along with Martin, have been so supportive of me as a puppeteer. I was invited back for the following year’s revamped production of the show too. The Emmet Otter experience had so many “pinch-yourself” moments: Jane, Heather and Cheryl popping into rehearsals; Jerry Nelson surprising us with a visit on opening night and holding court afterwards; getting to meet Pam Arciero, Fran Brill, Robert Lopez and Jennifer Barnhart, who later joined the show; co-producer Brian Henson at the cast party saying that his dad was smiling down on us… Everyone was so kind and generous and fun to work with. It was just a dream-job.
After the show closed, Goodspeed announced an awards banquet honoring Paul Williams. I sent an email to the producer pitching the idea of having the four scene-stealing squirrels from Emmet Otter there as part of the event and she invited us to perform a sketch and song in the show, which was hosted by Alan Kalter from Late Night with David Letterman. Now, improvisation with the characters was always encouraged during the development of Emmet Otter. It’s a Henson-tradition and that night, Peter Linz, Anney Ozar, James Silson and I were really in a groove. When I realized from behind our puppet stage that Mr. Kalter’s hair was exactly the same color as the squirrels’ fur, I couldn’t help but have my character, Skippy (originally developed by David Stephens), point it out. I also referred to Mr. Williams’ Oscar-winning “Evergreen” as “the song he wrote with Streisand about the pine tree” which really got a roar from the crowd and remains one of my favorite moments on stage. Part of the magic of working with great puppet characters and great people is that it pulls things out of you that you didn’t know you had, particularly in a live show…things you’d be hesitant to say as yourself or even as a human character.
After that show I was thrilled to be invited by Brian Henson to participate in an initial one-night workshop for Stuffed and Unstrung, Henson Alternative’s Off-Broadway version of their improv show, Puppet Up and later, attend the taping of their episode of The Apprentice to see the veteran performers at work. When your phone rings and someone says, “Hi Matt, I’m calling on behalf of Brian Henson…” your jaw just kind of drops. It’s such a privilege to meet your heroes and then to be asked to join in the fun of working with them.
MF: The characters in Emmet Otter still have a lot of life left in them. It’s a timeless story and the music is terrific. Christmas of 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of the special and it would be great to get it on stage again. Our son was born the day after Christmas and I’d really love for him to see it.
JG: What would you have done with these characters if you had gotten more of a chance to work with them?
MF: I had the opportunity to perform several of the squirrel characters over the course of the two seasons that Emmet Otter ran and there was always the feeling that they could have their own spinoff show. They got big laughs from all ages. It would be interesting to develop those characters further and find out what the rest of their family is like…send them out into the world and see what kind of trouble they could get into.
Also, our director, Christopher Gattelli always talked about adding more puppet characters to the show… more citizens of Waterville, birds in the trees, more acts in the talent show etc. That would be fun. I never got to work with Jim Henson but I felt like I got close to it by working with Christopher. He really embodies that quiet, creative vision and gentle approach that Jim was known for. Jim did things with puppetry that had never been done before and that is what Christopher is doing now with musical theater and dance. It’s exciting to be around someone who is pushing their art form forward; someone who thinks differently.
JG: What projects are you working on these days with The Muppets?
MF: I’m not working on anything with them at the moment. Last year, I was thrilled to be invited by Matt Vogel and Martin Robinson to a puppeteer workshop at Sesame Workshop. It was a great experience working with them and with Peter Linz and a talented small group of other performers. I learned a lot and have gotten so much encouragement and support from those guys. True to tradition, each group of main characters (Sesame, Henson & Disney’s Muppets) is performed by a really capable and versatile small repertory company; as it should be. They are really doing a great job keeping the legacy of all of those characters alive. They are in good hands. Going forward, when they need extra hands or additional characters, I’d be thrilled to join in.
JG: What else do you do professionally?
MF: I’m fortunate to have never had a non-performing job. Puppeteers are really actors and I’ve gotten to do a lot of voiceover work and on-camera work in commercials (like this improvised spot: https://vimeo.com/74231382), and even had the privilege of hosting and co-producing a series that Newman’s Own Foundation sponsored on Connecticut Public Television called, The Power of Giving, which received two New England Emmy nominations. Running parallel to my interests in puppetry and acting, since I was a kid I’ve performed and seriously studied magic. I have a one-man comedy magic and illusion show that I perform at corporate events, resorts and as a fundraising program for organizations. My favorite project is an annual concert experience combing magic and music that I write, direct and perform in conjunction with a 100-piece orchestra. It is going on its seventh year, with a new program each spring. Being able to work in several branches of show business that I really enjoy has allowed me to achieve my goal of being a full-time performer.
MF: is there anything else you would like to talk about?
Follow Josh Green at Comic Book Art
Josh Green lives in Philadelphia, PA with his lovely wife Lauren. Having worked at Dynamite Entertainment and TV Guide, Josh is now a freelance writer for Graphic Policy and the creator of the “Muppets Gone Missing” column, so that he can still dabble in pop culture. While he is not dabbling, Josh lives a simple life, where his main enjoyment is spending as much time possible with his wife, whose very existence gives Josh purpose for everything.