Meet the local producer who helped the classic characters conquer their first live gig overseas.
This year, the iconic Muppets gang celebrated its 63rd birthday. Most of us probably can’t even remember a time when the Muppets weren’t a part of our lives. Jim Henson debuted the puppet characters in 1955, and they went on to have their own television show in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – leading to a variety of other movies, specials, and appearances over the following decades. Now, Lake Mary High School alum Andrew Williams, who was inspired by the Muppets when choosing his career, is taking the American icons across the pond to entertain a whole new generation of children and families in the United Kingdom.
Andrew, who now works in film out in Los Angeles, recently produced the first live Muppets show overseas. It’s hard to believe, but in their over six decades in show business, the Muppets had never once performed live outside of the United States. In fact, they’ve really only performed live a handful of times and never to the ambitious scale that Andrew envisioned and helped bring to fruition. But in July, the Muppets finally stamped their passports and performed in the fantastic O2 Arena in London, a venue made famous by hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Working with the Muppets may seem like a random career accomplishment, but Andrew has been working toward it his whole life. Andrew, who grew up in Longwood and graduated from Lake Mary High in 1995, remembers watching The Muppet Show and credits it with forming a core part of his childhood and career ambitions.
“I think they informed a lot of what my sense of humor is, who I am as a person,” Andrew says of the Muppets. “They do this amazing thing – they capture almost the most realistic view of Hollywood, and I know that sounds weird. But they show the joy of what it’s like to follow your dreams. I’m so lucky. I do have a dream job. But they also capture the grind of doing that at the same time. So that’s something, for me – a never-ending well of inspiration.”
After studying theater and TV production at LMHS and graduating from the Florida State University film school, Andrew made the move to L.A. A short time later, he found himself at a relatively new startup production company, Soapbox Films, with several other FSU grads. In the early days at Soapbox, Andrew remembers a staff meeting during which the team wrote “Work with the Muppets” on their company vision board.
“The thing about these characters that I’ve always loved, and why I keep coming back to them, is that they are defined by what they love,” says Andrew. “They’re inspiring in so many ways.”
Andrew’s fledgling company worked its contacts at Disney (which purchased the Muppets in 2004). After a great pitch meeting, the company was greenlighted to produce a series of Muppets videos for YouTube. That was 10 years ago, and Andrew and Soapbox Films have been working with the Muppets on different projects ever since.
In 2016, the Muppets were invited to play a live set at a San Francisco outdoor music festival called Outside Lands. It would be the first time the Muppets had done something live on that scale, and the logistics for such a show are unique, Andrew says, to say the least.
“It’s incredibly physically grueling work for the performers,” he explains. “They’ve got their arms up in the air and the puppets are heavy. So figuring out how we can make that work for 25 minutes or a two-hour show is a real challenge. Not only do we have to manage the flow of the show, but we need to build in these breaks so the performers can put their arms down and get the blood flowing again! It’s sort of like a magic trick, in a way. You want to hide or distract people from what you don’t want them to see and then keep that illusion going.”
The success of the Outside Lands show led to an invitation for the Muppets to perform at the Hollywood Bowl the following year.
“The concept behind that show was crazy-ambitious,” says Andrew. “But we figured if we’re going to be in a theater and doing this live, let’s make this a live version of The Muppet Show, but a two-hour-long version. That was really the idea.”
A good idea, as it turned out. Audiences loved it, and Andrew was excited to write another Muppets live performance when plans were officially made to send the gang to London for another two-hour show.
“It’s nice to do something that was unexpected,” says Andrew, “and that’s something the Muppets do really well – the unexpected. It was definitely unexpected that this would be their next step, to do live events. But it’s fun when people show up and they don’t exactly know what this is going to be. The thing I took away from all three live events was feeling how people felt during the show. They started singing along. It was a beautiful moment where everyone is part of the show. They left, I hope, happier than they came.”
Producing live theater events is somewhat new to Andrew, who usually works in film or digital media. And he’s finding himself drawing on his days in LMHS theater and all he learned there.
“I owe so much of what I do to what I learned in high school,” Andrew says. “Two teachers, specifically – Beth Anthony, who was in charge of TV production at the time, being one of them. I learned so much from her in the couple of years I was in her classes. Also, Bill Eissele, who was the theater teacher. He just retired last year after 25 years of teaching. Really, I owe my career to these two people and the fantastic programs at Lake Mary High. They have massively inspired me. I was really well supported.”
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