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Alan Muraoka

This A-Profiler we bring you Alan Muraoka, perhaps best known as simply "Alan" by millions of children and adults who have watched Sesame Street over the last 8 years. But did you know that Muraoka has been acting since a very young age and has had some prominent roles on Broadway? Or did you know that he gets a huge kick out of shopping at a famous nationwide food chain? Find out more about Muraoka here and get a glimpse into this multi-talented artist.

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What is your ethnic background?
I am a 4th generation Japanese American, which in Japanese is “yonsei.”

You are currently best known for being the proprietor of the famous Hoopers store on Sesame Street. How did you come about becoming one of the "people that you meet each day" in the neighborhood? Was there a long audition process? What's it like being on a show you grew up watching?
The audition process is always a bit grueling and angst-filled. I got a call from my agent about the audition, and I went in with about 100 other actors, both women and men. At that point they didn’t know what they wanted, so they saw a variety of people. Most of the prior owners of Hooper’s Store were older and more grandfather-ish, and I was hoping that they were looking to go in a new direction. I had a total of four auditions for the show, and each time there were fewer and fewer people. At my third callback, they had decided that they needed an Asian American representation on the show, so there were ten of us. And at my final callback for the producers, I got to improv with Telly Monster who is one of the muppet characters on the show. It was very nerve-wracking, but at the same time, I knew that I was a good fit for the show. I had done a lot of children’s theatre in the past, and I love kids. So it seemed like a natural fit. They thought so too, and I got the part.

And I thought it was important to have an Asian American representation on the show, since there has never been an Asian male recurring character on “Sesame.” And I also felt strongly that he should reflect my generation of Asian Americans. So when the writers were contemplating what to name my character, I had a meeting with them and said, “Please just don’t call me Toshi.” I explained that it seems like whenever there are Asian characters on tv and film, that the writers feel that they need to reinforce the ethnicity of the character, even if the character is American-born. Like the audience will miss their race identity unless they are named “Yuki” or “Mei Li.” I think the audience is smarter than that, and they agreed. So that’s how my character on the show was named “Alan.”

It is absolutely an honor to be a part of a show that I grew up watching and loving. I always think that the best children’s entertainment never talks down to its audience, and I think that “Sesame Street” fits into that category. The writing on the show is very smart, and always plays on two levels. There is the focus on the entertainment and education of the child, of course, but there is also a level of sophistication and wit that the adults understand and enjoy as well.

Sometimes we see you singing and dancing on Sesame Street but some people may not know that you actually have Broadway experience. You are now performing with the traveling show, Asian Americans on Broadway: Opening Doors. How did idea for the show evolve and when did you get involved with the show as the director and performer?
Alan Muraoka as the lead role of the Engineer in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.
Alan Muraoka as the lead role of the Engineer in the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon."
I met Paul Osaki, who is the Executive Director of the Japanese Community Cultural Center of Northern California (or the JCCCNC) last year doing a benefit called “Salute to the Stars,” which highlighted the careers of such notable Asian American actors as Mako and Pat Morita. After it was over, myself and another actress (Christine Toy Johnson) pitched an idea of a concert of Broadway music to Paul. And Paul is such a fan and supporter of Broadway and the performing arts that he jumped at the opportunity, and the idea was born. The concert was the result of a year of planning and raising sponsors. I at first was just going to direct the concert, but we lost a performer, and my services as an actor were called on as well. I usually don’t like to perform in something that I am directing, because I don’t like being so split-focused. But ultimately I was glad that I was in the concert, because the wave of love coming from the audience was so great. It was overwhelming and heartfelt. I think it’s because the Asian American community is still so underrepresented in the arts, that to actually see the amazing talent that is in our group is still a surprise, even to our own community.

What's your absolute favorite Broadway musical and which role, if any, would be your dream Broadway role?
That’s such a hard question, because I have so many favorite musicals for so many reasons. But I would say that if I needed to pick one that I would love to be cast in, it would probably be “Les Miserables.” I would love to tackle Javert, which is the antagonist in the play. I use one of Javert’s songs whenever I audition for jobs, and it suits me very well. But that being said, I love smaller, ensemble shows like “Avenue Q,” “Falsettos,” and “Once on This Island” as well. Most people aren’t as familiar with these shows, but they are all amazing.

When you were growing up, were your parents supportive of your desire to pursue theatre/acting?
My parents were very supportive of my desire to be in the arts. My Dad loves to sing, and he’s known in our circle of family and friends for his rendition of “Danny Boy.” But being Asian parents, of course they were concerned with my choosing such a volatile career choice. But when they saw that I was actually getting work and was being paid for it, I think they relaxed a little. My Mom passed away from breast cancer about 10 years ago, but she got to fly to New York to see me do the lead role in “Miss Saigon” before she died, and I think that meant a lot to her. I know it meant the world to me. My only regret is that she died before I got my job on “Sesame Street,” because she was a teacher, and I know that she would have loved it.

Kids probably see you out and about and say "it's Alan!" My guess is that they probably follow that up with something like "where's Elmo?" How does it feel to be so recognizable to kids around the world yet sometimes play second fiddle to a red furry monster?
I knew going into the show where the muppets are the stars, so I never had a problem with that. And of course, it’s the muppets that the children respond to the most. So it’s actually the parents who come up to me more, because they watch with their kids. And although it doesn’t happen all the time, there are certain places that it happens more often than others. I like to joke with my friends that I’m like Brad Pitt when I go to Costco, because there’s lots of families who shop there. For the younger kids there’s not an immediate recognition, because to them Sesame Street is a real place, so what would I be doing out of it. But for the older kids, the recognition is totally there. I was in Maine over the summer at a mall, and a little girl saw me and told her Mom that she saw “Alan from ‘Sesame Street.’” But her Mom didn’t believe her, thinking that her daughter was making up stories. And before I could get to them, the Mother and daughter disappeared into the crowd. But it’s always flattering and humbling when it happens.

What's been the most memorable moment on Sesame Street for you so far?
There have been a couple. The first time I got to say “Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letter “X” and the number “12”” and “Sesame Street is a production of the Children’s Television Workshop” was an absolute thrill for me, because I grew up hearing that when I watched the show. For those who don’t know, this was the tag line at the end of every show. At least it was for many years. We don’t say that now, and I miss it.

From left to right- A New York Firefighter discusses safety with Alan, Elmo, and Maria on Sesame Street.
From left to right- A New York Firefighter discusses safety with Alan, Elmo, and Maria on "Sesame Street.
My other most memorable shows were the ones we did immediately after 9/11. We started production the week after the attack, and since we film “Sesame” in New York, we were all still reeling from it. We knew we needed to do something, and the Executive Producer called a meeting the first day of filming to tell us that the writers were working on eposides in direct response to the issues raised in the aftermath of the event. So we did shows on racism, tolerance, and the one that I am most proud of, a show which highlighted the heroism of firefighters. The episode dealt with a small grease fire that I have in Hooper’s Store, and Elmo is scared by the event and by the firefighters who come to put out the blaze. And throughout the episode, Elmo visits an actual New York firehouse and learns that these men and women are everyday heroes, and the important role they have in the community. We used actual New York City firefighters during the filming, and they all shared their stories of being down at Ground Zero. It is an episode that I am extremely proud to be a part of.

When not performing, what do you like to do when you have down time? Are there favorite foods/restaurants you enjoy?
I’m a huge foodie, so I love cooking and eating out. I actually went to the French Culinary Instutite here in New York and took a pastry course. And I use some of these skills when we film “Sesame.”

What would be one odd or unique fact about you that few people know about?
I get as excited going to Trader Joe’s as I do going to Disneyland.

What advice do you have for aspiring entertainers out there?
Training is everything. I have worked in the industry because I studied acting, singing and dance, and so I am pretty comfortable in any situation. If there is something you are not good at, take a class and get better at it. And if performing isn’t your strongest passion, don’t get into it professionally. Because it’s an extremely hard business to break into, and even harder to make as your life’s work. And perform whenever and wherever you can to get training. I worked at Disneyland, on cruise ships, and that all helped me gain experience that helps me to this day.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Any final words for your fans?
Please visit my website at www.alanmuraoka.net, and drop me an email to say hi! And thanks for taking the time to read this!!

Alan Muraoka

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This issue of A-Profiler is brought to you by Nelson Wong. Special thanks to Alan Muraoka.

Images courtesy of Alan Muraoka. Used with permission.
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