Definitely not the Muppet ShowDate: 26 June 2006
Puppets are storming the West End stage. Robert Gore-Langton gets a handle on the foul-mouthed furry friends from Avenue Q by talking to the Tony Award-winning musical’s creators & their Sesame Street-trained designer.
After seven years as the West End’s main attraction for puppet-lovers, The Lion King is facing fresh competition in the form of Avenue Q. Like the blockbuster Disney musical, many of Q’s cast of colourful characters are made of cloth and Velcro. But there the similarities end.
While The Lion King’s puppets are wild beasts, they’re strangers to the urban jungle and, if memory serves, they don’t mate with each other. For all those parents out there, make no mistake: Avenue Q is no Disney-style kiddies’ show. Sure, this latest Broadway import may look cosy, but its comical content is as adult as a whisky sour. A glance at some of the song titles – “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, “The Internet Is for Porn” and “Schadenfreude” – suggests the general flavour.
The action revolves around an avenue in some far-flung New York borough where the rents are cheap and the inhabitants are disillusioned. Unlike the furry poppets on Sesame Street, this lot have sex and generally experience the highs and lows – mostly lows – of adult living. They may be cut from felt, but their emotions are human – deeply felt, you might even say.
From Street to Avenue
The mastermind behind the musical’s puppet design, Rick Lyon, who also appeared in the original Broadway cast, worked on Sesame Street for 15 years. He doesn’t hesitate in crediting his earlier employer as an inspiration but is also keen to emphasise differences.
“Avenue Q parodies elements of Sesame and children’s TV, so having that as a source was critical to the creation of Q. But our show is much more than a satire. It’s a coming-of-age story about young characters finding their way in the world. It’s about the day-to-day struggle of existence in a world of lowered expectations. The style of the puppets we use, mouth puppets, is the kind of puppet you’re used to seeing on TV, the kind Jim Henson popularised. We’re using a style of puppet that’s familiar in one medium, TV, and putting it on stage, with the puppeteers visible. That was, in some ways, I think, our greatest challenge – how to balance the performance between the puppeteer and the puppet.”
The cast of professional puppeteers, all highly visible on stage, are fused with the objects up which they have their hands. With several characters assigned to each puppeteer, the backstage choreography is fabulously complicated. The idea is that, by the end of the evening, the audience is intimately acquainted with the inner lives of the denizens (both cloth and human) of the neighbourhood. Who are these folks then? Well, Q’s motley crew includes a yuppie puppet – a yuppet? – called Princeton; there’s puppet Rod, a Republican banker, who struggles with his closeted sexuality; there’s wannabe comic Brian and his fiancée Eve, a failed therapist; and a landlord who’s a has-been actor. Females include Lucy the Slut, Kate Monster and an ugly woman evocatively called Mrs Thistletwat.
So really not much like The Lion King. Not at all, in fact, says Lyon, who stresses his show’s distinction in the puppet stage show stakes. “Avenue Q is the very first full-length Broadway musical that features puppet characters in the lead roles. That’s never been done before, ever. In The Lion King, the lead roles are all actors in makeup and costumes – only the supporting roles and scenic effects are puppets. In “Avenue Q, each puppet takes 100 to 120 man-hours to build. It’s enormously labour-intensive. Every feature of every puppet is custom made by hand from scratch.”
In terms of community atmosphere, Avenue Q aims for the subversiveness of cartoons like The Simpsons or South Park and the urban feel of Tales of the City. The show’s US producers are the same as those behind Rent, which celebrated the young bohemianism of Manhattan’s East Village. According to one of those producers, Jeffrey Seller, the smarter older generation went along to Rent and pretended to like it while actually loathing it. Q, he reckons, manages to appeal to the hip sensibility of an older 40-plus crowd which doesn’t want to be deafened.
It sucks to be a composer?
One of the most hummable ditties is the song “It Sucks to Be Me”. But it can hardly, one imagines, suck to be Q’s Broadway neophyte song writers, Jeff Marx (30) and Robert Lopez (35), now on a wonderful roll that the show’s success has brought them. Lopez wanted to be a songwriter since he was in nappies. Marx completed law school at Yale and planned to practice entertainment law. Mordant and witty, Q is aimed very much at the generation out of college – like the graduate puppet who sings “What Do You Do with a BA in English?” – who have found that life in the big wide world isn’t all Budweiser and skittles. The pair worked on lyrics and music together, swapping roles. A very close collaboration then. How did they meet?
“After we graduated, we independently joined a musical theatre writing workshop,” recalls Lopez. “We had a similar sense of humour and wanted to write something relevant to our generation, which is hesitant to accept human beings singing songs on stage, so we came up with the idea of puppets. In fact, our first vehicle was a movie musical for the Muppets, and we thought the most ridiculous thing we could do was Hamlet. So we thought of Kermit, Prince of Denmark.”
Jeff Marx, who had gone along to the workshop with the ulterior motive of meeting writers who might become clients, picks up the story. “It introduced us to puppets. Neither of us has any puppet backgrounds at all. We met a puppeteer, Rick Lyon, who demonstrated one of our songs. The class went bananas.”
Marx and Lopez then pitched the Kermit project to the Jim Henson people (of Muppets fame) and they turned it down. It was at that point that they decided to write their own puppet musical. (Avenue Q, incidentally, now carries on its official website a notice that its content is not authorised or approved in any way by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Street Workshop.)
From the mouths of puppets
For Marx, the whole conceit of the show is that puppets can say things humans can’t. “I think that its key is (in having) friendly puppets who shoot straight about things, like racism and porn, things that only puppets can talk about. It’s smart adult humour, only with puppets – that’s the trick of it. We didn’t want to write it for musical-loving audiences. A lot of our friends don’t like musicals. We wanted to write something our friends would like.”
From Marx and Lopez’s writing workshop, Avenue Q leapt to glory via a small non-profit theatre in Washington DC before making it to Broadway where it sensationally won the 2004 Tony Award for Best New Musical, triumphing over the widely tipped $14 million blockbuster Wicked (which receives its West End premiere in September). But awards and ongoing New York success doesn’t make the offbeat musical comedy anything like a sure-fire bet for British impresario Cameron Mackintosh and his producing partners, who are now bringing it to the West End as the inaugural production at Mackintosh’s newly renamed and refurbished Noël Coward Theatre (formerly the Albery). Q struggled in Las Vegas where hotel magnate Steve Wynn had a brand new theatre specially built for the show – at 1,200 seats, too big a barn, as it turned out, for such a non-glossy low-tech show. In the 870-seat Noël Coward, it should find a much more intimate fit.
Indeed, Marx and Lopez have no worries about Avenue Q’s chances in London. The appeal, the show’s creators believe, is the same the world over. As Marx puts it: “We think that people are racists wherever you go and we think people watch porn wherever you go and we think people spend too much time sitting at home watching TV wherever you go. People have break-ups and people want to kill their spouses. These are universal things.”
Avenue Q opens at the Noël Coward theatre on 28 June 2006 (previews from 1 June).