Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Avenue Q

After years of anticipation, the smash Broadway hit Avenue Q opens today in Chicago. It's the latest stage in an ongoing rocket ride for my college friend Jeff Marx, the show's co-creator.

We met freshman year in the Honors dormitory at the University of Michigan and hit it off. Jeff was a friendly, talented kid from Hollywood, Florida with a great love for musical comedy. He wrote funny songs on the synthesizer in his dorm room and performed in campus musicals.

For Jeff, musical theater wasn't just a hobby; he had more serious ambitions. After college he moved to New York City and embarked on a theater career, working for major Broadway producers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Fran and Barry Weissler to learn the business side of show business. He also cultivated songwriting mentors like Stephen Sondheim and Barry Manilow.

Jeff went to law school to learn about his own rights as a creative artist, working as a research assistant for a leading professor of entertainment law. All the while he was developing his skills as a songwriter, creating and writing entire shows by himself and shepherding the annual law school musical.

After graduation, Jeff won admission into a prestigious musical theater boot camp called the BMI Workshop, where he met a talented composer-lyricist and recent Yale grad named Bobby Lopez. At an early session, Jeff performed a funny, touching song he'd written called "People Suck" ("People suck / Nobody listens / Nobody really cares about you / But I do"). Bobby and Jeff liked each other's work and soon decided to work together.

They wanted to write musicals for their own generation, but to the modern audience, characters suddenly bursting into song like Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma! felt stilted and passe, like something from a previous era. A traditional musical wasn't going to cut it. It occurred to Jeff and Bobby that everyone their age had grown up on "Sesame Street" and no one batted an eye when a Muppet sang a lesson or silly song. So they decided to write for the Muppets.

They co-wrote a Muppet musical version of Hamlet entitled Kermit, Prince of Denmark. Unlike the murderous original, it's a mistaken identity comedy in the Prince and the Pauper vein. A lookalike Kermit is mistaken for the Prince, and after he's swept into the castle by confused courtiers, his sunshiny Muppet enthusiasm restores friendship and happiness to the tense Danish monarchy.

I've heard the songs; they're fantastic. Unfortunately, Jim Henson's son Brian passed, leaving Jeff and Bobby nowhere to go since they didn't own the characters. The good news was that Kermit won them the Ed Kleban Award, a $100,000 cash prize funded by the late lyricist of A Chorus Line that helped support them while they continued to chase their dream.

After their Muppet experience, they realized they had to create their own characters to control their own destiny. And so they did, writing a funny, racy parody of children's television: think "Sesame Street" for grownups.

The protagonist is a fresh-faced college grad puppet named Princeton. He arrives in New York City ready to set the world on fire, but he doesn't have a job and the city's pretty expensive. He finds his first apartment on Avenue Q, a downtrodden but affordable block in an outer borough, where he and his new neighbors struggle to get jobs, find dates, sort out their sexuality, make ends meet in the big city and figure out their purpose in life.

Despite all the puppets and primary colors, Avenue Q isn't for kids: with songs like "The Internet Is For Porn," "If You Were Gay" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," the show teaches a lot more than the alphabet.

It's by turns hilarious, dirty, clever and moving, a knowing sendup of earnest public television like "Sesame" and "The Electric Company" and yet entirely original. The puppeteers work in full view of the audience, acting out their parts along with the puppets. No one had seen anything like it and pretty much everyone who saw it loved it.

Jeff and Bobby originally wrote Avenue Q for television, intending it for somewhere like Fox, HBO or ideally the post-South Park timeslot on Comedy Central. But television executives gave them the cold shoulder.

Things got interesting when a producer of Rent offered to produce Avenue Q for the stage. Jeff and Bobby quickly embraced the idea: with an open-ended television series, they'd have to write new songs every week, whereas in the theater, they could handpick their best material and craft a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. With the powerhouse producing team of the biggest musical in years ready to make it happen, all they had to do was say yes.

The rest is theater history. Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in the Vineyard Theater to a huge response, drawing rave reviews and earning a Lucille Lortel award for the best off-Broadway musical. It became a word-of-mouth hit and was extended several times.

Soon after the run, the show's producers announced it was headed to Broadway. Some skeptics thought it was too small a show to make the jump up to the big time, but they were proved wrong. Avenue Q booked the Golden Theater, the smallest theater on Broadway, where the audience could still read the puppeteers' facial expressions and the show could maintain the intimate feel of its off-Broadway run.

Avenue Q opened on Broadway on July 31, 2003 and never looked back. It drew raves from the critics and roars from the seats, quickly becoming the must-see buzz show of the season. I saw it over Labor Day weekend in 2003, five weeks into its Broadway run, and it blew the roof off the place. The show was even better than I'd heard it was. I laughed myself silly and and was literally moved to tears by a bunch of puppets. I thought I'd lost interest in musical theater, but boy, was I wrong.

In an elegant case of life imitating art, Jeff was supposed to join my family for dinner on our way to the show, but he ended up having to postpone for a few days. He was busy wrapping up his move from a drafty fifth-floor walkup in an unfashionable outlying neighborhood—the real life equivalent of Avenue Q—to a sleek Times Square apartment in a doorman building around the corner from the Golden Theater. Princeton had graduated.

For my money, Avenue Q is the best new musical this country has produced since A Chorus Line. By now, you may have reason to doubt my objectivity, so don't take my word for it. Ask anyone who's seen it. Read its reviews. Everyone agrees: it's a great, great show.

The Chicago stop on the national tour will be over in two short weeks, so don't miss out. Grab your Avenue Q tickets here.


Q1Go said...

See, that's definitely the clean version of the "People Suck" lyrics - I know it as: People Suck/they don't give a fuck about you/they don't give a fuck what you think/but I do.

Anonymous said...

What year were you at U Mich?


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-- Lisa