Mitchell Stein- Greetings Muppet fans! Today, I’m thrilled to share a very special interview that I conducted just a few short weeks ago with the fantastic Erik Forrest Jackson, who is the author of the brand-new Muppet novel, Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera. The new book is now available to purchase online, kickstarting a brand new series of Muppet books taking on classic stories from Disney and Penguin Random House.
Interview with Erik Forrest Jackson, Author of Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera
Conducted by Mitchell Stein
My first question for you is, how did you come to work on this project and the idea of blending The Muppets with the story of The Phantom of the Opera?
EFJ: Through a mutual writer friend, I was introduced to a publisher at Penguin Random House, and I mentioned to them that I did not yet have any fiction under my belt. I’ve primarily written scripts and articles and was hoping to write something in the fiction category for them. Penguin at the time was planning this new series in which The Muppets star in classic stories, and they let me choose the book that I wanted to adapt, it took me a while to settle on Phantom of the Opera. Since there aren’t a ton of female Muppets, it would have been challenging to tackle a female-heavy ensemble without too many gender-switching gyrations. So, at Penguin’s request, I wrote some sample chapters and sent them through to my agent, and based on those, Penguin and Disney were excited about the idea of Phantom kicking off the series. What I always remember is that when I moved to New York City in the 90’s, I was temping, and I got the opportunity to work at Jim Henson Productions in their Townhouse on the Upper East Side. So I was answering phones, Xeroxing things, and doing other office work then, and that work sort of feels amazing coming full circle, having worked with Henson and now working on a Muppet book.
What are some of your earliest instances or familiarities with The Muppets or any of the works of Jim Henson in general?
EFJ: Well, I grew up on The Muppet Show. I would schedule my week around the show, pre-DVR days of course, and catch it when it was airing. I loved it and I cherished that show week to week.
How do you think your fandom of The Muppets prepared you for this project?
EFJ: It’s funny because I had always thought that I was pretty well-versed in the world of The Muppets, but then I realized when I delved into it more, just how vast the universe is. I’m still uncovering things that I never knew about, especially so many obscure characters. I’ve seen all of the movies, I’ve always been a fan of The Muppet Movie, which is my favorite, and I think I’ve always carried around the impact that the franchise has had on me throughout my life. It was affirmative to my appreciation of comedy, and I always responded to this idea of Muppets embracing this strength of diversity. There are so many different types of Muppets, different colors, and species living in harmony. Eating each other, sure, but at the end of the day, as long as Crazy Harry didn’t blow them up, that they’ll all live happily ever after.
MS: It’s interesting you say that because it also speaks volumes to many of the things Jim Henson did. Especially when looking at a project like Fraggle Rock, which Jim created with the mission of creating world peace. He created ambitious projects that promoted diversity and harmony between people of different backgrounds.
EFJ: Absolutely, he was a genius. He always had ideas that always played on multiple levels. I hoped to do the same with Phantom which is to play on the absurdity and fun of The Muppets, but also delivers some inspiring messages to anyone who hopes to look beyond the surface.
When you approached this project, in what ways were you inspired by previous classic story portrayals? Of course, the Muppets have done classic stories like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. Did these inspire you at all, and how did you hope to set yourself apart from those?
EFJ: Sure, those are high bars. Those are actually two of my favorite movies, and those are so wonderful. What’s different between those projects and this, is that the written medium is such a different bear than a visual medium. So, the first challenge for me is that you couldn’t just have a visual joke, and there’s an endless amount of visual jokes in the Muppet television shows and movies. I realized that this was a different bar that I was working with. The first thing was learning how to crack Muppet humor through just words. I had to try to find everyone’s voice, in some instances I needed to create one for those characters who don’t necessarily speak during their screen roles. I took the idea that anything could happen at any time, but also that we were riffing on a classic story, and that story was Phantom of the Opera, and we had to remain truthful to that story most of the time, basically sandwiching it all with this great Muppet bread.
How did you prepare for the challenge of writing for the characters themselves?
EFJ: Gosh, I watched everything. I re-watched TV shows, movies, re-read the Boom/Marvel comics, and basically anyone who tried to crack them in another form. I immersed myself in Muppet Wiki, often hitting the Random Muppet button whenever I needed a mental break from writing, and that helped me learn about even more Muppets I hadn’t known about.
How did you come to the decision of which characters to cast as specific roles within the Phantom story?
EFJ: I proposed with what I thought would be the right casting for the story. I then worked with The Muppets Studio team, we changed some small things, but overall they liked the direction we were heading in. The Muppet team was amazing as well, I worked closely with Jim Lewis, [who has done incredible things for the Muppets since the late 80’s]. I recall that once I got stuck on a topic which was “what was the exact color of Mama Fiama?”, because digital files are sometimes magenta, and sometimes grey. Through the Muppets, I went to original puppet builders, archivists, and designers, and they gave me the original color chip to know her exact color. So we went very deep at times to ensure that everything in the story was authentic.
There were many discrepancies too, because certain monsters would morph over time and their names would change as their designs would. I tried to be as authentic as I could in those instances too.
MS: That’s the thing about the Muppets…nothing ever makes sense when you attempt to canonize it because it’s probably impossible. Because did Kermit and the gang meet in The Muppet Movie or did they all know each other since Muppet Babies? The best solution is probably not to think about it.
EFJ: Exactly, I think letting it a little loose is true to the spirit of what the characters are about.
Of course, as we mentioned, your book features a ton of obscure Muppet characters. What was behind the decision to bring many of these characters back?
EFJ: Mostly because Phantom of the Opera has a big cast. There’s a lot of characters that come in and out of it, and it was a big priority for me to make these books appeal to hardcore Muppet fans. I didn’t just want it to be a general skim of the main Muppet names, I kind of wanted to delve a bit deeper into the Muppet ‘mythology’. Things that even casual fans might have to go to Muppet Wiki to look a bit more into, and sort of give a voice to characters that had not been seen in some time.
The Phantom of the Opera is obviously very different than what The Muppets are used to, since its story is far darker in tone. How did you approach the challenge of translating this story to the sort of environment The Muppets are familiar with?
EFJ: Luckily, there’s such an established precedent of the Muppets being self-conscious. They’re always breaking the fourth-wall or commenting on the situation. If anything ever got too dark or too serious, it’s easy to have one of the characters puncture that balloon. I always relied on that to guide me in the direction to go if things got too dark or uncertain.
With that, we thank Erik Forrest Jackson for taking the time to do this interview, and we can’t wait to see his next installment in the Muppets Meet the Classics series. In the meantime, Erik is working on some exciting new projects, including the upcoming award-winning comic drama Like a Billion Likes in January and a new musical featuring the songs of Burt Bacharach. Of course, be sure to check out Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera now available for purchase online and in bookstores.