Note: This review reveals minor details of the musical’s plot.
Who’d have thought that a musical about puppets would make it onto Broadway and win a Tony Award for Best Musical? I suppose writers Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, believed that Avenue Q, a show inspired by Sesame Street (both men were originally puppeteers for the show) would be successful, and they were right.
But don’t let the puppets and the Sesame Street comparisons fool you- Avenue Q is a musical with songs about racism, internet porn, sex, and the difficulties of life. Profanity is rampant throughout the songs and there’s even “full puppet nudity” in a few scenes. However, all of this is part of what makes Avenue Q charming- amidst the cheery songs, the characters tackle real life issues and Marx and Lopez manage to do so in a humorous and light manner.
Though I’ve never been fortunate enough to see the show on Broadway, I got to see a few scenes on the Tony’s and decided to buy the CD (which was released in 2003). The album begins with the Avenue Q Theme, a cheerful opener that sounds similar to Sesame Street’s theme song.
The actual show begins with a fresh-faced college graduate, Princeton(John Tartaglia) wondering “what do you do with a BA in English?”. He’s out and living on his own for the first time, and with his “useless degree” realizes that he needs cheaper housing and finds himself apartment hunting in the lower area of New York- Avenue Q. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to some of Avenue Q’s citizens during It Sucks To Be Me. Brian (Jordan Gelber– one of three actors whose character isn’t a puppet) is 33 and unemployed and Kate Monster (Stephanie D’Abruzzo) is unhappy with her love life (“I’m kinda pretty/And pretty damn smart/I like romantic things/Like music and art/And as you know/I have a gigantic heart/So why don’t I have a boyfriend?”). Rod (also played by Tartaglia) and Nicky (Rick Lyon) are roommates (ala Bert and Ernie) who are unsatisfied with their living situation. Christmas Eve (another non-puppet, played by Ann Harada) is Brian’s therapist fiancee who can’t find work, and Gary Coleman (yes, the Gary Coleman, though he is played by Natalie Venetia Belcon who also portrays her character in human form) is the superintendent…and his problems are pretty self evident. The citizens of Avenue Q meet Princeton and welcome him to the neighborhood as they cheerfully claim, “On Avenue Q/It sucks to be us/But not when we’re together”. The song is done with such hilarity that I’ve actually listened to it when I was feeling down and felt better; no matter how bad things may seem, at least I’m not Gary Coleman, right?
The humor continues with If You Were Gay. It seems that Nicky suspects his roommate of being gay, though Rod continuously denies being so. Nicky starts up with a song telling Rod that if he were gay, he’d be okay with it. The song is presented in another cheery, sing-song format, and is another hilarious track. Lyon does a great job of making Nicky seem helpful and truly caring towards his friend’s sexuality (“You can count on me/To always be/Beside you every day/To tell you it’s okay/You were just born that way/And as they say/It’s in your DNA”) and Tartaglia is equally successful at being unconvincing as Rod proclaims that he’s not gay.
Another highlight is Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. The discussion of racism is spurred when Princeton naively asks Kate if she’s related to Trekkie Monster (also sung by Rick Lyon) who lives upstairs. Kate is rightly offended, and after telling Princeton that all monsters aren’t related, accuses him of being racist. Princeton bites back and also notes that she’s been racist at times too. Both of them face the facts- everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes (“Everyone’s a little bit racist/It’s true/But everyone is just about/As racist as you/If we all could just admit/That we are racist a little bit/And everyone stopped being/So PC/Maybe we could live in/Harmony”). Soon, the rest of the gang joins in for another bouncy song with a chorus you’ll be singing all day.
The Internet Is For Porn is up next. Kate tries to sing a song to the kid monsters at her school about the joys of the Internet, but Trekkie Monster, who is obsessed with porn, butts in and tells the children why the Internet was really created- for porn. The other men from Avenue Q join in and admit that they use the Internet for porn, and Kate has the same reaction that I probably would- pure disgust. She stalks away, crying “I hate the Internet! I hate men!” as the guys jovially sing “All these guys unzip their flies/For porn, porn, porn!”
Another one of the more risque songs (which contains the scene with the puppet sex) is You Can Be As Loud As The Hell you Want (When You’re Makin’ Love). Led by Gary Coleman, the song is funny in a ridiculous sort of way; as the superintendent encourages his tenants to be…well, loud as they want while making love. My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada continues the drama of Rod’s sexual orientation as he makes up a fictional girlfriend named Alberta who lives in Canada. I remember laughing hysterically the first time I heard the song- Rod stumbles his way through his lies about his “girlfriend” as he tries to convince his neighbors that he’s straight. His overly sexual comments and jokes about Alberta are hilarious, and none of his neighbors are convinced (“Her name is Alberta/She lives in Vancouver/She cooks like my mother/And sucks like a Hoover”). Schadenfreude is another funny track, as Gary and Nicky sing about finding “happiness at the misfortune of others” (“Did ya ever clap when a waitress falls/And drops a tray of glasses?/…Don’t you feel all warm and cozy/Watching people out in the rain?/That’s Schadenfreude/People taking pleasure in your pain.”)
And when you’re done doubling over in laughter, Marx and Lopez provide quite a few sentimental songs with pretty heaving meanings that reflect on real life. Purpose is a cute track that finds Princeton wondering what his purpose in life may be. Mix Tape details the eventual romance between Kate and Princeton, as Kate wonders if he likes her that way. Princeton gives her a mix tape, and while the tracks don’t start out promising (“You’ve Got A Friend”/”The Theme From ‘Friends'”/”That’s What Friends Are For”), he ends up asking her out on a date. The song is one of my favorites and just about anyone can relate to looking for signs to figure out if that special person actually likes you or not.
There’s A Fine, Fine Line is a mature look at relationships and commitment (“And I don’t have the time to waste on you anymore/I don’t think that you even know what you’re looking for/For my own sanity I’ve got to close the door/And walk away”), and The More You Ruv Someone is a heartfelt ballad about realizing you love someone (“The more you ruv someone/The more you want to kir dem/The more you ruv someone/The more he make you cly”- ruv is actually “love”, kir is “kill”, and cly is “cry”; the song is sung by Christmas Eve, who has a thick Japanese accent.) I Wish I Could Go Back To Collegeis another sentimental ballad that finds Nicky, Kate and Princeton reflecting on their college years and deciding that life was much easier then (“I wish I could go back to college/In college you know who you are/You sit in the quad, and think, ‘Oh my God!/I am totally gonna go far!'”), and then coming back to reality and realizing, “But if I were to go back to college/Think what a loser I’d be/I’d walk through the quad/And think ‘Oh my God…/These kids are so much younger than me'”.
The album and show comes to a close with For Now. The citizens of Avenue Q have gathered back together and have come to the conclusion that though it sometimes sucks to be them- it’s only temporary (“Don’t stress/Relax/Let life roll off your backs/Except for death and paying taxes/Everything in life is only for now!”).
Avenue Q is a great show. Robert Marx and Jeff Lopez wrote a wonderfully beautiful musical about life’s ups and downs, and the cast brings it to life through puppets and live characters in a way that works brilliantly. The upbeat songs will be stuck in your head all day, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming The Internet Is For Porn at work one day. Avenue Q is a great soundtrack- whether you need a laugh ‘cause you still don’t know what to do with that BA in English, or you just want a little reassurance that everything in life is only for now, turn to the tenants of Avenue Q- they’ve always got a lesson for you to learn.
1. The Avenue Q Theme
2. What Do You Do With A B.A. In English? / It Sucks To Be Me
3. If You Were Gay
5. Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist
6. The Internet Is For Porn
7. Mix Tape
8. I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today
10. You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)
11. Fantasies Come True
12. My Girlfriend, Who Lives In Canada
13. There’s A Fine, Fine Line
14. There Is Life Outside Your Apartment
15. The More You Ruv Someone
17. I Wish I Could Go Back To College
18. The Money Song
19. School For Monsters: / The Money Song (Reprise)
20. There’s A Fine, Fine Line / What Do You Do With A B.A. In English? (Reprise)
21. For Now