You may not have heard of Avenue Q. Well, you may think you have not heard of Avenue Q. There is a high chance however, that you have heard one of the many songs the adult musical comedy has produced. Many of the musical numbers including ‘The Internet is for Porn’ and ‘If you were gay’ have been viewed millions of times online, often in the form of original footage of the show being performed on Broadway and across the world, or in various parodies featuring characters from video games and television shows.
The musical features dirty-minded puppets in a coming of age parable, which reflects on and satirises many issues such as racism, pornography, purpose in life and growing up. After it originally premiered in 2003, the Broadway production won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has been described as an adult version of Sesame Street by the likes of Entertainment Weekly and the New Yorker. Chris Thatcher, one of the stars of the current cast, agrees with this comparison, telling Otwo, “It is like [an adult Sesame Street], except as a kid you learn your ABCs, as an adult you learn things about relationships and so on.”
Thatcher explains that it is the puppet element of the show that has made it so successful. “People just seem to warm to puppets, you can do things you wouldn’t be able to do as an actor. It’s a different art form. As a performer, as a human, you can’t go too big with your performance. You try not to detract too much away from the puppet. You want to match the puppet but not too much to the extent that the audience just watch you and not the puppet.”
The implementation of puppets in the musical has allowed the show to satirise and comment on events that would otherwise be more difficult. “The thing about having a puppet there is you can say things you wouldn’t be able to get away with saying. People would say, ‘That’s bad, that’s out of order.’ When a puppet says it, people say, ‘Oh it’s okay, they’re innocent.’ It’s like a puppy, or a very young child. If you were to hear a baby swearing at an adult, rather than thinking, ‘Oh god, that’s really bad’, you would [think it’s okay because] they don’t know what they’re saying.”
While generally speaking this has allowed Avenue Q to touch on subjects such as pornography without any trouble, there have been occasions where the show’s risqué material has led to awkward situations. On more than one occasion people have gone to see the musical without realising what they were subjecting themselves to. “One night we had a family, of all these aristocratic kind of people. It was the whole family: the mums, the dads, the grandma the grandpa and the son and his fiancé. They were all in the front row. They just looked disgusted; it was hilarious. So for the rest of the show a lot of me and my friends were finding the show funnier than the audience were.” Thatcher explained that although most people know what they can expect from the show, he warned that, “If you don’t do your research, you can be in for a shock.”
The cast are not hidden during the production, and stand on stage with the puppets. However, as Thatcher explains, this has never been an issue for the audience, as they naturally watch the puppets. “A lot of people say, at the start they find themselves looking at the puppet and the puppeteer, and then they’ll say ‘Oh, by the end I was just watching the puppet’… If I have an expression of shock on my face, which will be projected onto the puppet and it will look shocked, and if I look happy, the puppet will look happy as well.”
Avenue Q has now been playing for nine years, and although it has generally kept the same form, there have been changes in references to popular culture and politics to keep up with current affairs. In the final song, ‘For Now’ the cast explain that everything, both bad and good, is only for the time being. This originally included the line “George Bush is only for now”, but since the often decried President left office, he has been replaced in the show by perhaps even more divisive figures. Last year’s show used the line, “Jedward is only for now” instead. For this current tour, it has changed again. However, Thatcher remains mysterious, saying,“If you want to know what it is, you’ll have to come along.”
This article originally appeared here in March of 2012.