Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Taras Berezowsky
Even with yapping puppets, “Avenue Q” is no “Sesame Street.” The Broadway musical, which opens Nov. 5 at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre, is tailor-made for an adult audience. It explores a range of grown-up issues, freely using coarse language, but there’s a perfect tie that binds it all together: The musical features a highly melodic (and seriously infectious) score that sounds and feels straight out of Big Bird land.
“We got the idea to make it an educational show, but one that taught adult lessons instead of those for kids,” says co-creator Robert Lopez, who came up with the concept and wrote the music and lyrics with Jeff Marx. The action unfolds on a set showcasing a city street. To the side of the stage, screens illuminate text that relates especially cheeky themes, definitions, or concepts.
The story begins with Princeton, a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English, who moves into an apartment on the fictional Avenue Q in New York City, to begin his new life. In short order, he meets several neighbors who are all struggling to make rent, searching for relationships and striving for happiness. Princeton is unemployed, deems his degree useless, and spends his waking minutes preoccupied with finding his purpose. Also unemployed are Nicky, a rather cheerful slacker who lives with the straight-laced Rod, and Brian, an aspiring stand-up comedian.
In addition to joblessness, the musical’s ingenious numbers force the characters to confront simple, yet stark, realities: closeted homosexuality (“If You Were Gay”), racism (“Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”) and taking pleasure in the misfortune of others (the perennial favorite “Schadenfreude”). Trekkie Monster, a lovable rube who is one of Princeton’s neighbors, extols the virtues of Internet surfing for porn. Christmas Eve, Brian’s wife, is a Japanese therapist who gives everyone advice in a famously stereotypical Asian accent. The building’s superintendent happens to be Gary Coleman – yes, that Gary Coleman, of TV’s “Diff’rent Strokes,” played by a female actor, no less.
“You know how ‘Sesame Street’ would have Yo-Yo Ma on their show one week, and, like, Robert DeNiro the next? We thought we’d have a guest star that’s also a has-been, so we picked Gary Coleman. It’s like real life smacking you in the face,” says Lopez.
For all the stock comparisons to the home of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, “Avenue Q” blazes its own trail in creating an entirely new mold. Three actors wearing plain black clothes lend their hands and voices to animate the puppet characters onstage, reminiscent of the Muppets. The striking physical resemblance is due entirely to the show’s puppet creator, Rick Lyon, a “Sesame Street” veteran. But instead of attempting to obscure the puppeteers, the artistic team upends the convention by allowing them to remain in full view onstage, treating the audience to two simultaneous personalities that, somewhat magically, become one.
“We were going for a new form of theater,” Marx points out. “At first, the audience doesn’t know who to look at, but they end up investing so much in these characters. It’s amazing how they allow themselves to believe in these puppets.”
Carey Anderson, who plays Princeton’s love interest, Kate Monster, and Lucy T. Slut, notes that the pre-production work is what makes the results seem so fluid. “I don’t think I ever put a puppet on my hand before auditioning,” she said. “But after you get a callback – some actors have upwards of 20 auditions – the producers send you to a two-day puppet school to learn the basics.”
When cast, actors undertake three weeks of puppet training to become performance-ready. They learn how to focus the puppet’s eyes using ping-pong balls and rubber bands, how to lip-sync, and how to breathe as the puppet. “I spent most of my time in front of the mirror,” Anderson says.
“Avenue Q” premiered in 2003 at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, followed by rave reviews, several extensions and a Broadway transfer. Lopez and Marx’s personal postgraduate experiences gave birth to the show’s concept, and they began writing it after meeting in a musical theater workshop. “I had graduated from Yale, and moved back in with my parents,” Lopez says. “I worked jobs where I had to get people coffee, that kind of thing. I went through so many breakups…I just really wanted life to get started. Then I realized: I could put all of this into a show.”
Marx, originally from Hollywood, Fla., and now living in L.A., had gone through University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre program. “It wasn’t so great,” he says of his personal experience in the program. “There were a lot of talented people there, and I wasn’t one of them. I never got cast in anything. So I decided to leave acting entirely and go to law school.” After practicing law for a while, Marx took part in a songwriting workshop for clients, and then began writing songs again.
After five years on Broadway and extensive touring in Europe, Asia and the U.S., “Avenue Q” remains as timely and incisive as ever. Certain references (“George Bush is only for now!”) continue to get laughs. In the aftermath of the country’s current economic crisis and with the election looming, the fact that the gay character Rod is a Wall Street banker gets an interesting reception. “The line about Rod being a Republican still gets a huge laugh,” Lopez finds. “But now the following line about being an investment banker gets more guffaws, and several boos.”
“In the end, it’s not about finding money or fame,” Anderson maintains, “but about staying true to yourself and your purpose.”
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday, Nov. 5-23. May not be appropriate for kids under 13. Tickets: $32-$77. 313-872-1000 or http://www.broadwayindetroit.com.