Music, Lyrics and Original Concept by
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book by Jeff Whitty
Directed by Jason Moore
John Golden Theatre / 252 West 45th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

Since its transfer from the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre to the John Golden Theatre on Broadway, "Avenue Q" leaves me not much to add to my initial review, reproduced below. A few afterthoughts only. That said, I've added them…after. You'll find them near the end.

The Original Review

I have no right typing this review on my iBook–and not just because the songwriters are friends of mine (which, in select circumstances, has never stopped me before, as long as I thought I could write honestly), but because we split a Kleban award for lyrics two years ago–and they’re members of the Lehman Engel-BMI Workshop where I’m on faculty…and where I’ve seen their new hit show, "Avenue Q" develop almost from its inception.

But the show has already garnered so many raves that I can feel no guilt adding my voice to the chorus of praise…and maybe the inside track I’ve been witness to gives me something a little different to share with you.

So on that basis, if you’d lend your forbearance to my take on things, read on, I think it’s still a fair notice…and if not, email me no emails, you’ve had fair notice…


About half a century ago, science fiction writer Bernard Wolfe wrote, in an afterword to his stunning novel "Limbo", that SF writers don’t really depict the future…they rather write about what the present might be like if it was extended into the next century or so. Thus, the nightmare future in "Limbo" essentially depicted the world of 1950 gone wildly amok as technology affected society.

Though in a much more lighthearted vein, the new musical "Avenue Q" flirts with the same concept. Everybody knows "Sesame Street" and rare are those 30 or younger who didn’t furthermore grow up with it as a pervasive influence on their lives and consciousness. Well, "Avenue Q" asks the question…what would the more mature world, the world of facing issues as a young adult for the first time, look like if put through a "Sesame Street" filter? What CTV-style advice would you be getting from a combination of puppets, real people and animations if there was a "Sesame Street" for twentysomethings?

Of course, just as Mr. Wolfe did in "Limbo", the "Avenue Q" creative team–songwriter/conceivers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, librettist Jeff Whitty, director Jason Moore and puppet designer Rick Lyon–have taken the supposition to satirical extremes. This makes "Avenue Q" simultaneously one of the most strikingly original and wholly derivative musicals ever conceived. Original because of its visionary nerve…and derivative (of course) because it depends upon "Sesame Street" and your familiarity with it, for its vision–and existence.


"Avenue Q" has had an interesting genesis. At first, Marx and Lopez conceived it as a variety-format show for cable teevee. As they developed it in the Lehman Engel-BMI Musical Theatre Workshop–often aided by Rick Lyon (himself briefly a member of the Workshop) and his puppeteering cohorts–it became apparent that it had a theatrical vitality and viability; and that the humor behind the concept might not sustain sufficiently for a series.

It then became a faux variety series–the theatrical conceit being that we would see three consecutive episodes. As with a "Sesame Street" episode, each "Avenue Q" installment would have a theme, encapsulated in a word for the day. Of course, these were especially adult words, of which I remember two: "futility" and "irony."

How were they implemented? Well, there was a song where one puppet received a summons for jury duty at a most inconvenient time. Another puppet advised her, in a genial and catchy song to, "Tear It Up and Throw It Away"–on the premise that when receipt of mail isn’t regulated, you can’t be penalized for non-response if a letter gets "lost"! Well, she does tear it up and throw it away…but she doesn’t dispose of it properly, and gets ticketed for littering.

See, boys and girls? That’s "irony."

Song videos were also part of the mix. One such, a gloss on "Sesame Street"’s "Who Are The People in Your Neighborhood?" was called "How Much Do the People in Your Neighborhood Make?"–which contrasted folks working at the low end, like the guy at the local Korean deli, with those at the high end–like a smug anesthesiologist.

There was a wonderful cruelty to all this–and yet, because it was juxtaposed against such sunnyness, and often exploited the timeless humor of Things We All Wish We Could Say (legitimized in the saying because it came from a combination of puppets and exaggerated human archetypes), it never crossed the line into mean-spiritedness. Not so you’d mind, anyway, and it had an edge like MAD Magazine at its best.

Excerpts from the show in progress (with much of the cast it still has) were presented at the York Theatre; and shortly thereafter it was picked up for co-production by the Vineyard and the New Group, with some commercial enhancement.

And somewhere along the line, rightly or wrongly (it’s impossible for an outsider to the process to know), with producers on board and a director, it was determined that the three-episode structure would not sustain either. So a librettist, Jeff Whitty, was brought on board, and a longer, multi-thread story was devised. Whitty kept all the characters (though a few were inconsequentially renamed in the process) and tied all the possible songs and existing sketches together, altering as need be for continuity, toward creating a cumulative emotional momentum. (Rather than three episodes, it is now one long episode–sort of–retaining the indicia, but weaving in-and-out between classical CTW format and straightforward musical theatre narrative.)

In assuming a somewhat more traditional structure, "Avenue Q" thus became a little bit sentimental and lost a little bit of the edge–not because anybody set out to soften it per se: but because such is the natural consequence of imposing such an architecture: suddenly you need to care about the central character, because you're going to invest in his quest…and if one of the favorite naughty songs doesn't hew to the dramaturgical theme, or the story–such as the two cited above–it has to be dropped. The best musicals are all notable for rigid focus, and "Avenue Q" could be no exception.

The big questions, for those who knew the piece well–and for the authors too, one has to assume–was: In making this transition, would "Avenue Q" gain more than it lost? Would there be anything that subliminally let the audience think they were missing something? And/or would the softer approach so dilute the original vision as to hurt it?

For me personally…I would love to have seen an incarnation of the show that hewed hard to the original impulse, though again, I can’t know if that was a sustainable conceit. But for the general public, and the critics, seemingly across the board, "Avenue Q" retains enough of its devilishly savvy irreverence to survive handily, and it has become one of the bona-fide runaway hits of the season.


As to what exists:

"Avenue Q", like "Sesame Street", is a special place in the city where puppets and people co-exist, and a life-lesson is just a song away. (There is one striking visual difference–we’re allowed to see the puppeteers at work; though they wear black, in the Japanese tradition, their faces are visible, and, differently but reminiscently of "The Lion King", they are an extension of the puppets’ physicality.) The main drag of the title is located downtown, about as far east as you can go without falling into the river, and its prime attraction for someone just out of college, like our puppet hero Princeton (John Tartaglia), is a barely affordable rent. And it seems like as good a place as any for him to figure out his PURPOSE in life…which will become his quest.

His particular corner of Avenue Q contains some others who are examining their identities: young substitute teacher Kate Monster (Stephanie D’Abruzzo); human janitor and professional showbiz hasbeen Gary Coleman (Natalie Venetia Belton), human aspiring comic Brian (Jordan Gelber) and his human Asian-American spouse, a psychologist named Christmas Tree (Ann Harada). There is also the Bert and Ernie-like puppet-roommate pairing of Rod (Mr. Tartaglia), in denial of his homosexuality, and Nicky (Rick Lyon), who is too happily straight to fulfill his friend’s fantasies about him. The neighborhood watchdog, recluse and pervert is Trekkie Monster (Mr. Lyon). Along the way, they have encounters with a cheap nightclub chanteuse, Lucy the slut monster (Ms. D’Abruzzo), and–cuter than the devil on your shoulder, but appearing as magically–the Bad Idea Bears (Jennifer Barhart and Mr. Lyon).

And together they learn things about tolerance ("Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist"), education ("The Internet is for Porn"), romance ("You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want"), society ("There is Life Outside Your Apartment") and even nostalgia ("I Wish I Could Go Back to College").

Each song by Marx & Lopez is a winning and catchy gloss on the winning and catchy "Sesame Street"-type musical vocabulary, but slyer and more sophisticated underneath (not remotely an easy trick, and the mellifluousness of delivery is totally deceptive), and each character provides a terrific spin on–or perversion of–a familiar archetype. Librettist Jeff Whitty has smartly consolidated themes and revised jokes for an organic-seeming continuity. And director Jason Moore understands completely the "feel of the neighborhood." And the cast is uniformly remarkable.

If there’s anything the longform story does to "Avenue Q" that I’d prefer it didn’t…it’s a re-enforcement of the "for twentysomethings" philosophy. Previously that was more of a catch-phrase for the way into a more universal satire; now, though, it’s a bit more of a mission statement, and here and there the show seems a tad parochial because of it.

But if the "focus group" has gained emphasis, older generations seem to compensate with nostalgia for times gone by, and identify well enough…and this will continue to create enough good will for "Avenue Q" to stay prominently on the map–and in time touring the "road" map with multiple companies–for quite some post-college transitional years to come. Assuming the producers don’t mind continually springing for their future casts’ puppetry training that is…

Broadway Afterthoughts

It is now absolutely clear that the parochial focus of "Avenue Q" is not even the remotest deterrent to an audience that has seemingly no particular demographic. All groups latch onto it and the laughs and affection for the show are—in a way that I've never encountered before, even with the most successful transfers to Broadway—exponentially hotter. On Broadway, "Avenue Q" is an unstoppable bullet train. My only caveat (already expressed to the songwiter/conceivers—friends of mine, after all) is that they and their colleagues need to "spot" the show for places where it could use longer pauses. The laughs are sometimes so loud and long that they overlap the material that follows (it's the one aspect in which the uptown show has retained the downtown timing).

We should all have such problems…

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