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Puppets say the darndest things

'Avenue Q's' creators grew up on 'Sesame Street' and the Muppets, but their creations are decidedly not aimed at children.

August 03, 2003|Blake Green | Newsday

New York — If those young guys behind the biggest buzz in musical theater this summer appear a bit giddy, it's understandable. "Avenue Q," their frisky part-humans, part-puppets, all-adult musical about the shock of the real world beyond college -- a hit off-Broadway in the spring -- has moved to Broadway.

Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, the show's composers and lyricists, and Jeff Whitty, the librettist, are not only newcomers to the Broadway scene but to the theater in general.

"Seeing lines outside the theater. Hearing 800 people laughing at something you've written. It's sooo thrilling," says Whitty, 31, when the three gathered recently in a hotel lounge not far from the John Golden Theatre, where "Avenue Q" is playing.

"We've heard these jokes so many times, we know exactly what's coming," says Marx, 32. "But to hear people hearing them for the first time and roaring, that's so satisfying."

"When we come in the theater, they buzz us in. The security guard waves," says Lopez, the one yet to break out of his 20s (he's 28). "It's kinda neat to feel we're inside such a rich tradition." Not that they started with any such intent.

Aspiring songwriters Marx and Lopez met and teamed at a musical theater workshop in 1999, their idea being to write musical vignettes for television with hand puppets in the mix -- perhaps not surprising for the generation that grew up watching "Sesame Street."

"A spec Muppets movie," in Lopez's words. "One thing led to another." The two worked with puppeteer Rick Lyon and wanted to continue the relationship.

"We decided it would be fun to create musical theater in a different medium that would speak to people our age," Marx says, describing his peers as "our friends who watch MTV, who don't go to the theater and grew up not thinking twice about singing puppets. It's just part of our culture. For most of us, Kermit the Frog is a real character. But MTV and 'Oklahoma!' are very far apart."

"We needed a way in," says Lopez, who repeats a friend's observation about "Avenue Q": "It's how you're sneaking in under the radar." It is a generational thing -- and not just the material. The abiding and consuming search to find new and younger audiences for the theater is one of the main reasons so much interest has been generated by the transfer of this show from the Vineyard, a small nonprofit theater, to Broadway.

Producers were interested in the project "from the first time we took the songs out in public," Marx says. They were advised to find a playwright -- Whitty came on board about a year and a half ago -- and soon after that a director, Jason Moore.

"Coming up with characters, writing the songs were the easy parts," Lopez says. "Shaping it into a real musical was what was challenging." The important thing, he continues, "is that they let us keep our own vision."

Aside from the puppet-human interaction, the creative team is also very much aware of the splash created by some of the seemingly stereotypical, politically incorrect, racy and outrageous songs, dialogue and situations. It happens to be the way people are, they believe.

While there is no Avenue Q anywhere in New York City, where the show is set, the musical's title represents diverse, un-chic neighborhoods. "But a friendly place -- like 'Sesame Street,' " Marx says. But with differences: The puppets have sex, and the inhabitants are malcontents.

As the show opens, a recent college graduate -- the aptly named puppet Princeton -- moves to the block already inhabited by assorted puppets and people that include a still-in-the-closet gay; a biracial couple; a couple of hairy monsters; Lucy T. Slut, looking for a place to crash; and a character named for former child star Gary Coleman, played by a female. He "symbolizes this world the show is about," Lopez says. "He had a wonderful childhood, and his adulthood stinks."

"Puppets give you more freedom to say outrageous things," says Whitty, who explains that "it's important to treat the puppets as real characters. I never thought about writing this as a parody."

Parents of Generation-Xers also appear to love the interaction of puppets and people in their offbeat world. "They grew up on television too," Marx says, "although it was growing up as parents instead of children."

Not that it hasn't taken some adjustment. When Lopez first played for his father the song in the musical "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," he says, "he was horrified. He said, 'Bobby, that's terrible, I'm ashamed of you.' But after he heard the puppets singing it and saw people in the audience reacting, he apologized, [saying] 'I am so stupid.' "

"There's something about puppets doing it that gives you permission," Marx says. "And it's always fun when people hear the truth."

Blake Green is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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