Remember the good old days when important life lessons were mindlessly fed to you by your furry puppet friends on your television screens? When puppets would teach us elementary concepts such as sharing and counting, but you didn’t think about the fact that you were learning, rather than just having fun. What if those puppets taught you about sex, politics, homophobia, and racism? Many didn’t think twice about it, but Avenue Q’s been doing just that for the past 16 years. But make it dirty and real life.
Avenue Q begs some tell-all questions at the top of the show, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English? What is my life going to be?”. These simple questions are the opening lines, which set the scene for a young college grad, Princeton, as he begins his post-grad journey into adulthood and beyond. Think about it though, how many of us have stopped and thought about these rudimentary, yet deep questions such as “What is my life going to be?” as we entered a new phase in life. Truly, there’s not that much of a difference between a puppet asking us this and Elmo reminding us how to say “Thank You” on our screens.
A brief history of Avenue Q
Avenue Q (book by Jeff Whitty and Music/Lyrics by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx) premiered Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2003, winning the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical in 2003. It then transferred to Broadway at the John Golden Theatre opening on July 31, 2003. Known for its provocative topic, innovative puppetry, and cunning hilarity, it was nominated for six (6) Tony Awards in 2004, winning for Best Book, Best Original Score, and Best Musical. Avenue Q closed on Broadway on September 13, 2009. Shortly thereafter, the show transferred back Off-Broadway (at its current home, New World Stages) in October 2009 and closes this weekend, May 26, 2019. Three of Rick Lyons’s (puppet designer and originated the roles of Nicky and Trekkie Monster) original Avenue Q puppets were recently added to the Permanent Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
We got to sit down with four (4) of the current actors of Avenue Q (Nick Kohn plays Brian, Grace Choi plays Christmas Eve, Jason Jacoby* plays Nicky/Trekkie Monster and Matt Dengler* plays Princeton/Rod) and Stage Manager, Christine Daly, who has been with the show for the past 16 years through its Broadway run both Off-Broadway runs to talk about the importance and legacy of (what they were referring to as) “Q“.
*denotes an actor who is also a puppeteer in the show
The Knockturnal: 16 years on the stage, there have been a couple of different iterations of Avenue Q. Some would say it is a defining contemporary musical comedy. When it came out in 2003, it was groundbreaking. I would argue that it still is, taking a different approach to touching on these topics such as racism, casual sex, pornography, depression (to name a few) — what do you think allows this show to be relatable day in and day out?
Christine Daly: I was there at the beginning and I would say at the very beginning, it was hysterical, but also shocking. These were things that people didn’t talk about. And I felt like a big part of the show, was to open the conversation.
She recalled an anecdote where she brought her young nephews to see the show on Broadway before it closed (prior to the 2009 Off-Broadway transfer to the current home, New World Stages)
Christine Daly: I brought my nephews to see the show right before we closed on Broadway…and the conversations we had in the car after…just about homophobia and racism and everything that we [the show] talks about were amazing…it was conversations we never had before and it absolutely allowed them to ask the questions that they probably would not have asked anyone else. It just opened that door, and I think that’s a big key to Avenue Q, it just opens doors to conversations that otherwise you wouldn’t have. Even though it’s not as shocking anymore as it was in 2003, it still opens those doors.
Nick Kohn, who currently plays the fun-loving Brian and transferred with the show from the Broadway closing to the current company. He’s been with the show for thirteen (13) years.
Nick Kohn: The topical jokes and things like that have always kind of been in the show. A lot of them still do resonate even though they’ve updated things as we go and that’s always been helpful. There’s still 18-23-year-olds who are coming to New York just not knowing what to do with their lives and just trying to figure out what they’re going to be or what they’re going to be. I think it’s helpful for them to see that they’re not alone.
Grace Choi: I feel like that’s more applicable than over with millennials and student loans. We have this high education, but we’re in student debt and can’t buy houses. I used to be like that’s so much more relatable than it was ever before and I think that’s why people are still able to relate to it today. The core of the story is Princeton is a 23-year-old kid trying to find his purpose in life.
Matt Dengler: I just think it’s a universal story. The script is the reason it’s lasted 16 years, it’s a hero’s journey at the heart of it. Princeton is the hero, although all the characters’ have their own hero’s journeys I guess…You come for the puppet sex, you stay for the profound life lessons.
Christine Daly: On Broadway, at some point, somebody came in with one of these pins that said “a puppet made me cry” — everyone who saw them wanted one because it was totally the unexpected thing. Everybody came here to laugh and there were moments when they cried.
The Knockturnal: There’s this familiarity with the puppetry and even with the screens that you guys have up [screens are on set on both sides of the stage to allow for cartoons and graphics to help tell the story via skits throughout the course of the show] — it’s very familiar to a point where it’s easily digestible. What has it been like to take something so familiar and kind of turn it on its head?
Matt Dengler: Christine and I were talking about this yesterday, how puppets, in the history of [shows like Sesame Street & The Muppets which Dengler also considers Q a love letter to] are teaching tools. They’re a buffer, like a liaison a human and somebody who might not be open to hearing a message directly from another human. The puppets are a vehicle to be able to communicate some tough lessons.
Jason Jacoby: The show relies on the audience having a familiarity. The nature of the show plays up the inserts that were in between skits on Sesame. Without a worldwide familiarity with Henson creations, the show wouldn’t play as well or wouldn’t have the same kind of effect. It’s so easily digestible. You’re willing to go on the ride from moment one because you know Big Bird taught me something when I was 5 so, I’m used to watching these puppets.
Matt Dengler: They were in many ways our first teachers. As we get older, as this show points out so well, we don’t stop learning. We need to learn even more. It stands to reason that the teachers that the teachers can still teach adult topics later in life. That need doesn’t go away.
Jason Jacoby: As Christina said before when the show premiered on Broadway, it was touching on topics that hadn’t really been talked about in public necessarily at great length. Puppets can get away with doing and saying things that you wouldn’t really allow actors to just do…If Elmo makes the ABCs more palatable, then Nicky and Rod make coming out of the closet more palatable.
Christine Daly: It’s amazing the letters we’ve gotten from people about how this show has changed their lives and made them feel secure when they’re not secure in their lives and their own homes. Matt and I were talking about kids on the spectrum and kids with special needs who have reached out to us and shared their lives with us. We were talking about how Sesame Street teaches, but that stops at a certain point, but for kids who are on the spectrum, you introduce puppets with grown-up issues, that means the world to them. It’s something they can understand and they’re still so attached to that way of learning. All of a sudden somebody’s talking to them about issues that otherwise they’re not going to get in ways that they can comprehend comfortably. It’s kind of amazing.
The Knockturnal: What is it like to close out these iconic roles that theatre fans know and cherish?
Nick Kohn: I love Brian. I came to the first preview on Broadway. My friend [who was the drummer] had an extra comp…and it was like we walked into a rock concert from beginning to end…I fell in love with it from the moment it started. I kept looking at Brian thinking, I’m going to play that role one day. That’s me. It’s this goofy, weird, funny guy who just wants to have a good time and just wants to be with his friends. Of course, he doesn’t have a job because he’s too busy having so much fun in life. That’s kind of like me in a lot [of] ways. I love this character and I’m sad to leave him, but I’m also so honored to have played him for so long. I love this show, I just love everything about it.
Matt Dengler: It’s a huge honor to be the final cast, the be the final Princeton/Rod. I had the CD in high school. I put the cast recording in my Dodge Grand Caravan on my way to play practice and listen to it and hear words said around my parents that I would never say. If I could go back and tell that kid, you’re gonna get to be the final Princeton/Rod, I think he would just freak out…John Tartaglia [who originated the role of Princeton/Rod and was nominated for a Tony Award for the role] was our resident director for a while, so I got to work with him which was another “pinch me” moment. The family, the people we’ve gotten to meet and work with, it’s been such a dream come true to meet them. They’ve created some iconic characters. I mean, they’re in the Smithsonian for G-d’s sake. It’s just the coolest.
Christine Daly: It’s an odd thing to teach people coming in because of some of the puppetry and some of it has to be so specific. There are moves to this day, many of them, that Rick Lyon [originated the role of Nicky/Trekkie monster and he designed/created all of the puppets] chose or that John Tartaglia said at this moment, I’m going to do this and we were all like oh that’s great. So, to teach it that specifically is odd for a stage manager. Usually, there’s more freedom. But it’s also been amazing to see every single one of them come in and then change it in a way you never expected. You may be doing the same exact movements, but it’s never the same. Everyone has come in and put their own stamp on it. You watch someone on stage, and a week into their performance they do something and you laugh your ass off because it’s completely new, you never saw it coming and it’s uniquely theirs…the week Grace did her first shows, I laughed every single night.
Grace Choi: I first heard it when I was in college. I said, “I want to play this role some day” and it ended up being my first gig ever in New York. When I first visited New York, out of sheer who knows, I reached out to Anne Harada [originated the role of Christmas Eve] on Facebook because I looked up to her because she’s not your conventional Miss Saigon, ensemble member, Asian American actress in musical theatre so I want to talk to her. She actually met up with me and I got to talk to her and ask her about what her journey was like. Then months and months later she messaged me like “is there something you need to tell me?”, which was right after I booked “Q”. It’s really cool how it came really full circle and I never thought that I’d be also closing it and it’s been an amazing journey and I’m definitely so honored. This show has changed my life in so many different ways and I couldn’t think of a better way to wrap it all up neatly in a bow.
The Knockturnal: A lot of actors have stepped into these roles throughout the years. It seems like you guys have stayed connected. Can you tell me about the Avenue Q family?
Christine Daly: There’s definitely a trickle down from the original group of people that work on a show. Everybody’s got their quirks and stuff like that [the original cast and creative team] but they’re all amazingly generous people with like the fans and stuff like that. Anybody who had any interest in the show and I feel like that continued throughout the entire run of the show. When we were at the Vineyard everybody knew everybody…and when we moved to Broadway and the band changed and the crew changed, it didn’t matter. All of those original cast members reached and they were essential in making sure that everybody still knew everybody…I walked down the street with our conductor one day after a show and we stopped to say hi to another conductor of another show and he introduced me and we were laughing and joking with each other and he said “you guys really know each other” and I was like “yeah of course, we do. It’s a family over there.” [at Avenue Q]
Nick Kohn: I always joke that you have to be a specific weirdo to be in the show. I mean that in the best possible way. We all have the same sense of the humor, we all are weird, but we just want to have fun and laugh…I’m closer to the guys in dressing room than I am to some of my family members.
Jason Jacoby: The kindness and the quirk. Many of the people who come thru this show have that personality and it’s been interesting to kind of see them like I know you already, you’re my kind of weirdo.
Nick Kohn: We might have to actually be a little bit more PC in our next jobs.
Matt Dengler: I think the show is why. That’s the spirit of the show, nothing is off the table, it’s all out in the open. We’re all a family we can talk about it that’s what the whole show is about it. We’re a family, no matter how hard life is. In order to be in the show, you have to understand that, we all get that.
The Knockturnal: Many forget that Avenue Q beat out top contender, Wicked for the Best Musical Tony in 2004. One of the most competitive best musical categories in recent theatrical history. Christine, you were there for that. Can you tell us a bit about that moment and evening?
Christine Daly: That night was absolutely amazing, that said I was back at the theatre getting dressed when they actually won the Tony…it was amazing being backstage when we actually won, I think it was best book first [Jeff Whitty won the Tony for Best Book for Avenue Q in 2004] and you know just the excitement. I was stage right with John Tartaglia when Jeff won it and we just screamed and jumped and hugged each other and it was absolutely amazing. Then when we won best musical and now we got what we need and we were thrilled. We were so sure that Wicked was going to win. I mean, they flashed Wicked on the screens at Radio City and then blacked it out and flashed Avenue Q on the screens. At home, you didn’t see this, and I didn’t see it either because I wasn’t there, but I found out later. It was incredible.
The Knockturnal: What’s the best “For Now” you’ve heard?
Nick Kohn: Honestly, I was there when we were doing George Bush. It was never what it was when it was George Bush. It was always fun, you know we had Fox News or whatever. But then we went Donald Trump. At first, it was a joke, when he was running and then when he won, it’s become very therapeutic to say that every night.
Christine Daly: I think Donald Trump is the best and the worst that we’ve had to say.
Grace Choi: …because it’s so clear, you can see the audience.
Nick Kohn: Back then, the people who voted for Bush laughed at that joke. I almost got into a fight at the stage door with some people because of it.
Grace Choi: Now it feels so personal, people have come up to us and said that politics have no place in theatre. Just like crazy stuff. I love saying it because it’s helpful.
Nick Kohn: There are still teenagers who are shocked that we’re saying it because I don’t think they are allowed to rock any boats at home. We say it and they’re just like, can you believe what they just said?
The Knockturnal: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from Avenue Q?
Christine Daly: That what the show means to you can change throughout your lifetime. There was a point when we first started where “I wish I could go back to college” was huge for me and then I was pregnant and “Purpose” was absolutely the biggest thing and then you’re in a relationship and “Fine Line”, the biggest lesson you learn is everything in life is only “for now”. Even when it comes to the song that speaks most to your life, that’s changed 8 times in the course of 16 years.
Jason Jacoby: Even going through the show, the ups and the downs of every character, and everything, when you get to the end, everybody’s together teaching you that the good and the bad, is fleeting. All we have is each other here, do what you can to do good in the world, but everything “except for death and paying taxes is only for now”, he quoted the show.
Nick Kohn: We’re always directed in this show to never stop learning…Even when you think you have something mastered and all of a sudden you get hit with a tidal wave and you’re like oh, I knew nothing. This show has always made me kind of re-evaluate my thoughts in real life too and say you know what, I don’t know everything, so let me listen to someone else’s perspective or let me try to give someone the benefit of the doubt if they’re having a bad day on the street and say you know what, it’s okay.
Jason Jacoby: So many times when you are having a bad day or you’re going thru something personally, professionally, whatever. People pass away, all kinds of stuff happens in peoples’ lives. To be able to go thru that number at the end and remember you know what, this is going to pass, this too shall pass. And on the reverse, when you think you’re hot sh*t and you’ve killed that audition or whatever, just getting out here and being like eh, you know what, I better be humble, let’s get back to reality. That’s only going to last for so long too.
Matt Dengler: And to think the writers were so young when they wrote this.
Christine Daly: They came up from BMI [the show creators, Jeff Marx & Robert Lopez met in BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop] together.
Nick Kohn: It’s hard to believe it’s not going to be in New York. For as long as I’ve been in New York…it’s a part of New York theatre culture.
Sounds like Avenue Q certainly found its purpose in making an ever-lasting impact on theatrical history and culture. Our favorite x-rated puppets take their final bow at New World Stages on May 26, 2019. But who knows, this could only be for now.
P.S. – writing articles like this, is what you do with a B.A. in English.
For more information on Avenue Q visit http://avenueq.com