"The Little Show That Could," as every theatre journalist in creation has now labeled the show, stunned the theatre world Sunday by taking the Tonys for Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical over the mighty, money-making monolith Wicked. Broadway purports to like such Cinderella stories (the plots of most Broadway musicals are variations on that theme), but never expects them to actually transpire. However, after a few days of optimism, the community's naturally cynical worldview was confirmed when the Q team announced that the musical would not launch a national tour, as many Tony-voting road presenters had believed it would, but had agreed to a lucrative and exclusive sit-down production in Las Vegas, courtesy of casino mogul Steve Wynn. The scrappy little musical went form much-beloved to widely criticized in seconds. The sincere, heartfelt underdog looked like the slickest operator in town.
At the center of the demi-controversy was Avenue Q's Tony campaign, which all agreed after the Best Musical win had been a great success. Soon after netting several Tony nominations, the show launched its open appeal to Tony voters to "Vote Your Heart" and "Don't Suck, Vote Q." The John Golden marquee was strewn in banners, and clever, soft-sell skits were enacted to steal voters' affections. In doing so, Avenue Q effectively ushered Broadway into a new era, politically speaking. Overt Tony campaigns were unknown before this year. Producers typically invited voters to see their show, placed ads in the papers, mailed cast recordings, but that was about it. Q took a more aggressive (though, on the surface, sweet and funny) tack and thus became the Tonys very own "Shakespeare in Love," the endearing independent film which, though some no-holds barred campaigning by its producer, Miramax, famously toppled the 1999 Oscar favorite, the serious-mind Spielberg war picture Saving Private Ryan. The Tony race will likely never be the same after this year.
The most widely reported episode in the campaign came on May 12, when the Q folks entertained the road producers with a pizza party at midtown's John's Pizza, performing not numbers from the musical but unveiling a new tune called "Rod's Dilemma," in which the puppet Rod is urged by his friends to "vote his heart" in the upcoming election for president of his Rotary Club. The message was lost on nobody. Nor did the industry audience misunderstand the producers exhortations that they intended to tour the show.
When Avenue Q pulled off its upset victory on June 6, not a few people concluded that the successful wooing of the road producers had helped swing the contest. And Times Square seemed to flood with good will for the show. The inventive, grassroots, nonprofit show with the good reviews won out over the $13 million, commercial juggernaut with the mixed reviews. Nobody had wished Wicked ill, but there did seem to be a sense of justice to the moment; Millie needn't always win over Urinetown, the reasoning went.
That Era of Good Feeling was short-lived, alas. The deal with Wynn was announced on June 10 in the New York Times, which knew what it was doing when it put it on the front page. There would be no tour. There would, however, be a payday of several million to the Q team from Wynn and a $40 million theatre built especially for the show. Suddenly, the sweetest show in town looked disingenuous. The producers argued that at the time they were courting the road producers, they were planning a tour, and that the Vegas deal could have easily fallen through. Nonetheless, the road producers felt—to use one man's colorful phrase—"snookered." The press, of course, leaped on the story, and much of the writing centered on the cloudy intentions behind Avenue Q's campaign. Few, though, examined the road producers' byzantine sense of morality. It's difficult not to smile at the protestations and righteous indignation of these businessmen and women—a group that seemingly makes no bones about not voting for the Tony nominees that show artistic merit, but for the ones that best fit their financial agenda. For them to accuse anyone of behaving cynically is a pretty thick piece of irony.
Also, though no one's going to award the Avenue Q producers an ethics prize, it's hard to fault them for looking out for their attraction's best interests. Edgy shows have not fared terribly well in Peoria of late; witness Urinetown's spotty track record. And the current talks between Actors' Equity and The League of American Theatres and Producers are all about how expensive it has become to produce on the road. Plus Mamma Mia! and Blue Man Group have done nicely in Vegas. The Q producers want money; all producers do. But they also probably wanted their show to live as long as possible.
As for the fervor surrounding the debate of Q's perceived perfidy, one gets the sense that the outcry is a bit put on, not quite genuine. The underlying source of all the excitement might be right there in Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's score. A little tune called "Schadenfreude."