Puppets on parade!Jennifer Barnhart, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, John Tartagliaand friends outside the Golden Theatre
Puppets on parade!
Jennifer Barnhart, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, John Tartaglia
and friends outside the Golden Theatre
It's wonderfully ironic that Avenue Q has transferred from Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre to the more upscale environs of Broadway. The quirky new musical, an adult takeoff on Sesame Street, is about a bunch of twentysomething urbanites who live in the only neighborhood that recent college grads like themselves can afford. But after a highly acclaimed run at the Vineyard, the cast, crew, and puppets of Avenue Q are movin' on up -- not to the East Side, like the Jeffersons, but to the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street, where the show officially reopens on July 31.

Directed by Jason Moore, Avenue Q has music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, and a book by Jeff Whitty. The show's puppets, created and designed by Rick Lyon, are brought to life by an enormously talented group of performers including Lyon himself. This team has created a world where people and puppets live side by side, but don't go expecting anything as simple and wholesome as you'll find on Sesame Street: The denizens of Avenue Q face grown-up responsibilities and questions, leading to such hilariously irreverent songs as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "If You Were Gay," and "Schadenfreude."

Just before the show began previews, TheaterMania had a lively roundtable discussion at the Golden with Lyon and the show's three other puppeteer-performers. On hand was our photographer, Joseph Marzullo. (Note to fans: All of these photos were specially set up for TheaterMania. The puppets don't normally leave the theater!)

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THEATERMANIA: A question just occurred to me: Are the puppets' headshots in the Playbill?

JOHN TARTAGLIA: No!

STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO: It's only fair. They're on the posters, so we get to be in the Playbill! The puppets don't really talk, you see, so they have no say in the matter. Literally. That's the nice thing about working with inanimate objects.

JOHN: Yeah, you can do what you want with them. You can make them say whatever you want and they don't say anything back.

JENNIFER BARNHART: The fun thing is that, when you are speaking with a puppet, you can get away with saying things you could never say as a human. You can come out with the most jaded, insulting things and people just laugh.

STEPHANIE: Historically, that's how it all started. The Punch and Judy shows were very political. If any person had said those things in public, he would have been hanged.

JOHN: It's the same with a lot of the points we get across in our show -- "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," things like that. With the puppets on our hands, people totally buy it. It's like, "Oh, a puppet is saying it. That means it must be true."

JENNIFER: In Shakespearean plays, it's the prerogative of the fools and half-wits to speak the truth. Puppets are akin to that.

TM: That leads me to wonder about the sex scene with Princeton and Kate Monster. What kind of reactions have you gotten to that?

JOHN: Different reactions. Sometimes, people just bawl out laughing as soon as the lights come up.

STEPHANIE: We did a student matinee where they screamed. The roof came off the place. We couldn't hear ourselves.

JOHN: We literally were yelling to give each other cues onstage.

TM: Didn't one of the reviewers of the show at the Vineyard write that he was traumatized by the image of puppets having sex?

STEPHANIE: Well, some people are!

JOHN: Other people, it takes them a couple of seconds. The lights will come up and at first they're like, "That's weird." Then all of the sudden you hear, "Oh, oh, oh, my God!" and it just builds.

STEPHANIE: That scene is a nice little shock. It wakes them up for the rest of the act.

JOHN: The same thing happens when they hear Kate Monster curse for the first time in the show. She's the first puppet that curses, and you can hear people go, "Oh! This is what the show is!"

STEPHANIE: One reason the sex scene looks so funny is that the puppets have no lower extremities. So what are they having sex with? That makes it even more ludicrous. I don't think it would work as well if they were full-bodied puppets and the scene was more graphic.

RICK LYON: That's one of the things we depend on in this show: We take the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief and we add a couple of layers on top of that. So, even more so than in a more conventional piece of theater, we're asking the audience to contribute its imagination to the show.

TM: Was it ever considered that Avenue Q might be performed without the puppeteers being visible?

RICK: That was actually one of the first thoughts: "Okay, we want to do a show with puppets. How are we going to hide the puppeteers?" But, in our early readings, the audience response was, "I liked the song -- and I really liked watching the puppeteers." It became immediately apparent that we didn't have to hide them, that it actually adds something to the show to see them.

STEPHANIE: I think it's become vital to see our expressions, because puppets in general are obviously limited as far as that's concerned. In television or film, you can use the camera to help indicate different emotions, but here we can't do that. Our faces have to fill in a lot of blanks.

JOHN: If the performers were hidden, I think the show would be a little more childish in look and tone -- even though the material is definitely not for kids. It's very adult.

RICK: Having the performers visible gives us the opportunity to do a lot of different things. It allows us to establish relationships with the other characters in ways that we wouldn't be able to if we were hidden.

JENNIFER: It's a challenge for us. I mean, we've all done this for years on television, but now that we're on stage, we have to learn choreography and so on. Whoa, it's two different parts of my brain working at the same time! That's challenging but also very liberating.

Price of fame:The stars of Avenue Q are accosted by fans  and paparazziat the stage door of the Golden
Price of fame:
The stars of Avenue Q are accosted by fans and paparazzi
at the stage door of the Golden
TM: If they ever make a movie of Avenue Q, they'll probably make it without visible puppeteers and it will be a different animal. Tell me, is there one version of each puppet in the show or are their multiples with different facial expressions?

RICK: They don't have different expressions, but there are some multiples -- anywhere from three to five of each puppet -- in order to facilitate costume changes.

STEPHANIE: But the faces are identical on every single one of them.

RICK: The major changes from Off-Broadway to Broadway are really all color changes. We've made everybody a little bit brighter in terms of the costumes. But the puppets aren't any bigger. That was one of the things that we discovered early on when we were looking at theaters: We brought the puppets to the prospective Broadway houses and it quickly became apparent that the puppets read better in a big space than humans do. Kate Monster's face plays to the back row better than Stephanie's does.

STEPHANIE: Well, her eyes are five times the size of mine!

RICK: All of the puppets read very well in the Golden. They're actually quite a bit larger than the average TV puppet.

JENNIFER: The nice thing about this theater is that it retains the intimacy that we had in the Off-Broadway house, which was really important.

STEPHANIE: And the acoustics of this place are amazing. If we didn't have amplified instruments, I don't think we'd need mics.

JOHN: During rehearsals, I've had the opportunity to run up to the back row and watch. It's really neat. In some ways -- and this is weird -- the show actually feels more intimate here than it did at the Vineyard. That's encouraging because, when we heard we were moving to Broadway, we were excited but also worried about losing that intimacy. The very first thing we did when we got into the theater was run up to the last row and it was like, "All right, cool."

TM: Rick, let's talk about the genesis of the show. I believe Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez got the idea and then they came to you?

RICK: Sort of. At the BMI Musical Theater workshop, one of their first projects together was a musical movie for Henson -- a movie called Kermit, Prince of Denmark that was a take on the Hamlet story with the Muppet characters. It was written strictly on spec, just to fulfill an assignment at BMI; it wasn't something they were going to try to sell. They wrote a bunch of songs for that and then they said, "Let's perform some of these songs with puppets." Jeff Marx and I had a mutual acquaintance and she brought me into the project. It went over so well that they thought, "Wow! Let's make up our own characters and our own show instead of trying to write for somebody else's puppet characters." So I was involved almost from the very beginning.

TM: And you were working with the Jim Henson Company at that point?

RICK: Yeah. I freelance. I work with whoever will hire me.

JENNIFER: We all freelance.

TM: Was there any hesitation on Henson's part, because of the subject matter, to approve the show?

RICK: We don't really need their approval; these are not Henson characters, they're original. We're not affiliated or associated with the Henson Company in any way, shape, or form. But, obviously, we were concerned that they might harbor ill will against the project.

STEPHANIE: Jane and Cheryl Henson have come to see the show and they've been nothing but supportive.

JOHN: That's really nice, because we've all worked with Henson and we love this kind of puppetry.

RICK: Really, our show is in the best interests of professional puppetry. The truth of the matter, without getting all weepy and sentimental about it, is that this is something Jim Henson always wanted to do. From the very first day I started working with Jim until the last day I worked with him, one of the things that he always mentioned in his private little moments was, "I really want to do a Broadway show." He didn't get to do it, but here we are doing something with his style of puppets on Broadway. That's exciting, and I think the Henson Company recognizes the fact that it's a pretty big step for this type of puppetry to be seen in this venue. It takes the form further.

STEPHANIE: And it shows that puppets are not just for kids.

JOHN: That was the idea of The Muppet Show. Even though it was enjoyed by kids and families, it was really intended for adults. That was the humor.

STEPHANIE: And Jim Henson had a hard time selling it. He had been working since 1955 but it wasn't until Sesame Street that he became an "overnight success." Then, suddenly, everybody saw him as a children's performer. So when he tried to shop around The Muppet Show, all three networks turned him down because it wasn't for kids.

RICK: His early work was very adult, full of linguistic jokes and puns and violence.

JENNIFER: So it's nice to see that kind of thing have its moment in the spotlight on Broadway.

JOHN: America is actually one of the few countries that view puppetry as something meant for children. In Africa and so many other countries, puppetry is just as important an art form as anything else.

RICK: It goes back to commedia dell'arte. It's really always been an adult form.

STEPHANIE: I think, in this country, it was television that established the idea that puppets are for kids.

JOHN: One comment about our show that we get a lot is that people expected to laugh but they never thought they'd be moved. The great thing about puppetry is that it breaks down human emotion to its most abstract form, in a way.

STEPHANIE: It's like working with masks.

I’ll drink to that:Princeton and John and Kate and Stephaniethrow back a few at Sardi’s
I’ll drink to that:
Princeton and John and Kate and Stephanie
throw back a few at Sardi’s
TM: I love the fact that the puppets are conflicted, because you don't usually see that.

STEPHANIE: Right. With children's puppetry on television, you see very few broken hearts.

JOHN: And everything usually gets wrapped up nicely in an hour -- or in half an hour, depending on what show it is.

STEPHANIE: We don't have a neat little package ending, do we?

JOHN: No. Some people, when they hear about the show but haven't seen it yet, think: "Oh, so it's just puppets having sex and cursing." Well, no, it's not. That's a part of it but only because it's part of adult life. There's a lot of emotional depth to the show, which I personally think is why people relate to it so much. If it was just puppets having sex, then it would be like, "That's fun -- for a minute."

RICK: The real surprise of the show is not puppets having sex and cursing. That wears off real quick. The surprise is that they're characters you can get involved with and care about for two hours.

JOHN: I play Rod [among other characters], and I've had so many gay men come up to me and say, "Oh, my God! That's me." It's great that they can feel humanly connected to a piece of foam and fur.

JENNIFER: I had a friend who came to see the show and said to me afterwards, "You should have warned me about that 'Fine, Fine Line' song." She had just gone through a breakup and she was bawling.

JOHN: I think this show is going to inject Broadway with a little bit of energy because it's a whole new thing that people haven't seen before.

RICK: And I don't think the show would work without the puppets. If you only cast humans in these roles, it wouldn't be as interesting.

JENNIFER: This is a very existentialist show.

RICK: I've always resisted comparisons to Rent but, in some ways, they are similar. Rent is about people just getting through life day to day, and that's sort of what our show is about, too.

JOHN: The last song in the show, "For Now," kind of sums it up. Everything in life is only for now. This sucks and that sucks, but you know what? You move on.

JENNIFER: And there are also moments of intense joy.

TM: In an odd way, the show also reminds me of Company.

RICK: There are comparisons. Bobby, the central character in Company, is not overtly sympathetic; he just kind of wanders from one thing to another. That's true of Princeton at first, but he eventually finds his way.

JOHN: And again, because he's a puppet, you forgive him for a lot more things. Like when he sort of dumps Kate.

STEPHANIE: You do dump me. Don't sugarcoat it! [To TheaterMania:] He just doesn't want to be the bad guy.

JOHN: All right! When Princeton dumps Kate, you react differently than you would if it was a twentysomething human up there.

STEPHANIE: On the other hand, I don't think we want to rely on the fact that the characters' sins are going to be forgiven because they're puppets. If we were to do that, the show would fall apart. There are certain basics to storytelling. When you come right down to it, a love story is a love story -- no matter what kind of show it is.