We’re not that special after all – a shocking discovery made by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q co-creators and members of the generation raised to believe they were special – TV’s Mr. Rogers wanted to be their friend and neighbor; they were told they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be, from a fireman to President of the United States and even in college they readied themselves to set the world on fire. But once out of college, faced with rent bills and entry level jobs with low pay, much to their horror and dismay, they discovered life wasn't nearly as easy or nice as they had expected it was going to be. It wasn’t like "Sesame Street!"
Robert Lopez had wanted to write musicals his entire life. Jeff Marx, an entry level entertainment lawyer, decided to try to become a producer after he realized the clients he represented were having more fun than he was. Both men decided the next step to take was to apply to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing workshop. The partnership began when Lopez asked Marx to write a song with him after seeing Marx present a funny song in class called, “People Suck.”
Marx and Lopez then decided to write a movie musical that would appeal to everyday people - people who didn't necessarily already like musicals – so, they decided to write a Muppet movie. Their movie musical was based on Hamlet and called Kermit, Prince of Denmark. They sent the songs and a synopsis to Brian Henson, the head of the Jim Henson Company, to see if he would be interested in working on the film with them. He declined.
From that experience they decided to create their own family of characters and the basis for Avenue Q began to materialize. Originally, Avenue Q was intended as a TV show to pitch to Comedy Central, Fox, HBO, or the like. But, because Marx and Lopez didn’t have any TV connections, and because a young director named Seth Goldstein invited them to do a reading at the York Theater, where he was working at the time, they decided to try it as a stage work. They invited puppet designer and puppeteer, Rick Lyon, who they had met on the “Kermit” project, to get a couple puppets together and to bring some of his puppeteer buddies to play the other characters. They also invited everyone they knew, including the general public and faxed every producer's office. They didn't charge any admission. The theatre filled, and due to tremendous buzz, went on for three more sold out performances!
A friend at the Manhattan Theater Club who liked their work, called theatre producer, Robyn Goodman, who in turn invited theatre producers Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, all of whom happened to be looking for new projects to produce. Jeffrey Seller met Lopez and Marx in the lobby immediately after the very first reading and told them he loved the production and thought it would make a great stage musical. If they wanted to do it on stage instead of on TV, he would be interested in producing it. Lopez and Marx figured since this was a guy who, with his partner, produced Rent, wasted no time in shaking his hand and saying, “Um, ok, let’s do it.”
Since the puppets were originally intended for television, for that first stage reading they were faced with the problem of how to hide the puppeteers, as well as how they would hold their scripts and turn pages. They decided 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 to everyone’s great surprise, when the performers 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! So, today in Avenue Q, the puppeteers just walk around carrying their puppets the way they did in the first reading.
The show was presented at the 2002 National Music Theatre Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut. It was then produced Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in March, 2003. By July of that year it moved to Broadway where it was nominated for six Tony Awards and won three including Best Musical.
With 2,534 performances, Avenue Q ranks 21st on the list of longest running shows in Broadway history. The show ended its Broadway run on September 13, 2009, and 6 weeks later, reopened in the New World Stages complex on West 50th Street, where it continues to play today as an Off Broadway production. Since 2003 it has been produced in Las Vegas, The West End in London, numerous national tours and throughout the world.
What began with a concept, a couple of songs, and then a staged reading in a borrowed theatre in the basement of a church, with actors paid for by buying them dinner, blossomed into one of the most irreverent and adored shows on Broadway and now right here on our own stage with the original creators work and wonderful puppets in place!
About the Avenue Q Puppets
The Avenue Q puppets, which cost up to $10,000 each, and require up to 120 hours of hand fabrication per character, were designed and built by original cast member Rick Lyon. Lyon's company, Lyon Puppets, continues to build and maintain the puppets used in all North American productions. Their unusually sturdy construction, with double-stitching, reinforced seams, steel boning, and custom fake fur and feathers, is necessitated by the rigors of an eight-shows-per-week performance schedule.
For our Ogunquit Playhouse production there are 62 puppets performing 10 characters – hairdo changes, costume changes or no costumes as the case may be…
Three distinct types of puppets are used in the show:
• Single-Rod Puppets: Princeton, Kate Monster
Single-rod puppets consist of a head and a torso with two arms, one movable for gestures and one decorative. The puppeteer controls the puppet's head and mouth with his or her dominant hand, and holds a rod in the other hand that is attached to the puppet's movable arm. The nonfunctional arm is either "posed" in a permanent gesture or attached to the puppet's torso.
• Double-Rod Puppets: Rod, Lucy, The Bears
Double-rod puppets are identical to single-rod puppets except that both arms are movable, each controlled by a separate rod. The head and mouth are controlled in the same way, with the dominant hand, and the two rods are held in the other hand. The puppeteer drops one rod temporarily when only one arm requires animation.
• Live-Hands Puppets: Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Mrs. T, Ricky
Live-hands puppets require two puppeteers, each of whom contributes one hand and arm dressed with a long sleeve and glove matching the puppet's costume, which become the arms and hands of the puppet. The speaking puppeteer controls the puppet's left hand and head/mouth, while the second, silent operator controls the right hand. (Roles are sometimes reversed if the speaking puppeteer is left-handed.) During Avenue Q, one puppeteer will sometimes leave to take over another puppet, leaving the live-hands puppet with a single operator and only one functioning hand. In a variation, one or both of the puppet's hands can be attached to its torso to permit operation by a single puppeteer.