Preview: Avenue Q

Kevin Bourke talks to creator of the award winning Avenue Q and discovers how the hilarious and very rude musical changed the rules about puppet shows

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Anyone who still thinks Avenue Q is a children’s puppet show, even after its years of success off-Broadway, in the West End and on tour last year, could be in for a literally rude awakening. But if mischief, bad behaviour and political incorrectness, including shagging puppets and insanely-catchy tunes like The Internet Is For Porn, sounds like top fun to you, then Avenue Q is a genuinely unique, hugely enjoyable experience that you’d be foolish to miss.

Puppets and people star in a scandalously entertaining “coming-of-age musical” tale of recent college graduate Princeton. Moving into a shabby New York apartment all the way out on the profoundly unhip (and imaginary) Avenue Q, he meets such colourful characters as Kate Monster, the sweet girl next door, Rod the gay Republican, Trekkie, the internet porn expert, and Lucy The Slut, who all help Princeton finally discover his purpose in life. This, it turns out, has little to do with the life lessons learned from puppet shows like Sesame Street.

“Avenue Q is like a children’s television show for people who have grown up,” says Robert Lopez, who created the show with fellow songwriter Jeff Marx in late-1990s New York.

“When we first met in 1998 at a musical theatre workshop, I had just finished college, Jeff had just come out of law school and we were both wondering how to make our way in the real world.

“We wanted to create a musical about that, something that would speak to people in their twenties and early thirties as well as people who don’t necessarily already like musicals,” adds Marx. “So we were looking for a medium that would allow characters to sing but which wouldn’t be your typical Oklahoma! or Funny Girl-type stage show.

“Our solution was to write our own Muppet movie. We realised that, for the most part, audiences have a tendency to say ‘Oh please!’ when a character breaks into song nowadays, but we didn’t think that puppets faced that same hurdle. In fact, singing is an essential part of The Muppets’ vocabulary. So we tried to find the most ludicrous plot for it we could, settled on Hamlet and started writing a very, very loose adaptation called Kermit, Prince of Denmark!

“Brian Henson, who runs the Jim Henson Company, said he wasn’t interested – it had no ‘kid appeal,’” Lopez remembers. “But the project hooked us up with the puppet designer Rick Lyon, so we decided to create some puppet characters of our own for a TV pilot, based initially on ourselves and our friends. Once we had all the major characters, a bunch of songs and a basic outline of a plot, we brought in Jeff Whitty, a playwright, to work on the script.”

A staged reading in a borrowed theatre in the basement of a New York church (“we paid the actors by buying them all dinner!”) led to the realisation that perhaps their TV idea might work better as a stage musical.

“It was always intended for television, where you’d see only the puppets. But when we did this reading we were faced with the problem of ‘what do we do with the puppeteers?’ The only practical solution was to just let the performers hold the puppets, and not make any effort to hide the fact that they were there. The performers were able to make it crystal clear that the puppets, not the puppeteers, were the characters and the ones to watch. The audience not only went along with it but we realised that that was what was connecting them so enthusiastically with the show.

“So today in Avenue Q the puppeteers just walk around carrying their puppets the way they did in that first reading. The audience is invited to pretend they’re not there and believe in the puppet characters. Or they can watch how it works. Or both.”

“The reason Avenue Q is so good is because of the puppets,” agrees Katherine Moraz, who now performs as both Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut (sometimes simultaneously) but first fell in love with the show as a drama student.

“They’re very racy and rude, but because they’re so naive, they get away with it. Thoughts and words that would probably be offensive in a human’s mouth are more acceptable, and even funnier, coming out of a puppet.”

Avenue Q is at Liverpool Empire, 11-16 June, and Grand Theatre & Opera House, Leeds, 15-21 July

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