I first saw Avenue Q at Steve Wynn‘s eponymous megaresort in Las Vegas. It was shortly after it had won the Tony for Best Musical, so the audience was packed. Packed with your standard Midwestern middle-aged Vegas tourists, which wasn’t the crowd that either the musical or the resort itself was aiming for. But, in Vegas, you have to take what you can get.
I had only heard snippets of buzz about Avenue Q. It was a stage show with puppets… who swear… a lot. Frankly, I don’t think half of my fellow audience members even knew that much. Steve Wynn apparently had a hard enough time “selling” the show that he even hired a fleet of taxicabs, completely covered in bright orange “fur”, to zoom around the strip, touting “Come see what all the FUZZ is about!”
Why was the year’s Tony winner for Best Musical such a hard sell? For one thing, Avenue Q is a very New York show. It’s about trying to make it in the proverbial “big city” in terms of love, career, and finding your purpose in life. The set looks like a street in Brooklyn and the super is supposed to be Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman). But aside from it’s East Coast-ness, the show’s biggest problem was trying to find its target age group.
To me, this was always very simple. In American movies, you’re allowed one use of the f-word for a “PG-13” rating. Anything more than that, and you’re automatically an “R”. The f-word shows up about a half-dozen times in Avenue Q, so it’s pretty much an “R” rated show. Simple, no? As it turns out, no. Stage shows aren’t held to the same standard a movies, so you can get away with a lot more under the “family-friendly” banner. This meant that they could reasonably try to get teens into the audience. And, they definitely tried.
Mind you, this was also just as Las Vegas as a whole was in the death throws of it’s attempt to re-brand itself as a “family” vacation destination. When they were building hotels shaped like fairytale castles and pyramids, with rollercoasters and IMAX theatres and motion simulator rides. Before they gave it all up and settled on the decidedly more adult mantra of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
But instead of pulling in the kids, they alienated the families by not being up front about how much swearing and sex the show actually contained. Frankly, I think that’s all the better, because most teens wouldn’t get half of the 80’s pop-culture references (from Diff’rent Strokes to The Electric Company) anyway. Why they didn’t just say, “Look, this is an adult show for the 18-and-over crowd,” I’ll never know.
So, as a result, I was stuck next to middle-aged Earl and Pam from Wichita Falls (who amusingly also didn’t get most of the 80’s pop-culture jokes). Everything was generally okay for them until the show got to the gay stuff. And there’s quite a lot of it in Avenue Q. Just like a sitcom episode, there’s basically an “A” plot and a “B” plot in the script. The “A” plot involves the main characters Princeton and Kate Monster and their difficulties with love and work. The “B” plot involves roommates Rod and Nicky (who are thinly veiled references to Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street) and revolves around Rod’s status as a closeted gay man.
Avenue Q is a wonderfully funny show with a great gimmick and some excellent toe-tapping songs (with improbable titles like “Everone’s a Little Bit Racist“, “It Sucks to Be Me”, and my favorite, “The Internet Is for Porn”). If you saw the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, you more or less know what you’re getting, as the songs aren’t too different from the likes of “Blame Canada” and “Uncle F**ka”.
But, for Pam and Earl… well they were wincing through most of “If You Were Gay”, and by intermission I could almost hear their eyebrows arching. “Well, what do you think Pam?” “Gee Earl, it was, uh, different.” “Well, that’s one way to put it, I guess. And you know, there’s a lot of that kind of humor.” “I don’t care for the swearing.” “Well, the swearing, yeah, but also that kind of… you know, with their agenda and all. I didn’t come to Vegas to see that.” “Oh, I know what you mean Earl.”
At this point, I wanted to turn around and tell Earl I thought he looked “extremely hot”, but I’m sure he would’ve thought I was commenting on the air conditioning. Besides, Earl was monstrously unattractive, and I’m not that good of an actor. “Do you think we should stay for the second half, Earl?” “I don’t know. Maybe it gets better.” “I hope you’re right, Pam.” These are the folks for whom Legends in Concert was made. No doubt, they also think Cirque Du Soleil is too “artsy-fartsy”.
Anyway, now the show has come to London, where the gay thing is no big deal at all. In London, the theatre district and the gay district are literally one in the same. Even Disney’s stage version of Mary Poppins is situated directly next door to a nightclub named (somewhat over-simply) Club G-A-Y. No, here the big drama was over the American-ness of the show, and whether Londoners would “get” it. After all, they don’t have PBS here, and Gary Coleman was never a cultural icon. After much debate, Coleman was left in (there really is no British equivalent), and lines like “Those stupid Polacks!” were changed to “Those French a**holes!”
Did Londoner’s get it? On the whole, I’d say no. This is a country where the f-word appears uncensored on TV every night. Gayness is pretty much accepted. And, racism is less about off-color jokes and more about international terrorism. In short, it takes a lot more effort here to “shock” your audience. And, “shock-value” (from the juxtaposition of puppets with sex and profanity) was half of the show’s novelty in the States.
All the same, toward the end of the second act there’s a song called “For Now” that ends with a list of life’s annoyances followed by the consolation that the’re “only for now.” At the end of the list, the cast yells out “George Bush!… is only for now.” And, in London this got a huge round of applause. Proof that some things need no translation.
More info: Avenue Q