Julie Andrews Teams Up With Henson Puppets In Netflix's 'Greenroom'

Mar 17, 2017

On Friday, the streaming service Netflix unveils the entire first season — all 13 episodes — of its newest children's series, called Julie's Greenroom. It stars Julie Andrews, who also is its executive producer along with her daughter, children's book author Emma Walton Hamilton.

Another collaborator is Lisa Henson, daughter of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson, whose Jim Henson's Creature Shop provides the puppet characters with whom Andrews interacts. These include a dog, a duck and five little kids — children, not goats. With help from weekly celebrity guests, Andrews guides them in how to stage a musical.

This first season of Julie's Greenroom is actually a miniseries with a continuing narrative. It tells the story, from start to finish, of the creation, development and presentation of an original musical.

Even though she has a human stage manager to help, Andrews is there to run things and to provide a dose of sanity amid all the backstage craziness and enthusiasm — the same function Kermit the Frog provided on the classic 1970s series The Muppet Show.

Andrews should know — she guest starred on The Muppet Show in '77, singing to, and with, a bunch of muppet kids. (Goats, not children this time.) Andrews, of course, sang to real children in the movie The Sound of Music. In that film, as in Mary Poppins, she was a role model for youngsters and had an almost magical effect on the whole family. All these years later, she still does. Julie's Greenroom isn't as manic or as hilarious as The Muppet Show — it's closer to Mister Rogers than Miss Piggy — but it's a quiet, comfortable delight.

In Julie's Greenroom, she presides over a quintet of youngsters, whom she calls "Greenies," who are getting their first chance at putting on a play in a real theater. One's a tiny prima donna, another's a piano-playing prodigy in a wheelchair, and they all want to take part in a local theater production.

In each episode, Andrews invites guests to come in and demonstrate their craft. Alec Baldwin talks about acting. Bill Irwin talks about clowning. And Idina Menzel takes the kids on a field trip to Broadway and to the musical Wicked, where the actress playing the current Wicked Witch of the West explains how she applies her intricate makeup. After all, it's not easy being green — but if you're a Muppets fan, you knew that already.

Julie's Greenroom, the series, is a deconstruction, and a celebration, of the act of creative collaboration. It reveals that mounting a performance is hard work — but also a thrill and a valuable learning experience.

The series fits right in with the spirit of The Muppet Show, and also with the long TV legacy of Andrews. In 1962, she starred with Carol Burnett in a fabulous two-woman CBS special, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. Fifty-five years later, she reunites with Carol Burnett for the first season finale of Julie's Greenroom. Burnett plays Edna, a wealthy benefactor who has come to see the play — and whom Julie hopes will support the program financially so that it can continue.

The message of much of Julie's Greenroom is timeless, but the moral that the performing arts need financial support to survive couldn't be more timely. The White House has just proposed a federal budget defunding, among other things, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In Julie's Greenroom, the musical they put on is about an ogre who crushes the spirit of his kingdom by stealing its music, its dance and its writings. Several times in Julie's Greenroom, Andrews quotes the theatrical maxim that "The show must go on." Her new Netflix series demonstrates how that happens, and in the musical within the TV show, what might happen if it doesn't.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today, the streaming service Netflix unveils the entire first season, all 13 episodes, of its newest children's series called "Julie's Greenroom." It stars Julie Andrews, who also is its executive producer, along with her daughter, children's book author Emma Walton Hamilton. Another collaborator is Lisa Henson, daughter of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson, whose Jim Henson's Creature Shop provides the puppet characters with whom Julie interacts. These include a dog, a duck and five little kids - children, not goats. With help from weekly celebrity guests, Julie guides them in how to stage a musical.

This first season of "Julie's Greenroom" actually is a miniseries with a continuing narrative. It tells the story from start to finish of the creation, development and presentation of an original musical. Even though she has a human stage manager to help, Julie Andrews is there to run things and provide a dose of sanity amid all the backstage craziness and enthusiasm, the same function Kermit the Frog provided on the classic '70s series "The Muppet Show."

Andrews should know. She guest-starred on "The Muppet Show" in 1977, singing to and with a bunch of Muppet kids - goats, not children.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPET SHOW")

JIM HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) Thank you, thank you, thank you, and welcome again to "The Muppet Show." Hey, we're very excited around here tonight. Our guest star is a wonderfully talented lady and a good friend of mine. And here she is now, ladies and gentlemen, Miss Julie Andrews.

(APPLAUSE)

JULIE ANDREWS: (As herself, singing) High on a hill was a lonely goatherd.

JERRY NELSON: (As Goat, yodeling).

ANDREWS: (As herself, singing) Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd.

NELSON: (As Goat, yodeling).

BIANCULLI: Julie Andrews, of course, sang that song to real children in the movie "The Sound Of Music." In that film, as in "Mary Poppins," she was a role model for youngsters and had an almost magical effect on the whole family. All these years later, she still does.

"Julie's Greenroom" isn't as manic or as hilarious as "The Muppet Show." It's closer to Mr. Rogers than Miss Piggy. But it's a quiet, comfortable delight. In "Julie's Greenroom," she presides over a quintet of youngsters getting their first chance at putting on a play in a real theater. One's a tiny prima donna. Another's a piano-playing prodigy in a wheelchair. And they all want to take part in a local theater production. Julie calls the children greenies, and the series starts with the hostess giving them a backstage and onstage tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JULIE'S GREENROOM")

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Before we go out on stage, you should know that we call this room the greenroom.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) 'Cause it's green.

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Ours is, yes, but they're not always green. The greenroom is where we meet, we eat, we rest, we learn our lines and we talk about how to make our show the best it can possibly be.

BIANCULLI: In each episode, Julie invites guests to come in and demonstrate their craft. Alec Baldwin talks about acting. Bill Irwin talks about clowning. And Idina Menzel takes the kids on a field trip to Broadway and to the musical "Wicked," where the actress playing the current Wicked Witch of the West explains how she applies her intricate makeup. After all, it's not easy being green. But if you're a Muppets fan, you knew that already.

"Julie's Greenroom" the series is a deconstruction and a celebration of the act of creative collaboration. It reveals that mounting a performance is hard work, but also a thrill and a valuable learning experience. "Julie's Greenroom" fits right in with the spirit of "The Muppet Show" and also with the long TV legacy of Julie Andrews. In 1962, she starred with Carol Burnett in a fabulous two-woman CBS special, "Julie And Carol At Carnegie Hall."

Fifty-five years later, she reunites with Carol Burnett for the first season finale of "Julie's Greenroom." Burnett plays Edna, a wealthy benefactor who has come to see the play and whom Julie hopes will support the program financially so that it can continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JULIE'S GREENROOM")

CAROL BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful) Where are your adorable little actors? I want to meet them and wish them luck.

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Oh, I'm afraid they've just gone to get into their costumes.

BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful) Of course.

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) And we wouldn't want to spoil the lovely surprise for you, would we? I'm wondering, actually, if you shouldn't just be...

BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful) Would you mind if I just took a little look around here? I just - I so love being backstage.

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Yes.

BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful) You know, I have a little secret I want to tell you. I have always wanted to be in show business myself.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Really?

BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful) But, you know, it never worked out. But I still sing in the shower.

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Oh?

BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful, singing) I had a dream, a wonderful dream, baby.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDREWS: (As Ms. Julie) Really impressive.

BURNETT: (As Edna Brightful) Oh, you flatterer.

BIANCULLI: The message of much of "Julie's Greenroom" is timeless. But the moral that the performing arts need financial support to survive couldn't be more timely. The White House has just proposed a federal budget defunding among other things the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In "Julie's Greenroom," the musical they put on is about an ogre who crushes the spirit of his kingdom by stealing its music, its dance and its writings. Several times in "Julie's Greenroom," Julie Andrews quotes the theatrical maxim that the show must go on. Her new Netflix series demonstrates how that happens and, in the musical within the TV show, what might happen if it doesn't.

On Monday's show, journalist Ron Powers tells us about watching both his sons become transformed by schizophrenia. After his younger son killed himself, his elder son also was diagnosed with the disease. Powers' new book is part memoir and part history of the treatment of the mentally ill. His book is called "No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos And Heartbreak Of Mental Health In America." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller.

Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.