By Kristi Casey Sanders
Avenue Q originally was meant to be a television series. “But, how could you say no to the producer of Rent ?” says Robert Lopez, half of the musical’s original concept/music and lyrics team.
Lopez met the other half, writing partner Jeff Marx, in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in New York City. “I joined the BMI workshop to meet people and gain a foothold in the business,” Lopez remembers. “Because I wrote both music and lyrics, after a while I didn’t feel like I was getting the full benefit of the class because I was essentially working on my own and not collaborating with anyone. I liked Jeff’s work and thought it was really funny, and he liked my work. We became friends because of that.”
By the end of the workshop’s first year, they began collaborating on what Lopez calls his “joke piece,” a just-for-fun project called Kermit, Prince of Denmark . The Muppet-inspired version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet won an award, but failed to sell, so Lopez and Marx began work on Avenue Q .
“We had an amazing success in the workshop with a song from the Kermit project,” Lopez recalls. “We invited industry guests. [Rick Lyon] came in with a Kermit puppet he had gotten by kind of shady means, and that performance was so successful, we decided to do a show for him and built around him. Rick Lyon ended up being the puppet designer of Avenue Q , and played Nicky and Trekkie Monster.”
The idea was to create a mock-educational puppet show for adults. Each episode would tackle a different adult problem and feature a song about it. Lyon, who was part of Sesame Street’s talent pool, helped Marx and Lopez find other puppeteers with musical backgrounds. When Marx and Lopez felt they had enough episodes under their belt, they rented the York Theatre in Manhattan and invited television and theater industry people to watch a live pilot episode.
“No TV people came, only theater people,” Lopez remembers. “Jeffrey Seller, the producer of Rent , said, ‘If you want to do this on the stage, I will do this for you.’ We said yes.”
The challenge then became how to take what was a TV series’ worth of songs about racism, college, laundry and closeted homosexuals and make them seem like they belonged in one show. Three years later, Marx and Lopez had a show that was seamless and fulfilled their tenets of what new musical theater should be: entertaining, engaging and accessible to a new generation. “The story is good, too,” Lopez says. “There’s a good love story that’s part of the plot and, by the end of the show, people are hooked in. There are moments that have a lot of heart. If it was only a satire, would it have been as popular? No, I don’t think so.”
Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in March 2003, was extended four times, and opened on Broadway in July 2003. It won 2004 Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical.
Lopez and Marx continue to collaborate on several projects for stage and screen, but it’s another collaboration that occupies much of his time. “[Kristen Anderson and I] met at the BMI workshop, too. … [We] got engaged the night Avenue Q opened,” he says. “I saw the review and realized, ‘Wow, I can support a family. Let’s do this now.’ One year later, we were married. A year after that, we had a baby.” In addition to daughter Katie – now two-and-a-half years old – Kristen and Lopez have produced a musical version of Finding Nemo playing four times a day in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and are working on a musical commissioned by Roundabout Theatre.
Avenue Q promotions say the show is appropriate for teenagers because it’s about real life. So, will Lopez take his daughter to see the show when she’s in high school? “We’ll wait ’til after college,” he says with a laugh.
Avenue Q plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre March 25-30.