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'Q' put them on the A-list

September 12, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

The musical always begins with the same songs: "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" and that disillusioned anthem of a generation caught between what college promises and what the real world delivers, "It Sucks to Be Me."

But Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who wrote the music and lyrics for "Avenue Q" with book by Jeff Whitty, say that even after an eight-year creative gestation, a 2004 Tony Award, a short-lived Las Vegas production and the launch of a national tour, every opening night of "Avenue Q" is, in a way, a brand-new show -- even though they finally called a moratorium on rewrites after the show went on the road.

In fact, Lopez had to choose between coming to Friday's opening-night performance at the Ahmanson Theatre and going to the Philippines for the bow of yet another production of "Avenue Q." "I am part Filipino, and I had to choose between here and Manila. I've never been there," he mused. "And it's like, how Filipino am I? It's like three-eighths, so I guess in the end, Hollywood won out. But I still may go out there. I'm this kind of weird racial miasma of things, I don't know what I am, so I kind of want to go there and see if I like it."

Even now, since most audience members don't know their faces, Lopez, 32, and Marx, 37, can watch their show in relative obscurity, as they did at the Ahmanson. But, Lopez says, he'll always be the guy who isn't laughing.

"I can't. I really can't," he said in a conversation at the obligatory pre-show dinner with theater donors -- chicken, thank-yous and enough wine to get him through his unprepared remarks. "I've seen the show so many times that I just can't see it as a show. I see it as a succession of written words and things that actors will screw up. When they do great things with it, I'm really happy, and when it's less than my memory, I berate myself."

For his part, Marx says he's the guy who's usually laughing when no one else is. "Every cast has different patterns and nuances," he observed backstage. "We're not laughing for the same reasons, because not only have we heard the joke a million times, we made up the joke. When I hear them invent new things, that's where the fun is for me."

Although "Avenue Q" is autobiographical -- both men found themselves living off their parents and trapped in low-level jobs in New York in their first years out of Yale University (Lopez) and the University of Michigan and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Greenwich Village (Marx) -- it no longer sucks to be them.

"I assume that you are all very rich and that somehow your money trickled down to my show," said Lopez, to much laughter, to the well-heeled crowd at the pre-show dinner. "I started writing this show when I was 24; now I'm 32. I'm not even the guy you want up here -- he's dead. Now I'm a father of a 2 1/2 -year-old, a prospective home buyer, I'm no longer young and hip.

"I was a loser, and this show is about people like me, most of whom continue to be losers and never get to these rooms," Lopez continued. "I want to say thank you, because I feel lucky to be going to places I never thought I'd go."

"Avenue Q" has led to a virtual alphabet of new opportunities for the pair, both separately and together. Lopez and Marx wrote songs for a musical episode of the NBC comedy "Scrubs," receiving an Emmy nomination along with Debra Fordham for a song title that captures the same glass-half-empty worldview evident in "It Sucks to Be Me" -- it's called "Everything Comes Down to Poo."

Lopez, who wore jeans to "Avenue Q," spent most of Friday shopping for a suit for the next day's Creative Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium. "I guess I had the preconception that everything in L.A. is so relaxed, I didn't bring a suit," he fretted. (They lost the Emmy to a suggestive Christmas song from "Saturday Night Live.")

Lopez recently teamed with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, to create "Finding Nemo -- The Musical," a 30-minute stage version of the movie, for Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Lopez is also working on a new musical project with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of "South Park," and a stage musical with his wife, which Lopez cryptically describes as being "about consciousness."

And these days, "Avenue Q" has gained special notoriety on YouTube, via a video that splices together images of GOP Sen. Larry E. Craig's emphatic denials of his homosexuality with puppets singing the "Avenue Q" song "If You Were Gay" ("that would be OK . . . I'd shout hooray").

"We've been working with each other since 1998, so, yeah," says Marx in answer to the question: "So are you sick of each other?" -- but with affection.

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