Avenue Q is the Tony Award®-winning musical about Princeton, a bright-eyed college grad who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. He soon discovers that the only neighborhood in his price range is Avenue Q; still, the neighbors seem nice. There's the out-of-work comedian Brian and his therapist fiancée Christmas Eve; Nicky the good-hearted slacker and his roommate Rod—a Republican investment banker who seems to have some sort of secret; an Internet addict called Trekkie Monster; and a very cute kindergarten teaching assistant named Kate Monster. And the building's superintendent is Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman. Together, Princeton and his newfound friends struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in life. Its puppets and formats pays homage to all children’s television, but Avenue Q teaches life lessons for adults such as paying bills, getting a job and finding love.
Who is Avenue Q appropriate for?Adults love Avenue Q but seem a little, er, fuzzy on whether it's appropriate for kids. Avenue Q is great for teenagers because it's about real life. It may not be appropriate for young children because Avenue Q addresses issues like sex, drinking, and surfing the web for porn. It's hard to say what exact age is right to see Avenue Q - parents should use their discretion based on the maturity level of their children.
The Show’s History
Lyricists Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez shared a quest—to create a musical that spoke to people in their 20s and 30s. The two met at a musical theatre workshop in 1998. Lopez had just completed his BA in English at Yale and Marx had just graduated law school; both felt that post-collegiate frustrations made perfect fodder for musical theatre.
The problem came in making musical theatre appeal to an audience more accustomed to music videos than musical theatre. Marx and Lopez decided that since they and many of their friends had grown up with Jim Henson-created characters on Sesame Street and the Muppet movies, both of which were often musical in form, puppets could bridge the gap between Oklahoma! and MTV. The two wrote and produced the Shakespeare-inspired musical television pilot Kermit, Prince of Denmark. The show’s lack of “kid appeal” led to its rejection by the Henson Company, but it put the lyricists in touch with Sesame Street puppeteer and puppet designer Rick Lyon.Marx and Lopez started writing a TV pilot they called Avenue Q, and they asked Lyon to design all the puppets in addition to performing in the show. The pilot was noticed by the producers of RENT, who saw the potential for a stage show. Lopez and Marx developed their unique concept for the stage with book writer Jeff Whitty. Director Jason Moore was also onboard to help develop a more sustainable storyline. It took 5 years for Avenue Q
to move from the concept dreamt up by Marx and Lopez’ television pilot idea to the show’s Broadway production.
Avenue Q opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in March 2003, where it was extended four times. It began Broadway previews at the Golden Theatre on July 11th, 2003, with a July 31, 2003 opening. Avenue Q opened in London’s West End in June 2006; the production was nominated for a Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and is in its third year. Avenue Q has also been produced in the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Israel, Russia, Sweden, Hungary, Australia and New Zealand. As of 2009, the Broadway production of Avenue Q has played over 2,500 performances.
How to Make a Puppet Come to Life
Avenue Q’s creators faced extra challenges in their use of puppets as major characters. For one, it wasn’t easy to find performers who could sing, act and skillfully manipulate life-sized puppet torsos. Then, there was the problem of directing inanimate characters with relatively immobile expressions. Finally, would audiences accept cute, button-eyed creatures singing candid ditties about sex, racism, morality and love? Avenue Q puppet creator Rick Lyon helped give the cloth stars of the musical human souls.
As a child, Lyon, also the original puppeteer for Nicky and Trekkie, was fascinated by the puppets he saw on television: Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose on Captain Kangaroo, Bil Baird’s marionettes, Shari Lewis’ Lambchop, the hand puppets on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Jim Henson’s Muppets, that wild bunch of creatures appearing on variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace. When Sesame Street began, Lyon was 11 years old—way beyond the show’s demographic—but he desperately wanted to make puppets that looked like the soft, pliable Jim Henson creations.
“I don’t think anybody ever consciously wakes up one day and says, ‘You know what? I want to be a puppeteer,’” Lyon says. “But when Sesame Street came on the air, it was an eye-opener for me. Jim [Henson] wanted to create puppets that looked like cartoons. He was always fascinated by animation, and he wanted his puppets to be as abstract and as much of a simplified reality as cartoons were.”
Inspired by the Henson-style puppets, Lyon made his first puppets from socks, paper bags, Styrofoam and whatever he could find around the house. Lyon found an old purple towel in his parents’ house, hashed out a crude puppet pattern, added cardboard eyes and fabric hands, and called it Percy—a character he still uses today, albeit in an upgraded version.
Percy launched Lyon’s career, beginning the formation of his own puppet troupe, The Lyon Puppets. Lyon auditioned for Jim Henson and did his first project with the Muppets in January 1987. Like most Sesame Street puppeteers, Lyon mainly performed supporting roles. Occasionally he filled in for major characters, such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Some puppets, like Ernie, take two people to operate, and Lyon often performed these puppets with Henson until the puppeteer’s death in 1990. Lyon stayed with Sesame Street for 15 years until he began working on Avenue Q.
When Avenue Q creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx asked Lyon to create all the puppets for the show, Lyon initially pulled existing puppets from his stock and adapted them to Avenue Q characters. The first time he created puppets for the musical from scratch was for the staged reading of the Avenue Q TV pilot in May 2000.
“We knew straight away that you had to treat the puppets as real characters,” says director Moore. “Obviously we dance round the reality of them being puppets as you always see them on the arms of the performers, so there is an immediate knowingness. But you need to accept the marriage between actor and puppet as a believable character.
Lyon estimates that each Avenue Q puppet takes 100 to 120 man-hours to make. As many as 10 craftspeople helped Lyon construct the puppets for Broadway, and, during a busy stretch in 2005, Lyon and the team made more than 60 puppets—the originals for the Las Vegas production and some replacements for Broadway—in just four months.
Each puppet is made from scratch. Much of the fabric, like the furs for Kate Monster and Trekkie Monster, is custom-ordered in bulk, and the skin fabrics of humanoid puppets like Rod and Nicky are custom-dyed in Lyon’s workshop. Factory-made googly eyeballs aren’t good enough—every eye is individually crafted.
Changing the puppets’ costumes is difficult and causes wear and tear, so Avenue Q uses multiple puppets for each character. The puppet wrangler—the member of the production team who takes care of the puppets day to day and during the show—made costume changes during the Off-Broadway run, which only had twenty-some puppets. Avenue Q has more than 40 puppets, including seven Princetons, five Kates, five Nickys, four Lucys, four Rods, and three Trekkies, which eliminates the need for costume changes.
Selected Song List
- The Avenue Q Theme
- What Do You Do with a BA in English?
- It Sucks to Be Me
- If You Were Gay
- Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist
- The Internet Is for Porn
- Mix Tape
- My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada
- There’s a Fine, Fine Line
- The More You Ruv Someone
- I Wish I Could Go Back to College
- For Now
NOTE: Avenue Q is not authorized or approved by The Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop, which have no responsibility for its content.