WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK. I have posted links to songs throughout this blog post, and some of the lyrics are raunchy.
I’ll come right out and say it: being happy these days is no easy feat. In my lifetime, I’ve never found the news more depressing, more indicative of a dearth of the values I was taught to hold dear — courage, knowledge, reason, and kindness. It’s enough to make me wish I could hide out with my loved ones in a bomb shelter. Come get us when it’s over. But that, of course, would be a failure of courage.
Isn’t it nice to reflect, in times like these, that everything in life is only for now?
Avenue Q, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004, has been popping up in various community theaters around the country, including the historic Springer Opera House in Columbus, GA, my husband’s home town. This Mother’s Day weekend, we went with his parents to see the production, and a delightful time full of much cathartic laughter was had by all. What with my already documented love for Jim Henson and Sesame Street, I could hardly be surprised that this “Sesame Street for adults,” featuring a group of young people making the best of their lives in a depressed New York neighborhood, should charm me.
The Sesame Street fan will recognize many of these characters and appreciate the little tweaks the show gives them. Bert, our straight-laced pigeon-loving paper clip collector, becomes Rod, investment banker who irons his underwear and closely guards the secret of his homosexuality, while the fun-loving Ernie becomes the fun-loving Nicky, who assures his buddy in song that their friendship would still be strong if he were gay. We recognize Cookie Monster in the deep, growling voice and quirky grammatical cadences of Trekkie Monster, a recluse who has his own ideas about the purpose of the Internet (and it isn’t to debate “Star Trek,” either). Helpful humans Luis and Maria become considerably less helpful humans Brian and Christmas Eve, he an out-of-work aspiring comedian, she a therapist who loses clients thanks to her habit of being just a little too truthful. Christmas Eve may give some viewers pause, since she’s saddled with a thick stereotypical Asian accent, yet with her temper and her toughness she subverts the image of the submissive and empathetic “little woman.”
Along with these sort-of-familiar faces we meet a pair of new puppet characters who become the core of the show, Princeton, a recent college graduate who isn’t sure what to do with his B.A. in English (and as the holder of a PhD in English, I indulge in an understanding chuckle), and Kate Monster, idealistic, ambitious, with a plan to open a school exclusively for monster children and a hope that she can find true love along the way. Then there’s Gary Coleman, the former Diff’rent Strokes star who has fallen on hard times but still keeps his spirits up while working as the Superintendent of the apartment house on Avenue Q (despite the real Gary Coleman having passed away in 2010). That rounds out our ensemble of good guys, and an endearing lot they are, as they sing cheerfully about how much their lives suck.
Once they’ve all been introduced, the musical now has the job of making its audience care about these crazy kids. For that, it needs to strike a hard-to-find balance between satire and sweetness, and it manages beautifully. We may roll our eyes when Princeton contemplates the different paths he might take to find his purpose, or when Kate shouts in frustration that the Internet has many uses rather than just one, or when Rod sings in desperation about his girlfriend, who lives in Canada. But the story and the songs still put us on their side. We root for them, and when we laugh it’s far more often with them than at them. Kate is perhaps the most sympathetic of them, with her yearning for love and her earnest desire to make the world better for “people of fur.” She’s my favorite, even if she is a little bit racist.
Of course, a musical is nothing without great songs, and much of the credit for that satire-sweetness balance should go to the songs. Many of them are such spot-on echoes of Sesame Street tunes that songsmiths Jeff Moss (“Rubber Duckie”) and Joe Raposo (“C is for Cookie”) might have written them — particularly the “lesson” songs “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Schadenfreude,” and “If You Were Gay,” close cousin to Ernie’s “That’s What Friends are For.” But we also have quieter songs like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” Kate’s heartbroken-but-coming-out-swinging ballad, and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a lament for missed opportunity that almost anyone might identify with. (Who doesn’t wish they had taken more pictures?) When I bought the Original Broadway Cast CD back in 2004, I couldn’t stop listening to it for months, relishing the natural shifts in tone.
I had thought, at one time, that Avenue Q would resonate more strongly with Generation X-ers and others who grew up singing “I Love Trash” and “Bein’ Green” than with older audiences. But I’m happy to report that my in-laws enjoyed the Springer production every bit as much as my husband and I did. Indeed, that theater was full of people of all ages, and an electric current of enjoyment ran from seat to seat. When curtain call time came, we all sprang to our feet.
Good songs and a funny story can unite us. Even if our lives suck.
From left to right: myself, my husband Matt, and my mother-in-law, Nicole Ceccato.