The Creators

The following 2004 interview with Avenue Q co-creators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez was published the gothamist.com:

Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez with their Tony Award

Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez with their Tony Award

In your wildest dreams, did you ever think that puppets swearing, having sex and singing about schadenfreude would actually appear on Broadway, let alone win the big three Tonys?

All we knew was that we were kids writing a show about ourselves and how much it sucked to be us. Bobby was a temp at the time; Jeff was an intern. Bobby was living with his parents after graduating from Yale; Jeff was living in an apartment owned by his parents after graduating from law school. Neither of us was making any money or really feeling like an adult yet. But we sort of had it good. Lots of our friends were worse off than us–at least we got to live in Manhattan and convince ourselves we were being productive while taking classes in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Writing workshop. Our friends were living in squalor out in Brooklyn or Queens, commuting, working all day long in entry-level jobs they hated, wondering how the hell they got there. So we decided to write a show about the situation.

An idea for the concept, then a couple songs, then a staged reading in a borrowed theater in the basement of a church where we paid the actors by buying them all dinner…. Four and a half years later, we’re on Broadway and we each have a Tony Award on our shelves. We’re not exactly sure how this happened. Not that it didn’t take LOTS of work and persistence and determination (and fighting – you have no idea!), but somehow each step of the way was a baby step, and suddenly we turn around and add it all up and we’re in tuxes, on the stage of Radio City Music Hall accepting a Tony from Carol Channing and L.L. Cool J!

How did the two of you meet and realize that you would work well as partners? Can you describe your writing process?

Bobby has wanted to write musicals all his life. When he got out of college, he joined the BMI Workshop because that was just the next logical step — it’s a sort of Harvard for musical theater writers. It seemed like a specialty grad school for him. Jeff was actually a lawyer practicing entertainment law for a while, but hated it — he envied the clients, who were having much more fun than their representatives — so he decided to become a producer. He took a bunch of lyrics he’d written for a law school parody revue, Law Miserables, and applied to the workshop. (The workshop is free, but there’s a very competitive audition process.) He was quite shocked that he was accepted because he really wasn’t a writer at all. BMI let him into the class not knowing he was really there to meet young writers to represent and produce!

One of Bobby’s sage friends advised him to try collaborating with someone — anyone — at least once so that he’d have the experience of working with someone. Bobby asked Jeff to write a song with him since he admired a funny “charm” song Jeff presented in class called “People Suck.” Bobby also knew that Jeff liked his work since Jeff called him one day after class to tell him how much he admired one of his own songs, one sung by the lion in Androcles and the Lion called “Pretty Much Everybody Pretty Much Tastes Like Chicken.” So we started writing together a little and found that it was actually more fun than writing alone — that when we put our two heads together to come up with ideas, and especially to edit them (we only keep things we both like, so the work ends up being the highest common denominator rather than the lowest), the result was stronger than what either of us produced alone.

What came first: the characters, the story, or the songs?

The idea for the show came first. We wanted to write a musical that would appeal to everyday people—people who don’t necessarily already like musicals — and 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 to overcome the modern bias against singing was to write a Muppet movie. We realized 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. Where the Muppets are concerned, they must sing otherwise they seem kind of flat. Singing is just part of their vocabulary. So we tried to find the most ludicrous plot we could find for it, and we settled on Hamlet.

We started writing a very, very loose adaptation and called it “Kermit, Prince of Denmark.” It was about Kermit the Frog walking through the airport, on his way to join the other Muppets in Denver, Colorado, for a planned skiing trip, when he accidentally boards the wrong plane headed to Denmark. Once in Denmark, he’s mistaken for Hamlet (also a green frog Muppet), who has gone missing. It’s a typical story of mistaken identity, chaos, mayhem, and so forth, and nobody dies at the end. Kermit gets everyone to cooperate and communicate, and makes friends with everyone… as Muppets often do.

We finished writing about eight songs, and they won the $100,000 Kleban Award. We then sent the songs and a short treatment off to Brian Henson, who runs the Jim Henson Company. He said he wasn’t interested, and that was that. But we learned something valuable from the experience — we learned not to write for other people’s characters because if they say no, all your hard work is down the drain. It made us say, “To hell with the Muppets. Let’s create our own family of characters.” And so we started coming up with a concept for a show that would use puppet characters, based initially on ourselves and our friends. Once we had all the major characters and a bunch of songs and a basic outline of a plot, we brought Jeff Whitty, a playwright, in to work on the script, and he eventually ended up taking over the bookwriting end of it. He won a Tony for his work, too.

Avenue Q started as an idea for TV. What made you think it would work on stage?

Yes, Avenue Q was first intended as a TV show we were planning to go pitch to Comedy Central, Fox, HBO—places like that. But we didn’t know any TV people, and we didn’t know how to go about even getting in the door at places like that. Meanwhile, a young director named Seth Goldstein saw us perform some of our songs in the BMI Workshop and invited us to come do a reading of what we had on a dark night at the York Theater, where he was working at the time. We said “great” and asked Rick Lyon (who we had met on “Kermit, Prince of Denmark”) to get a couple puppets together and bring some of his puppeteer buddies to play the other characters. As it turned out, two of those performers he brought aboard are still with us, starring in Avenue Q every night – Stephanie D’Abruzzo and John Tartaglia. Ann Harada, who is still playing Christmas Eve, was also in that very first reading. We invited everyone we knew, including the general public, and faxed every producer’s office. We didn’t charge any admission.

We were fortunate that we knew someone at Manhattan Theater Club who liked our work and volunteered to call a friend of his, Robyn Goodman, a theater producer, to encourage her to come. She was looking for a project to produce with Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, other theater producers, and she encouraged them to come too. We met Jeffrey in the lobby immediately after the very first reading and—this is the Cinderella part of our story—right on the spot, he told us, “I love this. I think this would be great on stage, as a musical. If you guys want to do it on stage instead of on TV, I’d be interested in producing it.” This was a guy who, with his partner, produced Rent! So naturally we wasted no time in shaking his hand and saying, “Um, yup, ok, let’s do it.”

It’s funny, the two things that made us think it might work onstage were 1) the audience response at our readings was just tremendous. They couldn’t have been better. In fact, the buzz after the first reading was so great, we added three more sold-out performances. So we could tell that something we did was connecting with the audience. And 2) because we were using puppets.

It was always intended for television, where you’d see only the puppet. We hadn’t ever thought of doing it on stage. But when we did this reading at the York, we were faced with the problem, what do we do with the puppeteers? How do we hide them? And, since this was a reading, how will they hold their scripts and be able to turn pages?? We decided the only practical solution was to just let the performers stay in plain view and hold the puppets, and not make any effort to hide the fact that they were there. And you know what? Our performers were so great that when they started breathing life into the puppets and giving them expressions, movements, and voices, they were able to convince the audience that the puppets were real! We could all see that the puppeteers were there holding the puppets, but even though the puppeteers were of course moving their lips, it looked like they were mouthing along to what the puppets were saying. It was a real mindfuck. The performers were able to make it crystal clear that the puppets, not the puppeteers, were the characters and the ones to watch, and the audience went along with it.

So that seemed to solve that hurdle, and today in Avenue Q the puppeteers just walk around carrying their puppets the way they did in the 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.

How much of the story and experiences are autobiographical? Do either of you identify specifically with any one character more than any others?

It’s all autobiographical. Or biographical, anyway. It’s all based on us and our friends. It’s not as specific as “this character is me and this character’s him,” but they’re all amalgamations of things and feelings we’ve been going through personally. Even the character of “Gary Coleman” has a journey in the show that was personal to us. When we were all kids, our parents taught us we were special. That we could do anything. Children’s television echoed that. And apparently we’re not the only ones who felt that way. A lot of people tell us that they’re “Princeton” or they’re “Kate Monster.”

Seriously, why puppets? Could you have written songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” or “The Internet Is for Porn” without them?

We did feel that puppets have a certain “permission” to sing that humans don’t necessarily have nowadays. Also, because the puppets were so cute and friendly, they had a wider latitude to go further than humans could really go without being distasteful. Sometimes thoughts and words that would probably be offensive in a human’s mouth are more acceptable — and even funnier — coming out of a puppet. You should have seen us singing “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” in the BMI Workshop without the puppets. It was kind of creepy.

Also, a lot of the songs in Avenue Q are sort of mock-educational songs. Like the songs we remember from the children’s television programming we grew up with, they try to “teach” you something. But the very idea that these puppets are teaching us lessons about porn and racism are part of the song. It loses something if it’s, say, Michael Crawford singing it.…

What do you have against Gary Coleman?

We have nothing against Gary Coleman; except that when we were still thinking of pitching Avenue Q as a TV show, we contacted Gary because we wanted him to be on the show, and we talked to him on the phone for a while and he said he was totally interested—and available—and then when he was in New York, and we were supposed to meet him for lunch to talk about it…the little fucker stood us up. But aside from that, we have the utmost respect and admiration for Gary. We love how he knows who he is and knows that people are taking pleasure in his downfall (“Schadenfreude”), and we love that he appears all over the place poking fun at himself and the pitiful downward slide of his acting career. Have you seen him on The Simpsons? On Star Dates? We love him.

We sort of idolize him too, in a way, because one of the most important themes in Avenue Q is that life isn’t as easy as we’ve been led to believe. Our parents told us we were special; Mr. Rogers wanted to be our friend and neighbor; we thought we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be, from a fireman to President of the United States. Even in college, we thought we were pretty hot shit, ready to set the world on fire. But when we got out of college, we were faced with rent bills and temping and entry level jobs, if we were even lucky enough to get those. It wasn’t nearly as easy or nice as we expected it was going to be. We found to our horror that we weren’t all that special after all. And who better to symbolize the oh-so-special-as-a-kid/but-not-so-special-as-an-adult thing we all were faced with than Gary Coleman? He’s practically the poster child — we prefer to think of him as the patron saint—of grown-up reality sucking. We looked around and found it really sucked to be us, and we knew that if our lives sucked, it must really suck to be Gary Coleman.

I hear you just came back from Korea: is “Avenue Q” going international? What do you think might be its international appeal since it illustrates a very American Gen-X somewhat-lost mentality?

Yes, there is a lot of interest from producers abroad who want to produce Avenue Q in their own countries. But no, honestly, we have no idea how it will play outside the USA. How could we predict how audiences in cultures we’re not intimately familiar with might react to the show? All we know is that producers are coming to us and basically saying “we think Avenue Q will be profitable in our country, and we’d like to produce it there, and we’ll pay you for the rights to do it.” Put that way, who are we to judge whether or not it’s going to work in a specific country we don’t know that much about?

Do you worry that the show will become too dated in a few years due to some of its more timely references?

We don’t think subjects like dating, breakups, frustration with unemployment, searching for one’s purpose, racism, and obsessions with Internet porn will ever become dated. The only thing we really worry about is that Gary Coleman will have A resurgence and become a big star, and our whole “Gary Coleman is the patron saint of life sucking” thing will be passé. But it’s not like we’re having sleepless nights worrying about it.

Puppets and all, Avenue Q was a huge departure for the Broadway musical away from spectacle. Do you think there’s a place for smaller shows on Broadway?

We don’t think that the size of the show—whether it’s a one-person show or a big show like Hairspray—really has anything to do with its success. It has to do with one thing only: whether people had a good time or not, and whether they want to walk out of the theater and call up their friends and say, “I just saw something fantastic. You’ve got to see it. You’ll love it.” It’s really that simple.

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