(If you're already familiar with what Avenue Q is about, you'll find the interview here.)
We had a somewhat serendipitous visit to London's West End this year. Having left the conference post champagne but pre potential embarrassment (trust me on this), we meandered over Waterloo Bridge towards theatre land, passing a beleaguered Paul O' Grady, aka Lily Savage being swamped outside the ITV studios by fans from his home town - "I shop with your mother in Sainsbury's, Paul!" one woman exclaims.
(Yes, it's a terrible photo.)
It wasn't celebrity spotting we were doing though, and we didn't stop for an autograph. That night I was introducing Niamh to one of my favourite boroughs of New York, a "real life" neighbourhood populated by a variety of characters, celebrity, human and not so human. Yes, we were heading towards the Noel Coward Theatre for the evening show of AVENUE Q. And, almost needless to say, I was excited.
This was to be the third time I'd seen the show in London. Since being introduced to it over a year before, the appeal of the characters, the music and above all the songs has drawn me back like a familiar favourite film, where you know the script but watch anyway. Indeed, how could I not like it, this remarkable adult homage to Sesame Street with its premise of
"Life may suck on AVENUE Q but being jobless, homeless, politically incorrect, having sex (whether hetero, homo or porno... and that’s just the puppets) are just some of the topics featured in the terrific songs of this show."
Puppets you say? Yep. From Wikipedia:
The show is largely inspired by (and is in the style of) Sesame Street: Most of the characters in the show are puppets (operated by actors onstage), the set depicts several tenements on a rundown street in an Outer Borough of New York City, both the live characters and puppet characters sing, and short animated video clips are played as part of the story.However the focus on this street is not on education, but on sheer entertainment. We follow Princeton, a bright-eyed enthusiastic college graduate who discovers Avenue Q as he tries to follow his dreams and discover his ever-elusive purpose in life.
It's no fairy tale though - he has to deal with failed celebrities, closeted and porn addicted puppets, inter-racial marriages, the distraction of a busty blonde, homelessness, racism, an ever decreasing bank balance and all the problems faced by people in their twenties and thirties, "thus making the show more suited for the adults who grew up with Sesame Street."
(Photos from Avenue Q)
We take our seats at the back - only restricted view available, we're told. I'm consoled by the fact I've seen it before - poor Niamh though won't get the full effect. However, just as the theme starts and the curtains part, an usher directs us to empty aisle seats a few rows from the stage, a lot better than those we had. Characters appear on stage, voices are raised in song:
"You work real hard and the pay's real low, and ev'ry hour goes oh, so slow. And at the end of the day there's no where to go but home to Avenue Q!"and I relax for the first time that day, indulging in the sheer enjoyment of knowing the show and amusement at the reaction of those who don't. Familar faces - Christmas Eve, the Japanese therapist, Kate Monster, the Bad Idea bears, Lucy the Slut and TV's Gary Coleman - who has ended up as the superintendent on Avenue Q - fill the theatre with laughter, song and smart ass dialogue.
It's almost a pity I'd played the soundtrack so much in the house - Niamh was very used to the songs, thereby losing the surprise of the lyrics. From "What do you do with a B.A in English?" through "It sucks to be me", "If you were gay (that'd be okay)", "Everyone's a little bit racist", "The Internet is for Porn" and the incredibly poignant "There's a fine, fine line" it's all I can do not to sing along but instead distract myself with the gasps of shock, laughter and appreciation from a new-to-the-show audience who thoroughly enjoy themselves.
No mere puppet or muppet show this - it's a show that goes right for the funny bone and refuses to let go.
Now in its third year of the London production, the show has had over 1,000 performances and outstanding reviews. "It's not every show that manages to be tongue-in-cheek and hand-on-heart" says The Independent; "A hip, happening, adult puppet musical with a difference" says the Sunday Express, while the New Statesman rates it as "Riotous. A night bursting with invention, bawdiness and dollops of stage chutzpah".
Since its New York opening in 2003, its won several Tony Awards, including the award for best musical, and the soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy in 2004.
The challenge for the audience is to try take it all in. The live action mix of human and puppet can prove an intentional distraction as the puppeteers act as much in character as the figure they hold in their hands.
In the big cast scenes, where most of the characters are on stage, you'll find yourself watching the puppet more than the human, almost believing that it's the foam-and-wire ensemble singing with Gary Coleman about Schadenfreude: "The world needs people like you and me who've been knocked around by fate. 'Cause when people see us, they don't want to be us, and that makes them feel great." or giving the racial acceptance message "If we all could just admit that we are racist a little bit, even though we all know that it's wrong... maybe it would help us get along".
For any West End actor, going out night after night delivering the same lines and lyrics must be quite an endeavour. Add to that the pressure of puppeteering, of making the audience believe that puppets can have sex or be gay or be addicted to porn or fall in love and the commitment and talent of the actors comes to the fore. With this in mind, I went to meet Daniel Boys and Mark Goldthorp, two of the show's main puppeteers and actors to ask a few questions and find out more about what they do.
Mark plays three of the puppet characters on stage - internet favourite Trekkie Monster, Nicky, the well intentioned but lazy flatmate and one of the Bad Idea Bears. A wonderful actor, voice over artist and singer, his theatrical pedigree includes such high profile west end shows as Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast, Me and My Girl and Whistle down the Wind.
Daniel, who plays main character Princeton and Rod, the closet gay liberal, is possibly best known this side of the water for his participation in Any Dream Will Do (BBC1’s search for Joseph) and When Joseph met Maria has an equally impressive portfolio including Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Grease and Rent.
When I meet the guys, after an unexpected but hugely appreciated tour of the set - the bed the puppets have sex on has a real fitted sheet and pillowcases, the money they collect during the "Give me your Money" scene goes to charity and only certain cast members or the puppet master (yes there is one) can touch the puppets - they're warmly welcoming, polite and bizarrely, in character.
As I shake hands with Princeton, I repress the childish urge to giggle - it's like meeting Kermit. Equally, as much as I want to hug Trekkie Monster, the presence of the puppet master reminds me we have a job to do here. Photos taken, we talk about the show.
So, over 1,000 shows in, multiple audiences, cast changes, the same songs and characters now for over a year – obviously it’s a good experience but is Avenue Q as much fun for you both as it was at the beginning?
Mark (MG): Yes!Was the puppeteering element of the role (which can be quite physical at times) a difficult thing to get used to?
Daniel (DB): Absolutely, I love the show and have done since I first saw it so getting to go on every night with a cast and crew who are all such good fun and to see an audience having such a great time is a real joy.
MG: Yes, it was at the beginning. You can never stop learning – I love that with both puppetry and acting.You both have very varied musical and television backgrounds. Does Avenue Q allow you to bring as much of you that you’d like to the stage?
DB: There is no doubt that the puppetry is one of the hardest things about the job. Puppetry is/was a new skill to learn and a very difficult one too. It hurt my arm a lot in puppet school and rehearsals but I’m used to it now and have become quite attached to the puppets.
MG: I find there’s a lot of me in the show, both good things and bad!If you each have a favourite scene or song to perform from the show as any of your characters, what is it?
DB: Obviously the show is about the puppets, but I’m loving showing a comic character role side to me which I’ve never been able to show before.
MG: The obvious ones I’m afraid, 'If You Were Gay', 'The Internet is for Porn', and I love 'I wish I could go back to College'.If you could be another character (human or puppet) or choose a song to sing from the show, what would it be?
DB: My favourite scene and song to perform is 'Fantasy'. We get to see Rod in his true colours and get to see his vulnerability. It's also a great song to sing.
MG: The song would be “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” and the character of Gary Coleman but that would never happen!
DB: Well I do love singing along to “The More You Ruv Someone” in the dressing room!
Who do you think is the best character in the musical?
MG: The most well written is Kate Monster as she has the biggest journey but its all relativeHow much does the audience reaction influence how you’ll play a show on a night?
DB: I think Kate goes through the most emotionally but of course I’m biased – I love Rod!
MG: We try not to let it affect us but it does have some affect, especially if they’re quite a quiet audience.
DB: It can be tough sometimes if it’s a small or quiet audience but you have to treat every show like a first night.
You’re in the middle of cast changes – does that affect the dynamic of your performances much?
MG: Not for me, noOn a personal level, what would be a West End/Broadway role that you’d love to make your own?
DB: A lot! Julie [Atherton - the original Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut for over a year] is very different to Rebecca [Lock, who left the show in November]. They’re both fantastic but obviously it’s hard after a year of doing it to suddenly have to change. It’s fun exploring the characters again.
MG: One that has not been performed yet.With the news that the show will close next year, what, if any, are your plans? Do you think you’ll miss playing your characters?
DB: Either Marius in Les Misérables or possibly Fiyero in Wicked. I’d also really like the opportunity to create a new role in a musical – a challenge I’ve not yet tried.
MG: No plans, and I will miss the everything about the show very much.Finally, would you join Avenue Q on tour and play in Dublin? (Especially if we were buying the Guinness?)
DB: I will miss it so much. As for my plans, I just hope to keep working. I love singing and musical theatre but would really like to do some TV or film. I’d also like to do an album at some point.
MG: Yes to the Guinness! The other question, talk to my agent!!
DB: I love the show , but unfortunately I think a year and a half is long enough in a show (although the Guinness is tempting!)
As we leave the Noel Coward Theatre, I resolve to return before the show ends its run on March 28 next year. I've had a brilliant evening - Niamh too, though she thinks she'd have preferred not to know the songs beforehand - Darren and Lottie, you're warned - but it was great fun. Highly recommended for laughs and one of my favourite shows, ever.
Outside we pass Joanna Ampil, who has put in a storming performance as Christmas Eve. She's delighted by my praise and practically skips up the road. I'm half tempted to join her, singing my own favourite, For Now.
"For now we're healthy. For now we're employed. For now we're happy, If not overjoyed. And we'll accept the things we cannot avoid, for now... Don't stress, relax, let life roll off your backs... everything in life is only for now"You can catch Avenue Q at the Noel Coward Theatre, at Covent Lane in London WC2 (very close to Leicester Square). Tickets start at £10, the performance lasts approximately 2hrs 15 mins (including a 15 min interval) and show times are 8pm Monday to Thursday, Friday at 5.30pm and 8.30pm and Saturday at 5pm and 8.30pm. You'll find out more information on the official website here.
You can also find some of the show's songs on my Blip channel here:
A big thank you to Niamh, Kasey, Marion, Mark and Daniel for making this happen. Brilliant night, great experience :)