Pioneering ’Avenue Q’ Celebrates 10th Anniversary
Theater producer Robyn Goodman walked into the popular Broadway restaurant Angus McIndoe in mid-2003 and bumped into Nathan Lane, sipping wine.
He told her that he'd just seen her raunchy new downtown musical.
"You're not moving that to Broadway, are you?" he asked her in disbelief.
"Actually we are, Nathan," she told him.
Fast forward to the Tony Awards.
"Who hands me my Tony for the show?" asks Goodman, with a smile. "Nathan Lane."
The musical was "Avenue Q," the groundbreaking show that combined Muppet-style creatures with human actors to create something funny and dangerous, paving the way for "The Book of Mormon."
With its puppet-on-puppet sex, off-kilter songs like "It Sucks to Be Me" and general naughtiness, "Avenue Q" was a blast of tequila at a time when Broadway was safely drinking vino.
"Everyone in the business thought we were crazy," says Goodman, who would go on to produce hits like and "In the Heights" and "Rogers + Hammerstein's Cinderella."
This summer, "Avenue Q," which began life in an off-Broadway theater downtown, had a six-year Broadway run and is now chugging along nicely off-Broadway again, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
"It's just the little train that could," says Goodman.
It began with a puppet
It began with just three songs - sung by a puppet.
Goodman and one of her producing partners, Kevin McCollum, recall hearing three songs from the nascent show at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. They were delivered by a happy-go-lucky green puppet called Nicky, controlled by designer Rick Lyon.
Two tunes have endured - "If You Were Gay" and "Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist" - and one fell along the way for not advancing the plot. ("Tear It Up and Throw It Away," a tune about what you get when you get a jury summons.)
What the producers loved was that the music and lyrics of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez - both inspired by "South Park" - had fused the chirpy world of musical theater with the jaded view of those weaned on "Sesame Street," reruns of `80s sitcoms such as "Diff’rent Strokes" and the Internet.
"I thought it was the most original thing I’d ever seen," says Goodman.
Marx and Lopez had been toying with making it into an episodic TV show about young temps in New York. Goodman thought it might fit better on the stage, as long as there was a love story.
For his part, McCollum, whose Broadway credits include producing "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Rent," was amazed that he had found himself earnestly discussing the show with the squeaky-voiced Nicky, not the puppet controller Lyon.
"I had the meeting about the show with the puppet," he recalls, laughing. "It was so real to me that I was making the deal with this puppet."
The concept - using puppets and putting them in modern situations to help reveal real life - was a winner but everyone wanted it to go deeper than just a bunch of funny songs
Enter playwright Jeff Whitty.
"My agent just called and said, ’How do you feel about writing a musical starring puppets?’" he says with a laugh. "I didn’t have anything else going on at the time. So I said, ’Sure.’"
Whitty, Marx and Lopez eventually created the story of a recent college grad called Princeton who comes to a rundown street in an outer borough of New York in search of what he fondly calls his "purpose."
Along the way, Princeton gets sidetracked by a sweet yet furry kindergarten teaching assistant named Kate Monster and a voluptuous vixen with the telltale name of Lucy T. Slut.
Others on "Avenue Q" include a closeted, gay Republican investment banker; the investment banker’s slacker, yet straight roommate; a Japanese therapist; a hairy creature obsessed by Internet porn; and Gary Coleman, the diminutive star of "Diff’rent Strokes," who in the musical is now working as a building superintendent.
The cute furry animals with heads larger than human ones were a Trojan horse, in a way. "The puppets were a perfect way to get a generation that had grown up scoffing at musicals to find a way to like them," Lopez says.
There are jokes about Scientology, Fox News and "Girls Gone Wild," but serious issues, too. Marx is proud that the musical had a closeted character that showed audiences how frustrating life can be.
"I’ve always felt it was so important that the audience wants him to come out and be gay, which is really a starter step for people accepting the gay people in their own lives," says Marx.
The use of puppets turned into a freeing device - "Avenue Q" could poke fun at topics like racism, porn and schadenfreude. "I think it’s one of the most human shows ever because puppets tell the truth and nobody says, ’You can’t say that,’" says McCollum. "We allow puppets to say anything politically incorrect because it is like the mask in Greek drama."
"Avenue Q" opened on March 20, 2003, at the Vineyard Theatre, a small off-Broadway venue east of Union Square. Everyone was worried: Would the subscription audience accept puppets saying and singing four-letter words?
Actually, few cared, initially.
That was because March 20, 2003, was the day U.S. missiles began hitting Baghdad, signaling the start of the U.S.-led campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.
But "Avenue Q" couldn’t be sidelined. Word-of-mouth extended its run at the Vineyard four times and producers began looking for a possible Broadway home. McCollum was only able to entice Gerald Schoenfeld, who ran The Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest landlord, to come see it.
Schoenfeld brought his wife and then-19-year-old grandson. They both loved it - for different reasons - and that secured a deal. "Avenue Q" moved into the John Golden Theatre on Broadway and stayed for more than six years. It won the Tony for best musical in 2004.
For the past four years, the show has been in the off-Broadway theater complex in New World Stages, where it has never had a losing week. Running costs are about $100,000 a week - a third what they were on Broadway - and "Avenue Q" has a very healthy $400,000 in advance sales.
For the people who helped create the show, "Avenue Q" changed their lives. Whitty, who had toiled in New York for 10 years, says it was "my first experience of having something actually become a success."
Marx calls it "the thing I’m most proud of in my life and want on my tombstone." Lopez, who went on to co-create "The Book of Mormon," still looks back fondly on his first hit: "Personally, I can’t imagine anything ever topping the experience of ’Avenue Q.’"
And for Goodman, accepting the Tony from Nathan Lane for "Avenue Q" was her proudest moment in the theater. "It was so dangerous to do in a way and so fulfilling," she says. "I loved it so much. It made me laugh. It still makes me laugh."