Miss Piggy and her Muppet pals will take the stage this fall in the first book in Penguin’s new Muppets Meet the Classics middle-grade series. And what classic would make a better debut for everyone’s favorite porky diva than Gaston Leroux’s 1910 tale, The Phantom of the Opera?
Author Erik Forrest Jackson (who also happens to be Executive Projects Director here at Entertainment Weekly) was tasked with the challenge of inserting Jim Henson’s lively characters into Leroux’s work, a fitting project for the longtime Muppet fan and playwright. Below, Jackson tells us what the process was like and what treats he’s included within the book for Muppet and Phantom fans alike.
Below, check out the exclusive cover for Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera, which will be published on Oct. 17.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your personal history with the Muppets?
ERIK FORREST JACKSON: I was a giant fan of the original Muppet Show and the movies. Hard evidence exists: A few years ago I was visiting my parents in Texas, where I grew up, for the holidays and I actually ran across an old issue of Dynamite, which was a pop culture magazine for teenagers. Inside was a questionnaire I’d filled out and never mailed. One of the questions was, “What do you want to see more of in our pages?” And kid Erik had written, “The Muppets, Queen, and Dom DeLuise.” Hundreds of hours of psychoanalysis probably couldn’t define me more accurately than this appropriately odd Patronus triumvirate does.
What makes The Phantom of the Opera a great vehicle for the Muppets?
Like The Muppet Show, the novel centers on a theater, so all the onstage and backstage parallels hopefully make it a good way to ease in readers. In addition to the universal love for Gaston Leroux’s haunting story, there’s also the cult of the Broadway musical, still going strong more than 30 years after its debut. (I made sure to include some Easter eggs for those fans.) All the heightened melodrama in the tale proved pretty fertile for comedy. And of course Miss Piggy rightly demanded a diva role, and you don’t get more authentically diva than an opera star, right?
Who’s your ideal reader?
Muppet fans, Phantom fans, and anyone who appreciates an irreverent collision of highbrow and vaudeville. The trajectory of Leroux’s novel is totally intact, but I tailored it to showcase the trademark sophisticated silliness Jim Henson & Co originated. There’s everything from knock-knock jokes and groan-worthy puns to references to Stephen Sondheim and The Fast and the Furious. I imagined it as a Muppet movie for the mind and worked to make its appeal span the ages. If I did my job right, it’ll tickle everyone from current middle-graders to longtime Muppet devotees.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Apart from pre-day job writing sessions starting at 5 a.m. (shout-out to my Bialetti!), the biggest challenge was translating the Muppets’ brilliant voices and visuals into something that comes to life through words only (not counting the awesome cover by illustrator Owen Richardson, who also did the Percy Jackson series). “Casting” the right characters to play the copious Phantom roles took me a good while. Then, doing my darnedest to honor the spirit of Henson, Frank Oz, and all the Muppet masters, I spent a lot of time studying the attitudes, speech patterns, particular senses of humor, and physical appearances of characters. For absolute accuracy, I even consulted with a wise Henson art director to determine Pantone colors for some of the more obscure figures of the canon.
Do you have a favorite Muppet? And which one do you most identify with?
It changes hour to hour, but at the moment, Pepé the King Prawn’s my boy (all props to Bill Barretta, who performs him). He’s my go-to for the perfect zinger, okay. As for identifying with a particular Muppet, I’m probably a weird union of Fozzie Bear and Statler & Waldorf — someone who’s eager to make folks laugh but who simultaneously inwardly heckles everything that comes out of his mouth. Am I divulging too many of my comedy neuroses? Maybe. But I bet Dom DeLuise would have understood. Wocka wocka!