Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Alan Muraoka

Alan Muraoka joined the cast of Sesame Street in 1998. Alan he took on the role of Alan, the new owner and manager of Hooper's Store. Appearing as a central human character on Sesame Street for over eight seasons, Alan has become a beloved and respected resident of the world's most famous street by viewers of all ages. From a very young age Alan has been a performer. Aside from acting on Sesame Street, Muraoka has appeared in several Broadway productions - including "Miss Saigon", "Pacific Overtures", "The King and I", "My Favorite Year", "Shogun and Mail" and "Anything Goes" (to name just a few). As a director, his 1998 production of "Falsettoland" for the National Asian American Theater Company received high praise from The New York Times, and enjoyed a sold-out run at the Vineyard Theatre – some other directing credits of Muraoka include, "John Tartaglia's Ad-Liberty", "Empty-Handed", "Karaoke Stories", "Screaming Like a Fool", and "A Tribute to Julie and Carol" at Carnegie Hall. A UCLA graduate, Muraoka received a musical theater performance scholarship underwritten by Carol Burnett. He is active with many Asian-American organizations and was even honored with the Inspiration Award from APEX, a mentoring organization in New York City. Alan's warm and open character has helped make Hooper's Store the heart of the Sesame Street community once again. We contacted Alan about sharing some of his experiences and insights with us and he was more than willing to take some time to offer his views and feelings on his career as Alan the genial proprietor of Mr. Hooper's Store.

When did you first get interested in acting and performing?
As far back as I can remember I was always interested in performing. When I was in elementary school, I was always cast in the school plays. I played Abraham Lincoln's teacher in a 4th grade play, and the director pulled me aside to tell me that she was torn because as the teacher I wasn't going to be able to be in the big square dance number, and she knew that I loved to square dance. So I was a character actor at age 8.

Was there a history of performing in your family?
My father sang at church, and I got the performing bug from him for sure. His signature song was "Danny Boy," which he sang at every family function that I can remember growing up. So I think he likes to take credit for my interest in performing.

One of your first school play was "The Candy Man". What role did you have and what was that production experience like?
"The Candy Man" wasn't actually a school play. It was a number that we performed at this movie theatre in downtown LA. I don't know if many people remember this, but there was a time when they played double features at movie theatres, and there was a 15 minute intermission for people to go to the concession stand and stretch. Well, we were the "entertainment" during the intermission. I played the role of the Candy Man, and I had 12 girls as my dancing back up. And they would play the Sammy Davis Jr. version of the song while the girls danced, and I walked up and down the aisles throwing candy at the audience. And we were all between the ages of 12-16. It was a truly bizarre, and I feel like it was my version of doing the vaudeville circuit.

While in college you received the "Carol Burnett Theater Award", and actually got to meet Mrs. Burnett. What was it like to receive such an honor?
Winning the Carol Burnett Award was definitely the highlight of my college days at UCLA. We had to audition with a 5-7 minute musical theatre scene, and they picked 8 finalists who performed their scenes for a packed crowd and panel of celebrity judges. I was in the finals for 3 years before I won. I was like the Susan Lucci of the UCLA Theatre Department. Carol Burnett was only there to present the awards for one of the years, but it was amazing meeting her. She took a picture with my entire family, and she kissed my grandfather on the cheek, and he vowed he would never wash that cheek again. A few years ago I directed a show called "A Salute to Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall," which was an homage to the famed 1962 concert which brought Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett together for the first time. I called her to invite her to come see the show, and she actually did come! She was warm and gracious, and she left messages on my answering machine telling me how much she loved the evening. I saved the tapes for posterity.

You've been in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions. Which shows would you say were your favorite or most memorable?
I loved all of the 6 Broadway shows that I did, because it was what I trained my whole life to do. As far as the best role, I would have to say the Engineer in "Miss Saigon," just for the sheer size of the part. But people don't realize how physically and emotionally draining it is to do a Broadway show. Especially a musical. You only get one day off a week, and even when you are not at the theatre, you are maintaining your body and your voice and your health to be able to get through the show. It's a big sacrifice, but totally worth it. I think my best experience was the last Broadway show that I did, which was a revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical called, "Pacific Overtures." It was an amazing cast, and working on a Sondheim musical was a dream come true. He is a god in the musical theatre world, and I got to see him frequently, and he even played poker with us one day between shows.

Before joining the cast of the show where you a fan of Sesame Street? If so, which Sesame productions and/or characters did you really enjoy?
I grew up watching the show, and always loved the level of humor and smart satire that is the hallmark of Sesame Street. I remember Big Bird, Bob, Oscar, Cookie Monster from my early days of watching the show, and it amazes me that I am actually working with the same actors who originated most of these roles. One of my favorite inserts is when they picked the number of the day, and then the baker would sing "2 chocolate cream pies!!" or whatever, and then fall down the stairs. I am a sucker for slapstick.

Aside from Sesame Street, were your (or should I say, are you) a fan of any other Jim Henson creations or productions?
Of course! Jim Henson always had a wonderful humor that spoke to me. So I was a huge huge fan of the Muppet show and the feature films that followed. What is great about all of his creations is that like "Sesame Street," there are two levels of entertainment going on. There is the silly fun and cute characters which children enjoy, and there is a level of sophistication in the writing and humor that adults can respond to. So it is layered and more complex than one would think.

How did you come to get the role as the new owner Hooper's Store? What was the casting process like?
I got a call from my agent about the audition, and I went in with about a hundred or so other actors, both women and men. At that point they didn’t know what they wanted, so they saw a variety of people. Most of the prior owners of Hooper’s Store were older and more grandfather-ish, and I was hoping that they were looking to go in a new direction. I had a total of four auditions for the show, and each time there were fewer and fewer people. At my third callback, they had decided that they needed an Asian American representation on the show, so there were ten of us. And at my final callback for the producers, I got to improv with Telly Monster who is one of the Muppet characters on the show. It was very nerve-wracking, but at the same time, I knew that I was a good fit for the show. I had done a lot of children’s theatre in the past, and I love kids. So it seemed like a natural fit. They thought so too, and I got the part.

Sesame Street is such a cultural icon. What was it like to actually walk out onto the set of the world's most famous street?
Not to be cliché, but it really was a dream come true. Walking on to a set that was a part of my childhood was simply astonishing, and to realize that I was now a part of the legacy was really daunting. It's something I covet and take very seriously.

Your character quickly became a friend and mentor to many of the Muppet residences of Sesame Street. Which characters do you enjoy sharing a scene with the most?
On my debut episode, Big Bird is the one who comes in and introduces me. It's a whole show where I meet everyone on the street and it culminates in a song that we all sing called, "Welcome to the Party." And of course I was nervous, because it was my first day on set. And Carroll Spinney, the actor who plays Big Bird, was so kind and welcoming to me, that I never forgot that. Actually, all of the puppeteers were so kind to me, and that made such a huge difference. So Big Bird holds a very special place in my heart. But I love all of the characters for different reasons. Elmo for his sweetness, Telly for his manic humor, Baby Bear for his lisp. They're all wonderful.

You play the shopkeeper of one of America's most famous stores -Hooper's Store. Did you have any prior experience working in retail?
I managed a yogurt shop when I was in high school, which was located within a Sears store in the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up. And I got my best friend hired as well. And when the owner wasn't there, we would rename the yogurt flavors. So instead of mango, we would put up a sign that said, "boofer." So of course people would ask, "What's boofer?" And we would give them a sample, and say, "It's sort of like mango." And then they would say, "I'd like a large boofer cone please." I couldn't believe that we never got caught. I would have be so fired!

Is there a lot of camaraderie among the Muppeteers and the cast? How was the cast and crew in welcoming you into the long were established Sesame family?
I was very nervous coming onto a long running show, especially because I replaced an actor that had been there for years. So I think there was definitely a warming up period that I had with the other actors. But we all get along very well, and we're very supportive of each other. And the Muppeteers were just great from day one, because they could see that I respected and appreciated their talents and their wackiness.

What is it like to perform with Muppets and the Muppeteers?
I compare it to a roller coaster. You have to strap yourself in and be ready, because you never know what's going to happen. They often improv lines, so you have to be ready to react and respond if that happens. And I come from an improv background, so I'm usually ready.

Is it harder to act when you have to converse with a little red monster or a giant yellow bird rather than another human?
It is actually easier than I thought it was going to be. At first, I was just so mesmerized at the artistry of the Muppeteers, and all I wanted to do was to watch them work. But the Muppets expressions are so life-like, and the actors so good, that it is easy to believe that you are actually talking to a 8-foot yellow bird.

What has been your favorite segment or storyline from your years on Sesame Street?
We had shows which were written in response to the events of 9/11 which I was very proud to be a part of. The one that I am most proud of is the show in which I have a small fire at Hooper's Store, and firefighters come to put it out. And Elmo is frightened because of the fire, and of these firemen and women in strange uniforms with their scary looking equipment. So he learns throughout the episode the heroism and bravery of firefighters, and how important they are to our community. We used actual New York City Firefighters for the episode, and it was an honor to talk with them and hear their stories. That is the episode I am most proud of.

Sesame Street is known for its use of music. What songs or musical numbers have you enjoyed participating in?
Coming from a Broadway musical theatre background, I love any musical number that I get to be a part of. But 2 of my favorites were singing "Being Green" for a Sesame Street concert with the Boston Pops, and "Sing," with the entire cast and Rosemary Clooney.

You've had the chance to meet and work with many celebrities while on Sesame Street. Do you get "star stuck"? Any celebrity experiences stand out in your mind?
Of course I get star struck!! I'm an idiot around them. And for some reason I've been paired with many celebrities. The list includes Natalie Portman, Seth Green, and Tina Fey, to name a few. And what is amazing to me is how excited many of the celebrities are when they walk onto the set. Many times they come with their own children, but it's the parents who are more excited than their kids. It speaks to the power and longevity of the show, and how much of a cultural icon it is.

Aside from occupation, how do you differ from the character you portray on Sesame Street?
I think "Alan" is very much like me, but a much much nicer and patient version of me.

When Sesame Street first came on the air, there was nothing else like it. Now there are multiple channels with nothing but 24-hours of children's programming a day. Why do you think Sesame Street is still so successful?
Again, I think it is the quality of the writing that sets us apart from the rest, and that we never try to talk down to kids at all. But it is a struggle with so many options out there now to keep our ratings up. But I also think we offer a quality product that many parents know they can rely on, and I think that is important.

Are there any un-tackled topics or storylines that you would like to see worked into the show in the future?
We've tackled so many mature issues for a children's show, and I think current events will show us what we need to focus on next.

When you go out in public do you find a lot of kids (or even adults) come up to after recognizing you from you role on Sesame Street?
It happens periodically, and it is usually parents who come up to me to say how much they love the show. And it always sort of surprises me when it happens. I never got into show business for the notoriety, so it's very humbling when it does happen. But of course I love it.

Fans are always craving more information on the future episodes of Sesame Street. Can you tell us anything about what we can expect to see in the upcoming season?
Get ready for more Abby Caddaby episodes and a brand new human character.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the fans out there?
Thank you so much for watching the show! And if you'd like more info on me, please visit my website at

Thank you Alan for taking the time to answer our questions; and we hope to see you keeping Hooper’s store open and active for all the young (and young at heart) to enjoy for years to come.