This year marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark TV series Sesame Street. All similarities between that beloved preschooler program and the musical comedy Avenue Q, however, end there.
Don’t – don’t – bring your little ones to Friday’s touring production of Avenue Q at the Johnny Mercer Theatre. It’s decidedly grown–up stuff — and that’s probably why it’s been so (cookie) monstrously successful.
Winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical, Avenue Q is peopled with googly–eyed puppets (operated and voiced by onstage actors) who sing cheery songs about poverty, sex, drugs and the general difficulty of life in an “outer–outer borough of New York City.”
There are non–puppet performers, too, and with their primary–colored pals they romp along and sing titles such as “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English” and that modern classic “The Internet is for Porn.”
Avenue Q recently ended its Broadway run, after six years and more than 2,500 performances. The cross–country tour — the very one that’s coming to Savannah this week — has been a howling success, as the rest of us get a look at what’s been making the Great White Way laughing all this time.
We spoke with New Yorker Jeff Whitty, who wrote the Avenue Q book.
Chicken or the egg question: Did Avenue Q begin with the songwriters, or was the book in place first?
Jeff Whitty: It started with Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx, the composers. They originally conceived it as a TV pilot, so they wrote some songs, and did a public reading. And a lot of the songs that were in the reading are actually still in the show, including “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.” It went so well in a live setting that it was snapped up by our producers, who said we should make this into a full–fledged musical. And that’s when I came on board to develop the book with them. It was a lot of fantastic songs, and funny characters, without really a story arc.
Clearly, it’s an homage – of sorts – to Sesame Street. Is that the way they presented it to you?
Jeff Whitty: More than an homage to Sesame Street, the idea was basically to use the language of children’s television in order to tell adult stories. So while there are definitely parallels to Sesame Street, it wasn’t just designed to be a parody. That wouldn’t sustain a two–hour musical.
What we learned was that that language was useful, but most of the energy and effort went into making it a sustained evening. So a lot of new music was written. We also wanted the audience to care about the characters, because the show actually does get sad at a few points.
Were you concerned about going too far?
Jeff Whitty: You know, it’s so funny, people always refer to the show as being really foul–mouthed. “The foul–mouthed puppets of Avenue Q!” They always say things like that, or they call it “The potty–mouthed puppet show!” But the truth is, there really is not that much swearing in the show. I think I did a count of 13 swear words in the show. It’s just that they’re very carefully placed for maximum impact.
There was a fear, I think, of going too far, in that you do want the shocking moments to have maximum impact, and if you keep going to the well for the entire two hours, if that’s your reason for existing, the audience won’t laugh. They won’t find it funny.
How difficult was it to create the balance of live human actors and puppets with puppeteers?
Jeff Whitty: Like in Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and those shows, the balance of humans talking to puppets always grounded the show. And then there’s also something funny and charming about human actors taking puppet characters completely seriously.
As far as the balance, from the beginning we always wanted the puppets to be the leads of the show. And the humans were the supporting cast.
When you opened, more than six years ago, were you crossing your fingers that people would get it?
Jeff Whitty: Oh my gosh, yes. And I’ve got to say, it has truly been astonishing to watch the journey of the show. I remember doing community theater in Coos Bay, Oregon, and thinking “Maybe this will go to Broadway!” So there’s always that in the back of your mind. And that this one actually did was really, really amazing.
Six years on Broadway, that’s pretty good. You just closed?
Jeff Whitty: Yeah, we closed in September, and then at closing night the producers got up onstage and said “We’re actually not closing – we’re just moving to a 500–seat theater.” And they literally dragged the set four blocks north, and installed it in this great new theater. And it’s doing very well there.
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre (Savannah Civic Center), 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13
Tickets: $30–$50; student mezzanine and balcony tickets $20