When Nickelodeon’s breakout hit children’s show Blue’s Clues (1996-2006) returned as the rebooted Blue’s Clues & You! last fall, some wondered whether this sweet and occasionally silent show from the pre-smartphone era could succeed amidst the noise of the “digital age.”
The answer – with the dynamic Josh Dela Cruz ’11 as the human sidekick to cartoon puppy Blue – is a resounding, “Yes!”
The show ranked No. 1 among preschool shows in its first week, and a second season was ordered just eight days after its November 11, 2019, debut.
According to critics, one big reason for its wild success is Dela Cruz, whose musical theater chops and natural charm spring from the screen while pulling viewers in.
“He is a good singer!” says 3-year-old Mira, a fan of the show from Millburn, New Jersey, who also likes that “Josh” built a block tower for Blue and his puppy friend Magenta when they were sad. Mira’s mom, Jennifer DiDomenico, says Mira is “obsessed with this show.”
And the appeal crosses age groups. Jessica Fox, a mother of two from Maplewood, New Jersey, reports: “Both my kids love him! And so do I!”
After graduating from Montclair State with a degree in Musical Theatre, Dela Cruz found success in the New York/Broadway theater scene, playing Lun Tha across from Lou Diamond Phillips and Rachel Bay Jones in The King and I, earning roles in the David Lynch/Fatboy Slim collaboration Here Lies Love and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, and working as an ensemble cast member and understudy for the lead in the Disney hit Aladdin.
But, as a Filipino American, Dela Cruz says he initially didn’t envision himself on television. “I never experienced seeing somebody like me on TV growing up. That definitely does play a part in why maybe I never even saw myself on television – or even mainstream media.”
He credits Montclair State with helping him embrace his identity.
“The Theatre and Dance department took me in and put me in plays which I had never done,” Dela Cruz says, noting that he was cast in roles typically reserved for white actors – from Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, to Ken Ludwig and George Gershwin’s Crazy for You.
“It didn’t matter what I looked like. I don’t know if I would be the performer I am today and as accepting of my identity – which has led to my success – if it hadn’t been for Montclair State.”
Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance Clay James says Dela Cruz made the most of his education: “Josh was the kind of student who, right from the start, took full advantage of everything that Montclair State University has to offer, in terms of professional training and performance opportunity.”
Critics have lauded Dela Cruz’s performance on Blue’s Clues & You! and have noted that he represents both an opportunity for Asian American children to feel seen and for children in general to have an Asian American role model. The show is going all in on Dela Cruz’s Filipino identity: Season 2 will introduce Josh’s lola (Tagalog for grandma), played by actor and jazz performer Carolyn Fe.
“I don’t know if I would be the performer I am today and as accepting of my identity if it hadn’t been for Montclair State.”
Meanwhile, Josh is embracing his new role as not just an entertainer – but as an educator. Blue’s Clues & You! is fun, but at its core, it’s educational television a la Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The show focuses on social-emotional issues, pre-math, pre-reading, science and preschool rituals in a fun way (with a game of solving a mystery) and in a comfortable setting with repetition and songs to increase both enjoyment and retention.
According to NickJr.com: “Everyone is invited to play with Blue, a pre-school aged puppy with a clue … three, actually! Each day, Blue leaves paw prints on three objects around her house to communicate what activity she wants to do. Josh, Blue’s excited new caregiver and friend, looks for the paw prints and works to figure out Blue’s message … but he can only solve Blue’s Clues with the help of YOU!”
A new generation of young viewers help Blue by answering questions posed by Dela Cruz who then waits silently, giving children at home time to think and respond to their television screens. To end the silence, Josh brightly announces, “Right!” “Great, thanks!” or “You know what to do!”
Dela Cruz brings warmth and realism to his performance despite acting it all out in front of a green screen on a sound stage in Toronto, with a laser light standing in for Blue. As the show’s lead human performer, he spent seven months in Toronto filming the first season, and returned for another six months to film the second season.
Dela Cruz says the educational component to the performance is a natural fit, and credits Montclair State for not only training him as a performer, but fostering his love of teaching.
“While I was in Aladdin, I taught a senior workshop for Montclair State Musical Theatre students,” he recalls.
Dela Cruz says that he and his wife, musical theater professional (Broadway’s Jersey Boys) Amanda Phillips ’11, have both “fallen in love with teaching” and hope to come back to Montclair State to work with students in theatre and dance classes. “The fact that Montclair State gave me an opportunity to come back after I worked out in the world professionally, I can’t thank them enough. Now I get to help kids with Blue’s Clues & You! It’s amazing.”
“Josh and Amanda weren’t afraid to put in the time and did the work far beyond what was expected of them,” says James. “I am so proud of what they have accomplished professionally and thrilled that they are now paying it forward by inspiring current performance students through their master classes and guest teaching opportunities.”
Dela Cruz says the University made it all possible for an immigrant kid to realize his dreams.
“We lived a modest middle class life. I remember looking up schools for musical theatre, and tuition per year was what my dad made,” he says. “I’m so thankful that I don’t have student debt. Having an affordable place to study is something I treasure and so appreciate as well as having a good quality education.”