March 19, 2003, was a night of beginnings. That evening, American troops began the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, performers gathered at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan to present the world premiere of Avenue Q.
The two efforts—both still ongoing—have little in common beyond their audacity. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney believed Iraqis would greet our soldiers as liberators. Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx, creators of Avenue Q, believed audiences would enjoy an adult musical in which half the characters were singing puppets.
At least one of these pairs was right.
“When we opened, people were offended by a line that isn’t in the show any more: ‘George Bush is only for now,’” Lopez said in a recent interview. “Toward the end of his presidency, that line evoked huge cheers, as people couldn’t wait for him to leave office. But it was never intended as pro-Democrat; it was just a true statement about any president. None of them rule forever.”
The notion that everything changes is one of the many life lessons provided by Avenue Q. The show, which begins a week-long run at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday night, has been described succinctly as Sesame Street for adults, primarily because it features a mix of actors and puppets who engage in both storytelling and song.
The central characters in the stage show—human and otherwise—are recent college graduates scoping out the adult world. The songs address dilemmas faced by people in their twenties, such as how to make a living and find a mate.
“We first thought of it as a TV idea, but as musical theater geeks, we didn’t know anything about TV,” Lopez recalled. “We wrote a pilot and a bunch of songs and put them on in a theater. We invited TV people to the performance, but none of them came. … We also invited a few theater producers, and Robyn Goodman, Jeffrey Seller, and Kevin McCollum offered us a chance to develop it with them as a stage piece. Since they had produced Rent, among other things, that was exciting enough for us to change tacks.”
Avenue Q, for all its outrageous humor (including a puppet sex scene), is not escapist theater. Rather, it uses humor to ask tough questions about the meaning of life and the difficulty of relationships in a way that goes down easier.
“Jeff and I took great pains to make sure what we were saying was what we believe to be true,” Lopez said. “I think that helps with the humor. When something rings false and crosses the line, it tends not to be funny. It comes across that you’re trying to get attention.”
The sex scene, he noted, takes place largely in the minds of the audience. “The puppets only exist from the waist up, so what you’re seeing can’t be all that graphic,” he said. “But the mind definitely takes over. It’s a testament to how strongly audiences at that point in the show believe in the puppets as characters.”
Lopez currently is working on two shows: the Mormon Musical, a collaboration with Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame, and a romantic comedy called Up Here, which he is writing with his wife, lyricist Kristen Anderson. The rocky romantic relationship between two of the puppet characters in Avenue Q, Princeton and Kate Monster, is based on their early years together.
That story has a happy ending; our interview took place one evening just after they put their two young children to bed. Asked how more people can be persuaded to attend arts events, Lopez replied, “I guess what we need are more babysitters. If we had trustworthy, cheap babysitting, we’d go to the Lincoln Center more.”
Note to President Obama: Get funding for babysitting into the next stimulus package. And don’t delay or hesitate. Your administration, after all, is only for now.
Avenue Q will be at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) for three nights from Tuesday, January 26-Thursday, January 28. For tickets and information, visit granadasb.org or call 899-2222.