Theater: ‘A’ is for ‘angst’ when you’re the creators of ‘Avenue Q’
Jeff Marx, co-creator of the hit puppet musical, “Avenue Q,” was fired from his internship at “Sesame Street” in 1998. Back then he was an attorney, but he had taken the position in order to segue way into songwriting for kids. “Instead, I was cleaning tables, taking out the garbage, Xeroxing and answering telephones,” Marx says. “When I faxed an executive a song I had written, he told me that I was being too aggressive, that my job was to observe and to distribute scripts, and who they hell did I think I was? He got me the f— out of there, and I felt totally pathetic.”
Marx channeled his pathos into “Avenue Q,” which he penned with Robert Lopez, another unemployed, frustrated 20-something. The subversive musical, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 7, wasn’t meant as revenge against “Sesame Street,” Marx says, but as a primer for youths who find the real world scarier than it appears on children’s TV.
The fictional Avenue Q is a dilapidated street in an outer borough of New York, where broke college graduates can afford the rent. The residents include puppets such as Princeton, a preppie searching for his “purpose” in life; Kate Monster, an assistant teacher who longs to found her own “Monstersori” school; Lucy T. Slut, a skanky chanteuse; and Trekkie Monster, the local pervert. Rod, a closeted homosexual, is in love with his slacker roommate, Nicky — a riff on all those homoerotic musings about “Sesame Street’s” Ernie and Bert.
Among the human residents is a character named Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, of the 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes”) who “is like the patron saint of being great when you’re a kid, but sucking when you get older,” Marx says.
The musical is “how ‘Friends’ might be if it had Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy arguing about their one-night stand but with more angst, expletives and full-on puppet sex,” The Times of London said.
Marx seems light years from the fictional Avenue Q when he arrives at a La Brea cafe in his shiny black convertible. He recently moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, and he orders his lunch like a native, asking the waiter to substitute salad for fries. When the fries come anyway, he affably shrugs and eats them all. He says he has been taking Hollywood meetings and even had breakfast with Stephen Schwartz, the composer-lyricist of “Wicked,” which “Avenue Q” beat out for best musical at the 2004 Tony Awards. He says he now has a “Bel-Air shrink” — and that he has “plenty to be neurotic about” because he is Jewish.
Marx’s love of musicals comes from his Jewish mother, a dental hygienist who routinely schlepped her four children to shows such as “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” “My bar mitzvah theme was ‘Hooray for Jeffrey and Hooray for Hollywood musicals,” Marx says.
By that time, he was already a professional singer, crooning ballads to blushing girls with a local music teacher’s Number One Bar Mitzvah Band. After each gig, the girls would chase Marx and ask for his autograph.
“They treated me like Elvis,” he says.
He had a very different experience in the musical theater department at the University of Michigan, where he received “only one bit part in one show, which had one line,” he says. “I had professors tell me that I had no talent and that I would never make it in theater.”
So Marx attended Yeshiva University’s law school and passed the bar, but discovered he didn’t particularly like the profession. At age 28, he found himself adrift, living in an apartment owned by his parents and interning for various shows and producers in the hopes of switching careers. He also considered becoming an entertainment lawyer, and enrolled in a musical theater workshop just to meet potential clients. It was there he discovered he had talent for songwriting and teamed up with Lopez, a Yale graduate who was still living with his parents, to write a show.
“We decided we wanted to write a musical for people our age, that even straight guys would want to see,” says Marx, who is gay. “We decided to use puppets because they don’t look cheesy when they burst into song.”
Marx and Lopez came up with a musical titled “Kermit, Prince of Denmark,” which they submitted to the Jim Henson Company. When the company passed, Marx recalls, “Bobby and I beat our heads against the wall and said, ‘Why did we spend an entire year writing for someone else’s characters? F— the f—- — Muppets, let’s create our own Muppets…. And screw trying to come up with some crazy imaginary world; let’s make it about our world.’ Everyone we knew was interning and assisting and floundering and struggling. And we thought, this is awful, but it’s also kind of funny.”
“Avenue Q’s” first two songs sum up those sentiments: “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English” and “It Sucks to Be Me.”
Marx and Lopez penned their ditties in restaurants, Starbucks, on the subway — anywhere people and surroundings could inspire them. “We wrote ‘There’s Life Outside Your Apartment,’ literally, while walking down the street,” Marx says. “Of course, we didn’t write ‘The Internet Is for Porn,’ while watching porn,” he adds. “That was in a diner over fries.”
“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” was inspired, in part, by a relative of Marx’s who refers to African Americans as “shvartzes.” At the end of the scene, the characters argue over whether Jesus was black or white.
“But everyone laughs when they finally realize Jesus was Jewish,” Marx says.“Avenue Q” opens Sept. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, visit http:/www.centertheatregroup.org
‘Avenue Q’ on British TV’s Newsnight Review