A Production History of the Musical Avenue Q

The 2004 Tony award’s big winner was a show unlike any that had ever graced the Broadway stage. Starring a variety of “trash-mouthed” muppets, and a woman pretending to be situation comedy TV star Gary Coleman, Avenue Q took home a handful of Tony’s including the award for Best Musical. While on the face of it, this may seem a little odd, Avenue Q was more than the furry faces of a cast of oversized puppets American’s had grown up with as designed by Jim Henson and the Children’s Television Workshop.

The iconoclastic and refreshingly unique production contained all the components of a stellar musical. Catchy music, a fun book, and lovable and relatable characters combined to make Avenue Q an instant classic. Originally tested in New York and then brought to Broadway, this very urban, American and “New York” musical has now been exported to Las Vegas and will soon begin a run in London. While remaining true to its spirit, Avenue Q’s newest productions are notable for their efforts to significantly adapt and extend their appeal to a different location and a new audience. These attempts and their effects on the musical become apparent when one compares the New York, Las Vegas, and London productions.

Fundamental to an understanding of the deviations from the original production of Avenue Q is a solid understanding of the Broadway debut. Avenue Q can best be described as Sesame Street for grown ups. The basic plot line follows Princeton, a recent college graduate with “a B.A. in English,” as he attempts to find his “purpose” in life. Princeton creators’ and the show’s composer and lyricist team, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, explain “There’s Brian, the out-of-work comedian and his therapist-fiancee 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. And would you believe the building’s superintendent is Gary Coleman? (Yes, that Gary Coleman from T.V.’s “Different Strokes”) Together, Princeton and his newfound friends struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in life.” (Lopez)

A key characteristic that makes Avenue Q so special is the way that it’s staged. All characters in the show are puppets with three exceptions: Christmas Eve, Brian and Gary Coleman. All of the other actors are dressed in all black with similar hairstyles and makeup to match their puppets. What is untraditional about the puppeteers is that they are fully exposed on stage and act while manning their puppets. For example, when a puppet hangs their head and cries, the puppeteer does the same thing physically (Henerson 4). This is exceptionally powerful because the show can project the light touch of puppets as stars while, through the actors’ expressions and emotions, the audience begins to both empathize and sympathize with the puppets and think of them as real people.

The original Avenue Q set resembles a broken down Sesame Street row of tenement houses. Observer Ben Brantley explains “Delicious central conceit infuses every element of ” Avenue Q,” from its bright but gritty “Sesame” streetscape of a set (designed by Anna Louizos, and deftly scaled up for Broadway)” (Brantley). Parts of the set open up to reveal puppet apartments but most action, much like in Sesame Street, occurs on the sidewalk of Avenue Q.

Much like the set, the costumes in Avenue Q are fairly basic. All puppets resemble Jim Henson-designed muppets while the puppeteers are dressed in all black. The Gary Coleman character is dressed in a superintendant’s overalls, much like Luis from the original Sesame Street and Gary stays in this same costumes throughout the entire show. Christmas Eve is dressed in a funkified, “fresh off the boat” style of mix and not matched, including colorful striped pants, and a kimono-esque top. Brian dresses like an overgrown 12-year-old in shorts and a loud Hawaiian print top. These costumes lighten the mood and help establish the “Sesame Street” look and feek the creators were striving to emulate. (Kuchwara)

The acting in Avenue Q is upbeat and lighthearted. Kate Monster, Princeton, Rod and Nicky are lovable and cute. The puppets speak in a playful, up beat, and childish voice, again reminiscent of Sesame Street banter. In fact, all of the original cast who man puppets were at once voices on Sesame Street. Of the human characters, Brian is played lovable and outgoing, Christmas Eve is over the top energetic and rough around the edges with a heart of gold, and Gary Coleman is played as corny and theatrical.

The actors in this cheery production have a fairly typical relationship with the audience. A number of the characters have soliloquies and speak directly to the audience. An extra added dimension at the end of the play has the actors breaking the fourth wall and entering into the audience to panhandle for donations to build a Monster School for Kate. This further invites the audience to get involved with the production and helps contribute to the feel good mood.

Avenue Q was first restaged in Las Vegas. While most shows of Avenue Q’s success on the contemporary Broadway stage usually opt to tour, Avenue Q took a different route. Co-producer Kevin McCollum elucidates “A regular tour had been planned for the show, but it posed problems. Because the costs of moving from city to city would require the greater revenue potential of huge theatres selling lots of tickets, the musical would play in venues that would overwhelm such an intimate show. And it would require extensive advertising to identify itself: Unlike recent Tony winners Hairspray and The Producers, Avenue Q was not based on a familiar source.”(Shirley 23) Fortunately for Avenue Q, Las Vegas hotel mogul Steve Wynn had seen the show three times in New York and loved it. Wynn decided he wanted it as part of his new $2.5 billion Vegas resort, the Wynn Las Vegas (Shirley 24). Wynn purchased the show and built a 1,200 seat theater exclusively for Avenue Q, replicating the set and costumes exactly. Yet, before it could go live on “The Strip,” Avenue Q had to be what some called Vegas-ized.

To adapt to the Vegas audience, theatrical producer Michael Gill outlined two changes that the show had to make. The show needed to be cut to 90 minutes and it needed a “big Vegas finish” (Ordine) In addition to those two outlined requirements, Avenue Q needed to appeal to an escapist Las Vegas audience.

To shorten the show, Vegas producers strategically cut a number of songs and a few plot twists. The songs “There is Life Outside Your Apartment” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” were entirely cut from the show. The song “Schadenfreude” was also significantly shortened as was “Mixed Tape.” These changes exemplify Avenue Q’s attempts to adapt to a new audience. The cuts removed most of the references to college or to how wonderful New York is. Las Vegas tends to attract a less intellectual, middle class audience, thus, in this context, it’s easy to see why the show would opt to remove material that may be foreign to the audience or isolate them (McKinley). Also, these songs contain melancholy undertones with fairly little comedic value thus they are easily expendable when trying to shorten and liven up the show.

The cuts in the plot also continue in the trend of keeping the show cheerful. The Las Vegas production took out the fact that Kate lost her job following a night of debauchery. Also, they cut the scene where Princeton was encouraged to kill himself. The scenes in which Rod tells Christmas Eve that he desperately misses Nicky are also cut. (CBC Arts). Through these edits, the production team removed any scene that showed extreme consequences for bad decision making, which is only logical for a theater situated in “Sin City.”

To achieve the goal of a big Vegas finish, $1 million dollars was invested in scenery and special effects. Flashy lighting was also added and the final song was extended. Yet many have continued to critique Avenue Q for ending on a bittersweet note. Your problems are “Only for Now,” but so is life, and you may never find your purpose.

Additionally, a couple of overarching changes were made to appeal to the Vegas audience. A prerequisite to Avenue Q having a successful Vegas run was to be escapist. “You have to reach all segments of the audience here,” Gill says. “‘Hairspray’ is fun, it’s a good time … . It has the right tone. Admittedly, it’s light, but that’s why people come here they don’t come to Las Vegas to think. This is an escapist town.” (Ordine) Thus, the cuts mentioned above were made with a kind of marketing strategy in mind. Furthermore, at the end of the Las Vegas production the puppet Lucy the Slut finds Jesus, while in the New York production she finds yoga. Also, at one point in the show they make reference to “The Thunder from Down Under” a Vegas review show, to lighten up the mood.

Besides making the show s more Vegas-styled production, there were also changes to how it was acted. The Gary Coleman character was played significantly more outrageous and over-the-top in the Vegas production. Gary Coleman is played by a woman in both the New York and Vegas productions, although in the Vegas production he is played much more masculine and the actress who plays him has an almost entirely shaved head. The character of Kate Monster is also considerably different in the Vegas production. The actress who plays Kate looks nothing like the puppet with long blond hair in lieu of a brunette bob. These changes were most likely attributable to the personal preferences of the actors.

Despite these large scale attempts, and a huge marketing initiative by Steve Wynn, this second production of Avenue Q was scheduled to close March 28th 2006. Even given the show’s popularity among the local population, Avenue Q was playing to 65% houses, which, although enough to keep the show profitable, was nowhere near as successful as hoped (McKinley). Avenue Q’s deficiency has been credited to a number of things ranging from a house that was too large to give the audience an intimate experience, to not appealing to the considerable non or limited speaking English audience, to not being carefree and flashy enough. Thus when given the opportunity, Steve Wynn jumped at the opportunity to replace the show with “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” Reflecting on Avenue Q’s Vegas demise, producer Kevin McCollun remarked, “There is a frenetic energy in Las Vegas, and most visitors spend most of their time in Las Vegas exhausted. People are not in a mood to concentrate. They want to be distracted. And, in this show, we ask you to be conscious because this is a witty, smart play.” (Ordine).

The third production of Avenue Q will soon premier in London’s West End. Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the new co-producer has stated that he believes ” Avenue Q is totally a gamble. We know some people know of it from America but we’re assuming it’s not many. But it became a terrific success in the States purely on word of mouth.” (Teodorczuk). In fact, Sir Cameron did not originally plan to co-produce Avenue Q. He explains, “I had no intention of getting involved with the production, I just wanted it for one of my theatres. It was great to see an original, fresh musical that wasn’t relying on showbiz pastiche to get by.” (Teodorczuk). Despite the risk, Sir Cameron Mackintosh seems confident that the show will translate well to a British audience.

Much like the Vegas production, changes will be made to the London production to make it more marketable to a new audience. The Gary Coleman character is getting replaced, the cast will not have the same voice of experience, and the references to New York will be downplayed. Additionally, the way the show is promoted will be slightly redone. Yet, much like the Vegas production, this show will remain true to the original’s production values and use nearly identical sets, costumes and lights.

In the London production, Gary Coleman is being evicted from Avenue Q. Although it may seem odd for one of the main characters of a fairly small cast to be replaced, this change makes perfect sense. Jeff Whitty, the book writer for Avenue Q, has made comments implying that he is nervous that Gary Coleman would not translate well to British audiences. He said, “We’re not moving the setting. That wouldn’t make sense. We’ve all come to an agreement that it will be a character who exists more in the world of the show, who has the same arc as our famous Gary Coleman. And it’s going to be played by a man this time.” (Somensky). Gary is going be replaced by a former child star named “Mr. Job.” This means that Gary’s lines in “It Sucks To Be Me” will have to be entirely redone, as will part of “Schadenfreude.” This decision will help the play feel less dated in the long run. Most of the humor from the Gary Coleman character comes from the audience’s outside personal knowledge of Gary Coleman’s life story, which is unlikely to last through the decades.

Another change in the London production is where the cast is coming from. Avenue Q originally sought out former Sesame Street puppeteers and voice over actors to make sure that Avenue Q had a reminiscent Sesame Street feel. Thus far, the British production has made no such effort. Of the cast information that has been released, the players are primarily sitcom actors with some theatrical performers. This may impede upon the Avenue Q’s children’s show feel if the actors are unable to master the puppet voices.

The strategy for marketing the London production of Avenue Q is also significantly different than the previous productions. In the premiere New York production, there was a good amount of reliance on word-of-mouth advertising and additional marketing was primarily done through television appearances, billboards, and cab signs. Vegas didn’t have the means to market using word of mouth, except among the locals so they too reverted to using Avenue Q “furry” cabs, large interactive billboards, and TV commercials. Sir Cameron Mackintosh describes the London strategy:

“I’m not going to spend much on ads, there’s no point – it’s purely word of mouth. The only marketing we’re going to do is get as many people in to see it at the lowest price that is humanly possible in the first few weeks and hope they tell their friends that they’d be fools to miss it. The show’s best chance is that it is completely different from any of the other big musicals opening. We want both a traditional musical audience plus an audience that likes something fresh and different that would never consider coming to a musical.” (Teodorczuk).

This means that the show will have to be prepared to appeal to a wide variety of audiences or suffer a similar fate to the Vegas production.

The last major change that can be predicted with the London production is the claim that they are likely to remove some of the references to New York. For example, all merchandise will be changed because the subway themed logo will be unlikely to resonate with British audiences. It has also been predicted that “There is Life Outside Your Apartment” will be cut. These changes mean that the show will make sense to a British audience and allow them to more easily relate to the story by lessening the need of the audience to scale the mental hurdle of Avenue Q being a story about New York.

Conceptually then, the way the story of Avenue Q is being presented in the UK is being heavily adapted to appeal to a new trans-Atlantic audience. By revising and revamping key aspects of story lines, songs, and characters, it appears that Avenue Q is primarily, if not exclusively focused on appealing to its new audience. By doing this Avenue Q is expanding its appeal and hopefully its fan base. While some are concerned that the show may lose some of its message by changing or watering down some components, these changes seem strategic and necessary for survival in an environment where long runs aren’t insured by Vegas-backed theaters. The ultimate jackpot will be if the marketing of this contemporary Broadway production enables the production to reach an ever-widening range of people.

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