Tartaglia takes 'Sprites' to Disney Channel

Apparently, Broadway is just a few blocks from Sesame Street. A pair of television series aimed at the preschool crowd has been tapping high-caliber theater performers and composers, and the results have yielded both high ratings and critical praise.

Not that they’re the first children’s shows to use music or familiar faces, but Nickelodeon’s “Wonder Pets!” and the Disney Channel’s “Johnny and the Sprites” employ a notable number of legit powerhouses to create music that would satisfy even adults. And some believe this lets the skeins provide long-term benefits for the theater.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this industry marriage is partially based on puppets. In 2004, after seeing raunchy puppet tuner “Avenue Q,” Disney Channel prexy Rich Ross asked star and puppeteer John Tartaglia to create a series. The result was “Johnny and the Sprites,” which debuted its first full-length episodes this January.

Exec producer Tartaglia stars as a man who has adventures with the magical creatures living behind his house. His human co-stars have included Rialto diva Sutton Foster (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and the cast of Off Broadway tuner “Altar Boyz.” And at the heart of every episode are Broadway-style numbers from composers like Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”), Mark Hollmann (“Urinetown”) and Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”).

Lopez also contributes to “Wonder Pets!,” which follows three talking critters who use teamwork to help get fellow animals out of trouble. Each episode is essentially an operetta, with characters singing most of their dialogue. There’s a different musical genre for every segment, and along with Lopez, they’ve been tackled by Michael John LaChiusa (“See What I Wanna See”), Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) and Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party”).

The music on both series sounds perfectly grown-up. In an upcoming episode of “Sprites,” for instance, Schwartz’s song “Brightly Shining” features complex chord progressions and lets Tartaglia belt in his biggest Rialto voice.

Though some might think youngsters can’t absorb or appreciate such sophisticated material, execs say it’s wrong to underestimate preschool viewers. “I think the bar is pretty low in terms of what people think kids will respond to,” says Disney Channel senior VP Nancy Kanter, “but they deserve excellent music.”

“Wonder Pets!” was Nielsen’s top preschool skein of 2006, its debut season, and it currently averages around 7 million viewers a week. “Sprites” nets around six. Both have been picked up for another year.

Josh Selig, “Wonder Pets!” creator and exec producer, says Rialto songwriters can be particularly appealing to young viewers. “Nine out of 10 Broadway songs tell a story, so Broadway composers really understand pacing and arc,” he says.

It helps, too, that Broadway involves so many musical styles. “It’s not just ‘Oklahoma!’ anymore,” Tartaglia says. “It’s an amalgam of pop, country, rap, everything.”

On both series, the legit sensibility also spreads beyond music. “Sprites” uses theatrically expressive lighting, for instance, and Selig reports that LaChiusa, best known for his dark and experimental tuners, gives excellent suggestions on how the endangered animals on “Wonder Pets!” should sound when they talk.

Selig admits composers weren’t immediately gung-ho about scoring for “Wonder Pets!” “When we first started approaching people, they were skeptical,” he says, “but once we got some episodes made, you could see the light bulb in the composers’ eyes. They knew what we were trying to accomplish wasn’t dumbed down.”

But viewers’ youth can still have repercussions for theater. It’s possible tykes hearing Broadway-style music will be better prepared to embrace musical theater and opera. “They may not always be aware of who composed the show,” says Selig, “but I think on some level we’re helping them develop a certain amount of taste.”

Adds Schwartz: “I don’t think there’s a hidden agenda with these shows of trying to seduce future audiences, but there’s no question that they help children develop an appetite for musical theater.”

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