Theatre yesterday and today



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Avenue Q officially opened on Broadway on this date in 2003. Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, it had originally opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre four months earlier and was an instant sensation. Ironically, I first heard about it from my friend Winnie Holzman, who after seeing it, told me it was the funniest show she'd ever seen.

Avenue Q (original cast, 2003)

Little could Winnie have known that once it moved to Broadway it would wind up as the chief competition to her and Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, which opened the night before Halloween on October 30, 2003. At the Tony Awards the following June, the two musicals went head-to-head in a number of categories, the most combative of them being Best Musical. And though the Tony voters tipped their hand early in the evening when they chose the book and score of Avenue Q over Wicked, there was still a gasp of surprise when the envelope for Best Musical was opened. A little show produced at a fraction of Wicked's enormous cost (and was still somewhat struggling at the box office) upset the behemoth that was (and still is) Wicked.

Of course, both have proven wildly successful with productions all over the world. Avenue Q had a six-year run at the John Golden Theatre, and when it closed, reopened Off-Broadway at the New World Stages a few months later. That production has now surpassed the number of performances of its Broadway version, making for a combined presence on the New York stage of a dozen years. Wicked, of course, has been parked at the Gershwin for going on thirteen years come October. Is it a competition still? Of course not, but how many shows that opened in the same season can claim runs of that length? Without doing any fact checking I would venture to say none.

I saw each of these shows early in their runs and was blown away by both of them. Due to my friendship with Winnie Holzman, I was invited to take part in the early readings of Wicked in Los Angeles and got to watch the show from the time it took its baby steps. The very first reading ran two hours... and that was only Act One. I can still sing some of the long-cut songs, some of which were sung at the 5th anniversary concert at the Gershwin that I attended. I saw the show in its out of town tryout in San Francisco, and saw an early preview in New York, when it seemed abundantly clear that it was going to be incredibly popular with audiences. It just had that something-something.

As for Avenue Q, I saw it shortly after it opened on Broadway, and along with everyone else, was introduced to a cast of characters unlike any I had ever seen. Winningly directed by Jason Moore (full disclosure: another longtime friend), all of its elements came together in a seamless fashion. Not knowing anything about the show (except that it had puppets), every song was a revelation. No songs were listed in the Playbill, as the very titles ("If You Were Gay," "The Internet is for Porn" and "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada") would have given away the jokes ahead of time. It would be another eight years before I laughed in a theatre as hard, coincidentally the next time Robert Lopez contributed to a hit show (also one that didn't list its song titles in the program): The Book of Mormon.

One of the things that makes Avenue Q more than just a joke-a-minute gimmick, is that by the finish it manages to be poignant. The first line of the show (its first song) is "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" It's a damn good question, and one that anyone who's been to college is familiar with. Even though he's a puppet, Princeton goes through a journey in the course of the two hours that doesn't settle the question he first posed, but leaves him a better person. I know... I'm talking about a puppet... which is really the show's greatest achievement. That and how freaking funny it is.

Once the ancillary rights to Wicked are released, every high school in America will be chomping at the bit to do it (Girl Power!). Avenue Q has already been offered to schools for a number of years by now, but is a bit of a tougher sell. Not only do young actors have to learn how to operate puppets, but it's a politically incorrect, sexually explicit show. In spite of that (or because of it), I'm sure a lot of kids in a lot of schools would love to do it. Music Theatre International, the organization which every amateur group must go through to secure permission, on its website gives Avenue Q an R rating. Interesting, as I never knew musicals even had ratings. Then, checking further, I discovered MTI also offers a PG-13 edition of the show. That's not really a version I have any desire to see, but if it gives kids a chance to work on their puppetry skills and sing its songs (with cleaned-up lyrics, I imagine) then I'm all for it.

I'm curious after all these years to return to Avenue Q at the New World Stages, where it's currently being offered in a 499 seat theatre. I would like to see how it plays on a much smaller stage than Broadway's 844 seat John Golden, but of course, when it originally played at the Vineyard, it was in a theatre that seated only 132 people. It must have been a thrilling discovery for those lucky subscribers to stubble upon such a new and original piece of work in its infancy.

And look at it now—all grown up. Happy Birthday, Avenue Q.

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