Jeff Marx never expected to be the creator of a Tony Award-winning adult puppet comedy. But with the help of his partner, Robert Lopez, and inspiration from their friends, the two created the popular Broadway musical Avenue Q. But don't expect to learn your ABC's at this puppet show. These furry monsters will entertain you with their witty dialogue, heart-felt life lessons and songs such as "The Internet is for Porn," "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" and "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist." Avenue Q, which has been running successfully since 2004, will be showing at 7:30 p.m., March 24 at the Lied Center. Tickets are between $21 and $48.
Jayplay: You were a lawyer before you met Robert Lopez, your co-creator for Avenue Q. Why did you begin writing?
Jeff Marx: I met Bobby at the BMI Musical Theatre workshop in New York City, where writers go to meet collaborators. I was a young lawyer fresh out of college looking for clients. I never wanted to be a writer. It just happened. Bobby and I both love musicals, but our friends can't stand them. So we tried to think about what they would actually be interested in. When cartoons or Muppets start singing it's expected and everybody likes it. Everyone we know loves Muppets, but since Jim Henson died the Muppets have been kind of shitty. So we thought, maybe their songs weren't good enough? So we started writing a Muppet movie. We tried to get it to the Jim Henson Company but they said "thanks but no thanks." It took one guy to say no and it was dead. So we stopped writing for other people's characters. We said fuck the fuckin' Muppets, we'll create our own.
JP: What did you and Lopez do in the process of creating Avenue Q?
JM: We spent a long time creating something similar to an adult version of Sesame Street. The show ended up being about our friends and us. The puppets talk the way we talk. We wanted them to be real. It's not just funny because they say "fuck" all the time like we do, it's entertaining because they are dealing with real issues like being closeted, still getting money from their parents and obsessions with porn.
JP: How long did it take to create the show? How did you balance the work between the two of you?
JM: It took five years getting everything together, with no money coming in, not knowing if it would ever be produced. Bobby and I both wrote and took turns at the piano. It was a great experience because if I didn't really know if something was funny I could just ask him. It was like having two editors; two wells of knowledge working on a project.
JP: What was your original plan to get the show produced?
JM: Our initial idea was to pitch it as a TV show on a station like Comedy Central. So we contacted everybody we could ever think of for a meeting to pitch the show but nobody from TV showed up. But because we knew a lot of people in theatre they showed up. I immediately recognized Jeffrey Seller, the producer of Rent. He told me if we did the show on stage he would produce it. And when the producer of Rent tells you something like that you don't go home and think about it, you say "hell yes!" He helped us through the process of bringing in a director and getting the show to a venue off Broadway.
JP: For people who haven't had the opportunity to see Avenue Q, how do the puppeteers and the puppets interact with each other on stage?
JM: It was really interesting figuring out how they would work together. We didn't really know how to hide the puppeteers. But people ended up telling us that they liked seeing them. Your mind kind of blocks them out when you watch the puppets. So, when you look at the puppeteer you think, "what is that person doing there?" It's a big mind fuck.
JP: Where did the first show premier? How did it go?
JM: It ended up in a 120-seat theatre in the East Village. We were just doing our own quirky thing; we never thought it would reach such a broad audience. We got a great review from The New York Times comparing the show to West Side Story. I was like "fuck, really?!" So many people were waiting for tickets the show ended up moving to a bigger venue on Broadway.
JP: What was it like when you heard the show was moving to Broadway?
JM: Our producers brought us all together but didn't tell us what was going on. When they told us we were going to Broadway it was like a once in a lifetime moment where everything seems like it's moving in slow motion. I couldn't believe it.
JP: How did you feel when you won the Tonys?
JM: When we found out we had won it was a huge surprise. It was supposed to be Wicked's year. Wicked was a $14 million production against our $3 million show with 7 actors. Honestly, it was a total shock. I thought we had no chance. We ended up winning Best Musical Score, the show won Best Musical and Jeff Whitty won the award for Best Book.
JP: Why should audiences go see this show instead of going to a movie or a concert?
JM: The show is a unique and fun way to see puppets. But it's also about the funny and meaningful lessons you learn in that weird transition period after college. The show is about finding your purpose in life. Overall it's just a fun musical experience.