What’s an unemployed puppet to do?
The question takes on cosmic — and very real significance — when “Avenue Q,” the funny, often raunchy musical tribulations of twentysomethings, closes Sept. 13 on Broadway after a six-year run of more than 2,500 performances.
For Kate Monster, a teacher by trade, maybe a return to education. “This is a great chance for me to bring up a whole new generation of little monsters who can change the world,” the puppet says. Or Rod, a gay Republican, who’s looking for a something a little more personal: “I don’t have a steady relationship now, but I am on the prowl.”
“My heart is a little bit broken although we do have a (licensed, non-Equity) tour going out for 35 weeks in the fall,” Robyn Goodman, one of the show’s producers, says. “It will keep the show alive across the country.”
For Jeff Marx, who co-wrote the music and lyrics with Robert Lopez, “It so far exceeded anything that we could have dreamed of — many times over.” And the monetary rewards haven’t been bad, either.
“‘Avenue Q’ let me put a lot of money in the bank,” Marx says. “I have the security of never having to wonder where my next meal is coming from, which has been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s a lovely sense of security. But … it was a lot easier when my motivation was fed by hunger.”
The musical, which opened on Broadway in July 2003 after an off-Broadway run earlier that year and went on to win three Tony Awards including best musical, has done well for its producers and its creators, who also include book writer Jeff Whitty.
The Broadway production, capitalized at $3.5 million, recouped its investment in 10 months. As of now, it has grossed more than $119 million — a 553 percent return on its investment, according to Goodman. Not included in that figure is income from the still-running London production or the first tour of “Avenue Q,” which ended last May.
And community theaters and amateur groups will soon be able to rent the show, most likely before the end of the year, Goodman says.
One of the musical’s many beneficiaries has been the small off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre, where the musical first was presented in early 2003. It was one of two nonprofit theaters — the other being the New Group — which came aboard as producers.
“The show absolutely helped raise our visibility,” says Jennifer Garvey-Blackwell, the Vineyard’s executive director.
“It still does and we’ve done a lot of musicals since then,” she adds, such as “Miracle Brothers” and “title of show.”
The idea for “Avenue Q” was born where many musical-theater ideas seem to germinate — the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop for would-be writers of musicals.
Goodman went to a presentation of three songs — two of which still remain in the show — written by Marx and Lopez that also included puppeteer Rick Lyon.
“I just fell in love with it,” she recalls. “And I approached them and at the time they were trying to do a TV show” with the material. The television version never happened. Eventually, with producers Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller aboard, the musical finally was birthed.
“But we went through many permutations,” Goodman explains. “We had to change script writers at one point. We went up (in 2002) to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (in Waterford, Conn.), which was a wonderful place to develop it. We really took a big step forward. … That’s when we thought we could actually head toward a New York production.”
The producers weren’t sure what kind of reaction to expect from the subscription audience at the Vineyard, a small off-Broadway theater just east of Union Square. Would they accept puppets, as well as human actors, saying and singing four-letter words?
“I think it was like a week into previews that Jeffrey Seller and I turned to each other and said, ‘Oh my God. Maybe this is a Broadway show,'” Goodman says. “We didn’t want to say it out loud because we assumed it was an off-Broadway show because of the content. Clearly things have changed since then. But at the time, it was a pretty daring move.”
The right Broadway theater — the intimate, 800-seat Golden — contributed to the small show’s success, Goodman says, as did word of mouth, particularly among younger people.
“One thing we’ve learned is young people have to find things themselves — you can’t really sell to them,” the producer says. “So we had a lot of people come during previews for either free or reduced prices. And they spread the word.
“To this day, when I go to the show, it’s really wonderful because it’s a split audience. There are the tourists and there are the young people — and many of them seeing it for the fifth and sixth time, which I love.”
For the show’s actors, “Avenue Q” has been a monumental experience. Says Ann Harada, who plays Christmas Eve in the musical, “The greatest job I ever had.”
Harada has been with “Avenue Q” from its first readings, going on to off-Broadway, Broadway and the London production before leaving the show. When the producers asked her to come back this summer and help finish the run, she jumped at the chance.
“This is a great company and people always are finding new and different things with the characters,” Harada says. “But also, what’s weird is that you are acting with ghosts … you’re doing the scene with an actor on stage and you’re also sort of reliving doing the scene with all the other actors you’ve done it with.”
Harada has no other jobs lined up after Sept. 13, unlike Jennifer Barnhart, who will go into the Goodspeed Musicals’ puppet-friendly production of “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter,” running Dec. 5-Jan. 3 in East Haddam, Conn. It’s based on the children’s book and Henson’s television special, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.”
Barnhart, who has handled such diverse “Avenue Q” puppets as Kate, Lucy, Mrs. T and Bear, has stayed with the show throughout its long run, only taking time off here and there for projects such as working on the PBS musical education series for young children, “Lomax, the Hound of Music,” in which she handles a white cat puppet named Delta.
Now, the humans and the puppets are getting ready for closing-night festivities where a few tears may be shed. But not by Lucy the Slut.
“The party is going to be pretty wild,” Lucy predicts. “We’re going to tear the roof off the joint completely. I heard there is going to be a pole, so I can do some dancing. Again, giving back. It’s all about giving back.
“And I’ve already got a gig at Scores,” the puppet revealed. “In these economic times, there are three industries that never close: hair salons, movie theaters and strip clubs.”