Growing Up on Avenue Q


Today, Bobby Lopez turns 41, which seems as good a time as any to resurrect this article I wrote about him and Jeff Marx on September 10, 2009, just as their hit Tony-winning musical Avenue Q was about to close on Broadway after six years. Much has happened since then: Rather than closing, the musical moved Off-Broadway to New World Stages, where it’s still playing six and a half years later.  Then, one of the shows Lopez was working on that he mentions almost in passing in the interview below, became the enormous Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon.  After that came the collaboration with his wife Kristin Anderson Lopez.– which he doesn’t even mention below — on a show called “Frozen,” the most successful animated film of all time. The hit song from that film, “Let It Go,” led to Bobby Lopez’s winning his EGOT — only the 12th person in history to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony in competitive categories. The Lopezes are part of the team that is currently adapting “Frozen”  for Broadway. This will be his third show on Broadway.

The story below is as it was written in 2009 for a now-defunct online newspaper.  

Bobby Lopez was a recent college graduate and Jeff Marx was a recent law school graduate when they first 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.

“When we thought of it, I was 24 and living with my parents, and a freelancer for children’s musicals,” Lopez says to me now.

“I was 29, living in a studio in the East Village, and working as an intern trying to start a law practice</a> with theatrical clients,” Marx says.

Ten years later, with “Avenue Q” coming to an end on Broadway, Bobby Lopez is 34, married, the father of two daughters – one four years old, one four months old – and living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As for a job? “I still freelance, I guess.”

Jeff Marx, who turns 39 today, lives with his boyfriend in a 17-room house near the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles — “Ian and I are getting married as soon as California overturns Prop 8” — and “I’m in-between my last musical and my next musical.”

September 13th will mark the last Broadway performance of “Avenue Q,” though certainly not the last time anyone will sing along with such songs as “It Sucks To Be Me” and such lyrics as “I can’t pay the bills yet ‘Cause I have no skills yet The world is a big scary place,” >and watch while adorably fuzzy little puppets swear, whine, have sex, look at Internet porn, come out, argue over racism, and delight in the suffering of other puppets:

Watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken

Or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in!

Being on an elevator when somebody shouts “hold the door”

No! Schadenfreude! Fuck you lady, that’s what stairs are for

Now that the show is ending on Broadway (in a run that lasted longer than all but 19 other shows in Broadway history),  community and amateur theaters – and colleges — will reportedly soon be able to start putting it on.

I was the first person to interview Bobby Lopez and his songwriting partner Jeff Marx for the New York Times six and a half years ago, when Avenue Q was about to open Off-Broadway. There in the seats of the Vineyard Theater on East 15th Street, in-between a preview matinee and a preview evening performance, Marx, who was 32, and Lopez, who was 28, explained their show. Marx: ”We figured out that people our age had actually grown up on musicals — in the form of Muppet movies and ‘Sesame Street. ” Lopez: ”There’s something about our generation that resists actors bursting into song on the stage. But when puppets do it, we believe it.’

And how! “Avenue Q” moved to Broadway four months later, and 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. “We’re not exactly sure how this happened,” said the successful songwriting team of  Lopez and Marx in a joint interview with Gothamist at the time. “…suddenly we turn around and add it all up and we’re in tuxes, on the stage of Radio City Music Hall accepting a Tony from Carol Channing and L.L. Cool J!”

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.

Has “Avenue Q” itself helped changed the attitude towards musicals from ten years ago – as evidenced by the popularity of such musicals as “Spring Awakening” and the revival of “Hair” among 20-somethings and younger?

Lopez: “I do think people are more musical-friendly now. I’d like to think that maybe we had a little something to do with that.”

Marx: “I still think that traditional singing musicals have limited appeal for younger people, and that we have to find exciting new ways to make musicals work.”

And how have their own lives changed since the success of “Avenue Q”? In 2003, they explained how much of the show was a result of what was happening to them personally: Lopez: ”I had a relationship with a girlfriend, which led to ‘There’s a fine, fine line between love/ And a waste of time,’ ” a lyric from the show. ‘We’re still together.” Marx: ”And I had a relationship with a boyfriend, which led to ‘The more you love someone/ The more you want to kill ’em’, ” another lyric. ”We broke up.”

The night that the New York Times gave the Off-Broadway production a rave review, Lopez says, he thought it a good time to propose to that girlfriend, Kristen Anderson. She accepted.

So now, no longer 20-somethings, what are their new concerns…and will they be writing musicals about them?

Marx: “I guess my primary concern these days is how to get up in the morning and be creative when you’re no longer motivated by hunger.” Marx long ago gave up the idea of a law practice and has been writing for TV and the movies. “I’m co-writing a film about losing your ‘other’ virginity (the one with the other gender, the one you’re not attracted to) for the producers of ‘American Pie,’ I’m writing a brand new made-for-TV musical movie for The Muppets, and I’m co-writing a new Broadway musical based on the movie ‘Airplane.'”

Lopez: “My concerns now are with how to manage my time — to squeeze in time for all my projects, plus spending time with my wife and kids, and once in a while having a teeny little bit of a social life.” Lopez admits to having “a lot fewer worries about money than I used to,” but still worries (and yes it’s true “money does not equal happiness.”) “I guess part of growing up is learning that you’ll always have problems of one sort or another, and to learn to calm yourself.”

As for musicals, Lopez says, “I have been working constantly since ‘Avenue Q’ opened…and I do write about my life.”

With his wife, who is also a songwriter, he wrote ‘Finding Nemo, The Musical,’ which has been playing at Disney World since 2006. “We definitely poured our feelings about being new parents into it.

“Now I’m writing another show with Kristen that draws from our life — we’ve been developing it on commission from the Roundabout Theatre and Robyn Goodman. It’s very autobiographical and it’s basically a romantic comedy with a very cool theatrical twist…called “Up Here.”

He is also collaborating on a musical called “The Book of Mormon” with the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. “It’s really about religion, one of my favorite subjects.” He considered himself a “moderately religious” Catholic as a child, but “then ended up singing in Episcopal church choirs in college to help pay bills (Episcopals pay the best). I lost touch with religion but I’m still spiritual and think about the issue a lot — it’s certainly one of the great universal themes to write about. Not to mention I developed a real liking for sacred music over the years.” And he also gets to work with the South Park people; the South Park musical helped inspire Avenue Q, “though we wanted to give our show more heart than ‘South Park’ had.”

Lopez also won an Emmy last year for music he wrote for a TV show on Nick Jr. called Wonder Pets. “I got involved because a) I loved the show and b) I knew my kids would love it. My wife writes for the show occasionally and now my brother is its head writer. Even my daughter Katie has done voiceover work for it!

“Avenue Q led to all this work. In the end that is what I’m most grateful for, I think,” Lopez says. “I’ve wanted to have a career writing musical theater since I was eleven. Now I have one, and it feels like it might not go away! I thank the universe every day.”

Jeff Marx is grateful too. When “Avenue Q” was about to open Off-Broadway, he told me “We have learned how to kiss and schmooze people we don’t like.” Now he says: “I’m older and successful and don’t have to kiss ass anymore.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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