"I just want to live inside her brain," says Megan Hilty of Centaurworld creator Megan Nicole Dong. "Watching this show you get to inhabit her brain for a minute, and it’s a delightful place to be."
The new musical animated series from Netflix follows a war horse who gets separated from her rider and gets magicked into a completely different universe full of colorful, silly, singing centaurs. Or as Dong says in her short elevator pitch for the series, "What would happen if you took someone like Brienne of Tarth and dropped her into the Muppets?’ It’s really a fish-out-of-water story."
Dong previously worked on and wrote songs for Pinky Malinky, another Netflix animated series, but this is the animator's first musical project of this scale. The self-proclaimed "big musical theatre nerd" wrote the songs with co-executive producer Dominic Bisignano for voice-over talent that includes a roster of Broadway favorites such as Megan Hilty, Kimiko Glenn, and Jessie Mueller in series regular roles, and Lea Salonga, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Renée Elise Goldsberry in guest roles. Josh Radnor, Parvesh Cheena, and Chris Diamantopoulos fill out the cast, with guest appearances running the gamut from comedians Flula Borg and Paul F. Thompkins to recording artists Santigold, Jamie Cullum, and First Aid Kit.
The ten-episode first season is now streaming on Netflix. It's listed as Kids' TV for Netflix, but Dong says she created it with the family in mind. "I genuinely think there’s something for everybody, but I hope it’s something that people can share. I always wanted people to sit down and watch it together. And talk about it and react to it together."
Playbill sat down with a few of the series stars to get their take on the quirky comedy. Read on below as Kimiko Glenn, Megan Hilty, Jessie Mueller, and Dong (who is also a member of the cast) talk about their characters and some of their favorite things in Centaurworld.
Tell us about your Centaurworld character, what it is and who it it.
Kimiko Glenn: My character’s name is Horse. She’s a war horse that comes from an embattled land. She comes from a dark war-torn environment, and she drops into this hilarious and loving and silly and goofy land called Centaurworld. Which is exactly what it sounds like—a bunch of centaurs. It’s fun, but her whole journey surrounds trying to find her rider. Her rider is stuck in the world she had just left and so these hilarious and goofy centaurs go on the journey to help her find her rider.
Megan Hilty: I play Wammawink. She is kind of the mother of the group. She’s an alpaca centaur. She’s pink and fluffy and she looks like she would be really lovely to hug. She’s really silly, but she’s like a mama bear. She really cuddles the people she considers her babies, but if threatened she will become ferocious and protect them.
Jessie Mueller: I have the honor of playing the first human you see in the series. I play a character named Rider, because from the horse’s world, that how she knows the character; she knows her as her rider, so she calls her Rider. And Rider is this fierce, badass warrior who fights with our main character Horse through these terrible wars that have rained upon their world.
Megan Nicole Dong: Glendale is half gerenuk, which is a kind of antelope. A skinny antelope creature. Glendale is a ball of nerves. She has a lot of anxiety, which I personally relate to. Where we diverge a little bit is that she deals with this by compulsively stealing. Her magical ability is that she has a portal tummy where she can kind of store things, so she does a lot of stealing which I don’t do in real life. In terms of the vocal performance, I was really inspired by the Muppets for a lot of the physicality and I really wanted this character to feel entirely like a Muppet, so she has a lot of Cookie Monster and extreme stuff happening with her voice.
Do you share any traits with your Centaurworld character?
Glenn: Horse kind of has this protective veneer. She’s very guarded. She comes from a land where she has to be, and that’s all she knows. She’s a fighter. She’s a protector. It takes her a while to soften up and get to the heart of things. The centaurs lead her down that path where she just has to face herself and go "Wow, my heart is what leads me, and I actually really love these creatures that have helped me along the way." That’s one of the things that I take from her. Depending on what stage of my life I’m in, I can be really guarded and protective of myself and protective of my heart. I’m only vulnerable to those that I’m super close with, but I also know in my wise mind that vulnerability is strength in so many ways. So, I try and not lead with a guarded heart. I try and leap in fully open if I can.
Hilty: Many! I think I’m very silly and goofy, even though people might not think that about me. I think people associate me with my character I played on tv. They assume that's who I am, but I think I’m more like Wammawink. I’m also a mom, and I like to mother not only my kids, but my friends and the people that are my herd in real life, too.
Mueller: I’d like to think I’m a badass warrior, but I don’t wield a sword or a spear as well as she does. And I’m not as good of a horseback rider. Her hair is much better than mine. I like to think that I have a fierce loyalty to the people I love, so I’d say that. And a dry sense of humor.
Dong: She’s an unapologetic weirdo, which I also am. If I wasn’t a little weird, I don’t think I would have made this show.
What attracted you to this project?
Glenn: I was like “Oh I think the creator is a Broadway fan.” I’m a big Broadway fan, so that attracted me. But also the incredible music. I auditioned for four or five roles and I got to hear a lot of the music and see a lot of illustrations. I was just drawn to the ridiculous nature of the illustrations. But also my character is very serious in comparison. The journey she goes on was really fascinating to me.
Hilty: Animation and voice-over work has become, over the last 15 years, my favorite thing to do, because it is so artistically fulfilling. You’re basically encouraged to try just about anything. I get to sing in most projects. In this one, I get to sing a lot. And in different ways, too. I love that challenge of coming into the both and learning music really quickly, and again, trying just about anything. I’ve always been grateful for my voice-over career, but during the pandemic, it’s been essential. It’s basically been the only thing I’ve been able to do. It’s kept me singing every week. It’s kept me connected to other actors and creative people. And it’s just kept me working. So I’m grateful on many accounts for my voice-over and animation career.
Mueller: Sort of my life dream has always been to be a cartoon, so I was completely geeking out about this. I got the audition, and then I started to hear the description of the project and my mind was swimming in a very happy way. I was really just blown away by the music. I feel like I didn’t know a ton going into it; it was just sort of an audition like many others. I’ve been doing some auditions for animation but not a ton, and I just found it really interesting and really challenging. And this one seemed really unique. I think maybe I read for a couple of different characters at first and they had me come back and read for Rider, and I’m just so grateful that they let me do it.
Do you have a favorite scene or song from Centaurworld?
Glenn: I have several. I’m not gonna lie…Comfortable Doug. The character Comfortable Doug has a song called “Comfortable Doug.” It made me laugh so hard. I have the whole thing on my phone because I just love to watch it when I haven’t had a good laugh in a while. By far that is my favorite song, but there are so many good songs in this.
Hilty: There was a song, and as soon as I heard the demo I started having heart palpitations, but I was also really excited to start learning it. Wammawink starts panicking that Horse is going to leave and this song starts spiraling out of control as she’s grasping at different things to try to keep Horse there with her. It really delves into my classical training, which is great because I don’t get to do that much in my real life. It was extremely challenging which is probably why I had the most fun with it.
Mueller: I binged the other day and spent most of it watching with my mouth open. What I love about the series, Megan is just so smart in the way she’s crafted everything, and that plays into the music, too. There are leitmotifs that come back and come in and out, so you hear different bits of melody that have been established early on, and they come back to other characters, and there’s reprises. You really get a sense for her love for musical theatre and the structure of it and how the form works. There’s a lullaby theme that comes back and forth and there are these melodies that she brings back and has a different character sing it. So, a lot of those are in my head. Also, every time Kimiko sings, I was watching it, and I just kept saying “Gosh, I love her voice. Gosh, I love her voice.” And it was so fun for me too because Kimiko and I got to work together in the original company of Waitress...And anything Megan Hilty sings just delights me. I was texting her the other day, I was like “friend, you are just so fantastic in this and just so creative, just wild and goofy.”
Dong: I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve talked about this with Dominic, my co-executive producer, who wrote a bunch of the songs. The funny thing is, our favorite songs ended up being songs the other person wrote. My favorite was “Comfortable Doug” which he wrote. It’s such an earworm. We wanted a song that would kind of celebrate all these “interupty characters”—these characters that don’t necessarily have the primary part of the story but are a lot of fun to be around. I really enjoyed the message of it and the actual melody.
What is your favorite Centaurworld magic power?
Glenn: Shooting little mini centaurs out of their hooves is the most random superpower, and kind of does no good but is hilarious and adorable.
Hilty: I think it is so silly and delightful that they shoot tiny versions of themselves from their hooves. It’s amazing...I don’t even know quite what the...I feel silly even saying it, but it actually proves to be helpful within the storytelling of the show. There’s literally miniature Wammawinks that shoot out of her hooves when she wants to, and then the little tiny versions just panic because they don’t know where they are or why they are and they start screaming. It’s so ridiculously funny.
Mueller: The one thing that kept making me laugh, I guess everybody can shoot the tiny versions of themselves out of their hooves, but the one that kept making me laugh was Durpleton’s sparkly, blinky eyes. Pretty much anything Josh Radnor was saying was just making me giggle.
Dong: “I can shoot tiny versions of myself from my hoof” was such a ridiculous and disturbing concept, so that one was probably my favorite.
If you had a magic power in the real world, what would it be?
Glenn: I’ve always wanted to be able to teleport. I’m always late, so if I could teleport somewhere I think that would help solve that problem at least a little bit.
Hilty: To get my kids to eat their breakfast when I ask them to. That would be a good one to have.
Mueller: Flying. That’s not a very creative one, but that’s the first thing that popped into my head. How cool would it be to fly?
Dong: It’s probably because I play the character of Glendale, but I’ve always thought about how useful it would be to have a portal tummy and be able to carry anything with me at all times and have access to it whenever.