“Avenue Q” began when Bobby Lopez, a recent college graduate still living with his parents, and Jeff Marx, a recent law school graduate working as an intern and trying to start a practice with theatrical clients, wondered what it would be like if the Muppet characters with whom they grew up had become adults along with them, and were now themselves recent graduates trying to find love, a job, and an apartment – way out on Avenue Q, the only street where they could afford a place.
“It started sort of as a parody,” Jeff Marx told me ten years ago.
But it went in a different direction, Bobby Lopez added. ”It’s really a story about a 20-something kid who comes to town, and how real life kind of beats him down.”
They based the songs on their own lives.
‘I had a relationship with a girlfriend, which led to ‘There’s a fine, fine line between love/ And a waste of time,’ ” Lopez said, citing lyrics from the song There’s a Fine, Fine Line. ”We’re still together.”
Marx continued: ”And I had a relationship with a boyfriend, which led to ‘The more you love someone/ The more you want to kill ’em.’ ” He added, ”We broke up.”
Plenty of experiences led them to the song “It Sucks To Be Me”:
I can’t pay the bills yet
‘Cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place.
They were telling me this in March, 2003 while sitting in the Vineyard Theater, where, four years after they started working on the show, the musical “not suitable for children” would open a few days later. It opened, it turned out, to tremendous acclaim.
FROM AVENUE Q TO BROADWAY TO FINLAND TO DOWN THE BLOCK
Just four months after it opened Off-Broadway, the producers moved “Avenue Q” to Broadway, where it went on to win three 2004 Tony Awards, for Best Score, Best Book of a Musical, and – the theatrical surprise of the year — for Best Musical. The opening date on Broadway was July 31, 2003 — which is why the show is celebrating its tenth anniversary on July 31, 2013. The mayor has proclaimed it Avenue Q Day in New York City.
“Avenue Q” in fact closed at Broadway’s John Golden Theater four years ago — after six years and 2,534 performances. But at its final performance at that theater, on September 13, 2013, producer Kevin McCollum announced it would move off-Broadway, to New World Stages just five blocks away, where it has been ever since.
Whatever else you can say about the show, it doesn’t suck to have created it. Versions of the show were launched in Las Vegas, in London, on national tour, and all over the globe, including Sweden, Finland, Australia, Mexico, Israel, the Philippines, and Italy. “Avenue Q” grossed some $117 million on Broadway alone.
When “Avenue Q” was about to open Off-Broadway, Jeff Marx told me they’d learned some valuable lessons: “We have learned how to kiss and schmooze people we don’t like.” Six years later, when it was about to close on Broadway, he told me he’d learned some new lessons: “I’m older and successful and don’t have to kiss ass anymore.”
Bobby Lopez has gone on to co-compose an even bigger hit on Broadway, “The Book of Mormon.” If he was living with parents when he first thought up Avenue Q, “now I am my parents” — married (to that girlfriend he mentioned) with two children.
But what about the show they left behind? How does “Avenue Q” hold up?
It holds up well — judging from a performance I saw of the show two years ago, and a performance of three of the songs by the new cast this month in the free lunchtime concert series Broadway in Bryant Park.
GARY COLEMAN CONTROVERSY
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Just like the characters it depicts, the show has not been free of potholes and pitfalls. When Gary Coleman, who had been a celebrated child actor, died in 2010 at age 42, it sparked an almost immediate reaction: What will happen to the character of Gary Coleman in “Avenue Q,” depicted as a has-been building superintendent, who said lines like: “… If life gets you down, don’t sit on your ass and let it pass you by. Take it from someone who learned the hard way: Gary Coleman….My greatest fear is that I already achieved my damn purpose in life. And from then on I’ve been on a slow,tiresome walk to the grave.”
The creators, including book writer Jeff Whitty, did make some changes (“We probably cut 20 words out of 1 million from the show”) but it brought out some critiques that had not been aired before. Actress and puppeteer Erica McLaughlin complained that the only characters not played by puppets were two minority characters, and they are both caricatures. Yes, the show is mocking the stereotypes, she observed, but “with no minority characters in the puppet world of the show, it makes Gary Coleman and Christmas Tree seem more absurd and outsiders.” (She also noticed that the show did not cast people of color to be puppeteers.)
PUPPET BOOT CAMP
There are seven actors who perform in “Avenue Q” every night, but 45 puppets – every time a puppet changes costumes, that’s a new puppet. These were among the tidbits revealed after a special Bloggers Night performance in 2011 by Anika Larsen, who was playing Kate Monster and Lucy, and Jonathan Root, who portrayed Princeton and Rod, explained just how hard it is to learn to be Avenue Q puppeteers — “terrifying,” Larsen says — and how they had to go to a kind of puppet boot camp.
To enlarge any photograph, click on it. (And to make it really big, scroll to the bottom of the pic and click on “View Full Size”)
Earlier this week, in Bryant Park, I talked to Darren Bluestone, who joined the production about 15 months ago, and watched the lunchtime concert:
I left the park, humming “It Sucks To Be Me” and feeling good about it.