Kermit the Frog left his swamp for Hollywood decades ago, and his adventures assembling his motley Muppet crew along the way were famously recounted in "The Muppet Movie." Though he's spent most of his life putting on shows, he's never done one at the Hollywood Bowl, until now.
For three nights beginning Friday, Kermit & Co. will go from the screen to live onstage in "The Muppets Take the Bowl."
Bill Barretta, who has been with the Muppets since 1991 and is its "puppet captain," said the idea of doing a live show has been discussed for years. But the success of last year's performance by the all-Muppet Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band at the Outside Lands fest in San Francisco blew the door open.
"One of the bigger challenges, I think, has always been that the characters are so small," he said. "With technology over the years, and the way that large screens are being used in concerts all the time, the screens lend themselves perfectly to the Muppets, because they're always best when a camera captures and creates that kind of imaginary proscenium."
The Hollywood Bowl's LED screens helped to unlock the potential of a live variety show, and the venue's size allowed the Muppet creatives to scale big – incorporating the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, a 30-member choir, and 20 puppeteers along with dancers and celebrity guests, including host Bobby Moynihan of "Saturday Night Live."
"It really is an extravaganza, probably bordering on a Cirque du Soleil or Ringling Bros. kind of thing," said Kirk Thatcher, the show's co-writer and co-director. "Except our animals aren't live."
But what about the puppeteers? The creative team considered several ways to hide them, but Barretta finally suggested they just embrace the performance.
"Bill was like, 'Why don't we just have the guys in black suits, kind of ninjas, and we just don't show them on camera?'" said Thatcher, who started working with Jim Henson in 1986. "What Jim pioneered with puppets was having the frame be the stage. If you watch (our) show on the screens, you'll see a live version of 'The Muppet Show,' and you will be none the wiser. And if you watch the stage, you will see – I use the phrase 'how the sausage is made' – you'll see some of the magic that brings them to life."
As they're prone to do, Thatcher said, the Muppets will break the fourth wall and comment on the men and women beneath them.
This show will be the major debut of Kermit's new performer, Matt Vogel. He replaced Steve Whitmire, who took over the role after Henson's death in 1990.
Ever since "The Muppet Show," which ran from 1976 to 1981, Henson's furry, wisecracking creations have lived to sing and dance. Music has always been central, from the zany "Muppet Show" theme song through the Oscar-winning song "Man or Muppet," written by Bret McKenzie for the 2011 film "The Muppets."
Music director Ed Mitchell had more than 40 years of classics to cull through, and along with Steve Morrell, he's created new arrangements for the orchestra as well as some new numbers.
Making an appearance will be Paul Williams, 76, who co-wrote the songbook (with Kenny Ascher) for "The Muppet Movie," including the Oscar-nominated song "The Rainbow Connection."
"They're like family to me, you know," said Williams, who first encountered the Muppets in 1976 when he guest hosted "The Muppet Show."
"I was singing a song called 'Sad Song' with Rowlf the Dog ... and there's a moment when Rowlf kind of pats the piano and looks at me like, 'This is really sad, isn't it?' He closes the lid of the piano, and I kind of reach down – and I realized when I watched that: There is no Muppet performer under any of that. What that moment is all about is me being totally moved by this furry creature that is a really fine actor. At that moment, I realized that if I connect with the Muppets like that, I think maybe we all do."
Hollywood "is the place where you go and dreams come true," said Thatcher, who quoted Williams' "Muppet Movie" finale: "'Life's like a movie, write your own ending.' I think (this show) embraces that, and parallels the Muppets finding their roots as a family together in a town that accepts people and weirdos from all over the world who want to make something special. I think that's always been the theme of the Muppets."