With the musical Wicked, a takeoff on The Wizard of Oz, we knew we were not in Kansas anymore. But with Avenue Q, the musical that upset Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony, we’re certainly not on Sesame Street, either.
Writer Jeff Whitty, along with composer-lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, not only have created a smash hit show with edgy subject matter, including a sensitive portrayal of a major gay character, but also have shown that Broadway can take other risks as well.
For instance, casting. Q’s a Broadway show dominated not by big flesh-and-blood names, but by puppets, whose names surely will take their rightful place in the annals of musical theater history: Lucy the Slut; Trekkie Monster; and Nicky & Rod, two halves of a straight and gay buddy relationship inspired by Bert & Ernie.
So, be warned: When Avenue Q and its iconic puppets, designed by Rick Lyon, careen into 2008 on New Year’s Day at the Historic State Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis, you won’t be getting a kids show!
As Robert McClure, who plays—and manipulates—the gay Republican puppet character of Rod in Avenue Q’s national tour, shares, “Parents see puppets on the poster, and their research ends. So, there are two 5-year-olds there to see Sesame Street. Halfway through Act I, there’s a song called ‘You Can Be as Loud as You Want When You’re Making Love.’ Princeton and Kate are goin’ at it. And there in the back of the auditorium, we see the door open, and one big winter coat, followed by two very small winter coats, all holding hands, and leaving the theater.”
Indeed, Sesame Street has grown up. The main plot involves how new college English grad, Princeton, also played by McClure, seeks his purpose in life. McClure points out that the concept is simple: a classic children’s television recipe of people, puppets, and teaching lessons. But now, they’re grown-up lessons. The puppets, who have graduated from college, are trying to find work; pay the bills; form relationships; have sex; navigate the hazards of cultural diversity; and reckon with internalized homophobia.
You may remember that animation about numbers, letters, and words was interspersed throughout Sesame Street and the Electric Company—another classic kids TV show that Avenue Q references. Well, in Avenue Q, the same idea returns with animation designed by Lopez, but this time around, it’s not about 1, 2, 3, A, B, C, and sounding out syllables. It’s about one-night stands and commitment. For instance, a male voice urges, “Come,” and a female voice replies, “Mitment.”
Avenue Q begins as Princeton starts out at Avenue A, and works his way down until he can locate a place he can afford on Avenue Q. The apartment building he finds is run by superintendent Gary Coleman (Carla Renata) of the ’80s television series Diff’rent Strokes.
Princeton moves in, desperate to figure out what his purpose in life is. His recently earned English degree is, unfortunately but typically, seen as “unmarketable” in a society uninterested in thinking and reflection, so he wonders just what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. Out of this quest, of sorts, Princeton meets Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer), and falls for her, although he quickly shifts gears, turning back to his quest.
McClure sees Princeton in the stew of “balancing work and love, and finding your own purpose, but also not being able to share it with someone else. Trying to balance all the different factors of your life, whether it’s how to pay your rent, or how to work on a relationship.”
Of course, some skeptics may suspect that Avenue Q simply capitalizes on sex and irreverence. However, Whitty won the Tony for his “book” (theater terminology for “script of a musical”), overtaking heavyweights Tony Kushner for Caroline, or Change and Winnie Holzman for Wicked.
Whitty admits, though, “I’d be less than honest to say the initial appeal wasn’t subversive. It was definitely this sense of, there is something really funny about puppets singing about racism and sexuality. We were very conscious over the course of writing it that if it was just going to be this one-joke dirty puppet show, it wouldn’t sustain itself. So, a lot of the job was to give it a great story and some emotional content, actually. That, I think, surprises people, because they find themselves being emotionally involved with these characters that are made of felt and fur.”
Referring to the show’s creative development, Whitty adds, “I think all of us—and Jason Moore, the director, too—were going through this one period that doesn’t get touched on very much in the culture, which is when you’re actually really beginning your adult life, and don’t know what to do with it. You’re trying to find out what your mission is, and it’s a really terrifying time, and so much focuses on high school and college, and then making a leap to adulthood: parenting, jobs. But nothing is really speaking to the point that we were at, which was that ‘in-between’ time, that awkward transition into adulthood. And I think that’s what really drove the play ultimately beyond just being a subversive parody.”
One of the most difficult of transitions, for some, of course, is from being closeted to being out. Hence, Avenue Q’s tensions between straight Nicky and gay Rod, queerly reminiscent of “asexuals” Bert and Ernie.
Rod, a Republican investment banker, has a crush on his best friend, Nicky, whom Whitty calls “probably 100 percent heterosexual, but very, very gay-positive. But Nicky sort of outs Rod accidentally, and Rod has a frantic song of denial called ‘My Girlfriend Lives in Canada.’ And then, during the course of Act II, he gets the courage together to come out to the audience and all of his friends.”
“I think everyone has always had that joke in the back of their mind about Bert and Ernie. It’s sort of a play on that. Nicky is straight, and Rod is deep down madly in love with him. And they’re best buddies, best friends. So, one sees Rod’s sort of fascination with Nicky, and watching Rod almost admit to himself that the way he feels is more than a friendship toward him. And then, dealing with the fact that Nicky’s straight, and it’s something that will never be. But in that discovery, Rod is really finding himself. More than even trying to pursue Nicky, he’s trying to figure himself out. And ultimately, find someone.”
McClure explains, “As a straight man playing a gay character, that’s why it’s so easy. Because it’s about playing a character who’s trying to find someone, whether it be a man or a woman. You’re trying to find the love of your life. I approach it the same way I would if I was falling in love with a woman in a play. It’s the same emotional core. There’s a scene where [Rod] breaks down. He really does. In the heat of this show, where it’s raunchy and hysterical. But then, [Whitty, Lopez, and Marx] weren’t afraid to give the characters scenes where you really have an opportunity to connect with them. And I think that honesty won the show the Tony.”
Prophetically, Avenue Q, having been developed in the mid-’00s, seems to have anticipated a certain incident this year at the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport, with Rod’s actual lyric “I am not gaaay!”
Whitty says the song “If You Were Gay” “was a springboard into Rod’s journey in the show, which is denying you are gay. It’s very Larry Craig—Rod’s whole situation, actually.”
Everyone in Avenue Q grapples with all kinds of issues: porn, betrayal, the need for love, anxiety over one’s destiny, and being a therapist with no clients.
Struck by what he calls the humanity of the puppets, Tom Hoch, President of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which selected and presents Avenue Q in Minneapolis, thinks it’s about “particular individuals. The puppets take on human characteristics in Avenue Q, just because of the nature of the book for the show. They’re talking about personal things. About that particular point in their life, and what are they going to do. If you haven’t had a moment since your 20s when you were wondering what you were going to do with your life, you’ll still remember what it was like. The angst involved.”
McClure relates Whitty told the cast in children’s television, it’s ingrained in you that you are special. There are endless possibilities in your lifetime. But by the time you leave college, you are very quickly hammered with the view that opportunities are far fewer than you thought they were, and you’re not as special as everyone made you out to be. So, how do you deal with that? What do you do?
“Those are the lessons that Avenue Q teaches,” McClure states. “Instead of 1, 2, 3’s and A, B, C’s, it’s who are you, and what is ultimately going to make up your life.”
Avenue Q has not been authorized or approved by The Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop, which have no responsibility for its content.
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Interview with Q’s Rod, the Avenue’s Gay Republican Puppet
Why are you afraid of coming out of the closet?
I’d prefer to be out of the closet. Actually, I get a bit claustrophobic in there. I’m hoping to renovate and get a walk-in closet, one of these days.
Doesn’t being in the closet keep you from being self-expressed?
I’m not sure I understand. I don’t spend very much time in my closet, although my wardrobe is very important to me.
What do you think of Bush?
I think it went out in the ’70s. Girls nowadays have “landing strips,” or shave it all off completely.
Whom are you supporting for next year’s Republican nomination?
I’m hoping that Gary Coleman gets on the ballot.
What do you think about Pat Robertson supporting Rudy Giuliani?
If two people want to be married, who am I to deny them?
What are your thoughts on same-sex marriage?
A condom on a banana is a crucial part of growing up.
Who is your all-time favorite President?
Reagan, because he hosted a Judy Garland concert at the General Electric Theatre on April 8, 1956.
Do you ever want to marry, or at least find someone and “settle down”?
Of course! We all want a partner. I just haven’t found him…her…HER…yet.
Do you have a crush on anyone right now?
Yup. Not telling.
What’s your favorite TV network?
Food Network. Alton Brown is scrumptious.
What are your thoughts on Larry Craig?
Bathrooms should be a private refuge.
How do you get along with your straight cast and crew members?
The cast is truly exceptional.
Do you have a close relationship with your parents?
Very close. Mom still presses my underwear.