Being the optimist that I am - or at least occasionally try to be - I prefer to believe that "Avenue Q" won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical because it is a far superior musical over "Wicked." I was in the audience of Radio City Music Hall that very night - the only time I've ever attended the Tony Awards from inside the house, rather than the rinky dinky press room across the street that I have since frequented. When the show's victory was announced, I immediately leapt to my feet without thinking. It felt amazing to be there. It was like watching the Yankees win the World Series in 1996.
"Avenue Q" was also the first new Broadway musical that I reviewed as a critic. It was for Show Business Weekly, which is still in print and I now regard as the inconsequential, ghetto version of Backstage, where I worked as an intern in the summer of 2003. Hearing those songs for the first time was an absolutely glorious experience. When I first heard the opening line of the opening song, I was about to start my sophomore year at New York University as a Dramatic Literature major - and began to suspect that I too would one day be cast away from an academic campus and into the real world unprepared for professional life - as is why I immediately went to law school. And when I first heard "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," I thought instead about Frenchwoods, the theater camp I went to when I was younger, and how I wished I could go back there again and be an actor in musicals. I still think about Frenchwoods whenever I hear that song. And whenever I go to back to visit the camp, I do in fact feel like an out-of-place loser, thinking "these kids are so much younger than me."
Anyhow, back to the present. "Avenue Q" managed to stay in marvelously mint condition throughout its Broadway run, thanks mainly to its pocket size cast requirements. And no one was going to enter it unless they could handle the puppetry. Therefore, that ruled out any real possibility of short-term star replacement casting. Ever since it won the Tony Award, "Avenue Q" managed to do pretty good business at the Golden Theatre, but never really called too much attention to itself ever again. (That is not to say that it didn't make news elsewhere - remember Las Vegas?) But it was always there. And upon re-attending the show, while the shock and awe of hearing the jokes for the first time was gone, you could instead marvel at the incredible craft displayed in its score and staging. (What a shame that Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez have not since supplied us with another musical...)
When it was announced early into this past summer that "Avenue Q" would finally close, it felt very sudden. It's not that its closing hadn't been predicted a few months earlier when "Spamalot" and "Hairspray" and so many other musicals all closed at once. It just felt rather soon. After all, doesn't Kevin McCollum like to announce closings rather early on, allowing his shows to then slowly extend a bit thanks to popular demand? When "Avenue Q" announced its closing date, it was shortly followed by news of an opening date for "Oleanna" shortly after. It wasn't going to receive an extension. Word also spread throughout the industry that "Avenue Q," in spite of the fact that it had been a hit musical, was being unceremoniously kicked out of the theater by the Shuberts. (Now seriously, but would it have been so terrible to put "Oleanna" in the vacant Cort Theatre instead? It was good enough for Will Ferrell...)
When the contest to change the "George Bush" line in the finale was first announced, I wondered whether this meant that "Avenue Q" had become too dated. Should it shutter on Bush's last night in office? Moreover, have its cultural references - like a song treating the Internet as a new phenomenon - become dated too? Maybe a bit. But the heart of the show - about aimlessly arriving in New York, wanting to find a meaningful purpose, finding a girlfriend and then quickly messing it up - remains relevant and touching. And its songs and book remain among the best of this decade. And the staging is certainly among the most original and innovative. Frankly, it just can't be copied by other shows.
At the start of its final Broadway performance on Sunday night, there was no pre-show cell phone announcement. The band simply started up its prelude, and the audience went wild, practically drowning out the lyrics. From then on, the audience applauded the entrance of not just every actor - but every damn character (seriously, did the Bad News Bears ever before receive entrance applause?). I was impressed at how the crowd, which had obviously seen the show before, still laughed at the same jokes. But I was more impressed with how truly good the cast was. Robert McClure was the most animated Princeton/Rod I've seen on Broadway since John Tartaglia. Quite frankly, I prefer Anika Larsen's Kate Monster/Lucy T. Slut over Stephanie d'Abruzzo. And as for Ann Harada...well, that's just one of those truly distinctive performances that can never again be repeated by anyone. (And speaking of Ann Harada, what the hell was up with her rather blank and meaningless role in "9 to 5"?)
When the finale arrived, right before the famous "George Bush is only for now" line (or more recently changed to "George Bush WAS only for now"), alumni filled the stage according to character - a wave of actresses who had played Christmas Eve, followed by Brians, followed by Gary Colemans, and so on. Among them, Rick Lyon, Stephanie d'Abruzzo, and Alex Gemignani (oddly not in sight was John Tartaglia). With all of them now onstage, the rest of the song followed. But instead of the "George Bush" line, they instead used the "this show is only for now" variation.
When Kevin McCollum entered the stage at curtain call from the audience, he received a kiss from Kate Monster. He then proceeded to speak. "Sometimes it doesn't take a village. It just takes an avenue," he jokes. But then he got down to business. "It's clear we don't want the show to close," he said. "Since the Shuberts are here, we'd like to renegotiate the deal," referencing the rumor that the show was being forced out.
Well, Jeff Marx at least was more optimistic. "How many shows get to see their seventh year on Broadway," reminding us that "Avenue Q" is now the 20th longest-running show in Broadway history. "Fantasties come true. Look." Robert Lopez then made a point of reminding us that he got cut off at the Tony Awards.
But then McCollum took back the stage. "We don't want this show to close because what the hell's an "Oleanna" anyway?" He then admits that "Oleanna," during its original run, was the first show he put money into as a producer. But he goes on. "We called the Bad Idea Bears and had meetings over at the Scientology Center...And in three and a half weeks, we'll reopen at New World Stages...It's a small theater, so seats will be $1,000 each...Same great entertaining you saw here tonight." He then declared that what would soon follow would be not a closing party, but a pre-opening party. Further, the first production meeting would be taking place in the upstairs bar, to be followed by auditions all night long.
At the after party, which took place at some trendy hot spot on 10th Avenue and 15th Street, signs saying "Avenue Q: Now and Forever" were littered everywhere. The mood was not one of sadness, but giddy surprise. One very important theater exec compared the announcement to David Merrick revealing the death of Gower Champion at the opening night curtain call of "42nd Street." Guests asked each other whether moving a show from Off-Broadway to Broadway to Off-Broadway was an unprecedented move - or at least Broadway to Off-Broadway. Some referenced "Billy Bishop Goes to War," which played 12 performances on Broadway in 1980 at the Morosco Theatre and then reopened a week later Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where it played 78 more performances. Others referenced the original run of "night, Mother," which closed on Broadway on February 26, 1984 at the Golden Theatre and then reopened at the Lucille Lortel on April 18, 1984, where it played 54 more performances.
What will the show's new run be like? Physically, will it remain the same as before? What will the economic demand for it be like? We'll soon find out. It's certainly the most exciting theater news of the new season. And I wonder whether this is a big step in finally removing the distinction and blurring the boundaries between Broadway and Off-Broadway. In the end, it's still the same show. It's just moving a few blocks down the road into a smaller venue that, quite frankly, won't be much smaller than its Broadway house. (And if it's a success, might "[title of show]" follow suit soon enough?) In any case, I'll be there next month. Tickets are already on sale. And I can't wait to hear those incredible songs again.
Maybe Princeton finally found his purpose - keeping the show alive.