With all the wild and wonderful denizens of Avenue Q heading into San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre this week, you’ll want to check into the Theater Dogs frequently. The characters _ both human and puppet _ will be doing some guest blogging.
For now, though, let’s chat with Jeff Marx (above left), the co-creator — with Bobby Lopez (above right) — of the show and the score.
The Florida native whose stint in law school couldn’t quite keep him out of show business, has left New York for Hollywood. He’s in the process of trying to find a house, and after looking at more than 50 potential abodes, he’s getting frustrated.
“I have found the one I like, and it’s on stilts,” he says. “I could never understand why anyone would want to live in one of those, but after seeing the view, I understand.”
Marx is living what some might call the good life. In 2004, the little puppet musical he co-wrote with Lopez won Tony Awards for its creators and for book writer Jeff Whitty, and then snagged the big prize for Best Musical.
Avenue Q, sort of Sesame Street with swearing, dirty jokes, puppet sex and Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, but played by a woman), is still running on Broadway, and after a detour to Las Vegas that didn’t work out so well, the show is finally on tour.
So how is the 36-year-old Marx dealing with all this success?
“Bobby and I had different reactions to the success of Avenue Q,” Marx says. “He got all scared and nervous and had all this anxiety about what we were going to do that could outdo this. And I thought, `You know, this exploded. There’s no outdoing this.’ I realized I could die happy having done only this — not that I’m planning to retire. But realizing that took all the pressure off. I’ve got all the money I need now, all the respect and admiration and the open doors. I’m very happy now, and whatever I do next will be fun. I’ve had a huge success. Now I can do anything I f—ing want.”
That a scrappy little musical that mixed puppets and human actors singing songs like “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn” would beat out a behemoth musical like “Wicked” for the Best Musical Tony was a shock — even to Marx.
“I think the reason Avenue Q hit home for so many people is that so many aspects of it are true,” Marx says, referring to the main character Princeton, fresh out of college with a B.A. in English, no money and no prospects, meeting friends in a similar state of struggle.
“They don’t teach you in college what real life is going to be like,” Marx continues. “We sit in the quad thinking we’re pretty special, and it’s `Look out, world, here we come!’ But then there’s this rude shock. Everybody goes through it. We wrote this show about our lives and our friends’ lives.”
The 20- and 30somethings who flock to the show put songs from the Avenue Q original cast album on mixes for friends (Tip: The song “Schadenfreude” goes over like gangbusters on mixes).
“We wanted to write a musical for people who don’t necessarily like musicals,” Marx says. “We wanted to write for frat guys and straight guys — people who wouldn’t be caught dead at `Funny Girl.’ Now we hear all the time that guys are telling their girlfriends, `I want to see that show.’ That is the biggest compliment. That’s what we were going for.”
When asked if he’s at all familiar with the Bay Area, Marx says, rather humbly, “To be completely honest, I don’t know what bay you’re talking about.'” When he’s reminded just what the Bay Area is, he says: “I’ve only ever been out there sinigng with the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club. That was like my fraternity in college, my social outlet. I was 19. I’m looking forward to seeing San Francisco as an adult. I can spend as much time as I want and see what I want. And now I’m comfortable being gay. It’s a whole different thing from when I was there before.”
In Dori Berinstein’s recent documentary Show Business, which documented four shows’ journey from the beginning of the 2003-2004 season to the end. The shows documentared are Wicked, Caroline, or Change, Taboo and Avenue Q. In the movie, Marx talks about the conflict he had with book writer Whitty.
“The whole writing process was 4 1/2 years of tough work, especially between me and Jeff,” Marx says. “Bobby and I came up with the plot, the characters and a good half of the songs that basically outlined the plot. The dialogue wasn’t there, but the plot outline was. Jeff came in, and it was a tough balance because it wasn’t his baby, yet he had to put his mark on it an ddo his thing. He was very, very good. His contributions were crucial and wonderful. We had our ideas, he had his ideas. The biggest problem was that we wanted it to be revue-like, like Sesame Street, which doesn’t follow a plot too strongly — it’s like a bunch of commercials in a row. There’s logic to the sequence but not a linear story. Jeff is a playwright, and was, like, No, if you want to do a play, you need a climax at the end, and you need to plant seeds along the way — follow the breadcrumbs to the payoff. You can’t do a revue, he said, because how do you know when it’s over?”
In the end, Marx concedes that his and Whitty’s battles resulted in a better show, which is a compromise — part revue, part play.
“I’m happy with the hybrid,” Marx says. “But it was a big struggle. We fought a lot. Steam came out of our ears, especially Jeff’s. I was like the character Nicky, needling him, and he was more like Rod, fuming and saying No! Just leave me alone!”
After the show’s triumph at the Tony Awards, theater producers across the country were shocked when the Q team opted to bypass the usual national tour in favor of a sit-down production at Steve Wynn’s lush new resort in Las Vegas.
“He told us he’d build a theater to our exact specifications, not too big, not too small, and that they’d advertise on billboards and in the resort’s 2,000 rooms,” Marx recalls. “He said anything flies in Vegas. The show is perfect, don’t change a thing. He gave us a lot of money. It was great for everybody.”
The show got a slow start because the hotel got a slow start. Avenue Q was a tough sell to the Vegas crowd because it was hard to describe. Turns out people in Las Vegas don’t really want to see puppets no matter how racy you tell them they are.
“After a couple of months, we said the show is too long, so we cut it down to 90 minutes — removed 12 minutes and the intermission — and still tickets did not skyrocket the way we wanted them to,” Marx says. “Steve Wynn wanted full houses and standing ovations. He was embarrassed, so he closed it and put in Spamalot.”
But the Q team and Wynn shook hands and parted as friends.
“He bet on us, we bet on him. He paid us a lot, and we parted with a fair settlement,” Marx says.
Marx and Lopez are at work on the movie version of Avenue Q, which Marx says will be “very retro” like The Muppet Movie. There will be humans in the movie but, unlike the show, the puppeteers won’t be seen. The team has also created a student version of Avenue Q to be done in high schools.
“We’ve toned it down a tiny bit, taken out some expletives and som inappropriate stuff for kids,” Marx says. “We figured the schools would want to do it, and rather let them edit the show themselves, we’d do it so the show could retain some of the flavor but be age appropriate.”
As for the spoils of his success, Marx will be kicking back in his fancy new L.A. pad — as soon as he finds one — and as for his Tony Award, it’s in his parents’ Florida home.
Avenue Q continues through Sept. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $90. Call (415) 551-2020 or visit www.shnsf.com.