PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeff Whitty

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeff Whitty Jeff Whitty, bookwriter of Avenue Q, won't be singing the show's lyric "It Sucks to Be Me" any time soon. The librettist won a Tony Award for his first venture into the musical theatre.
Jeff Whitty
Jeff Whitty

The scribe, who is busy at work on television and film projects, spoke with Playbill On-Line about his journey with Avenue Q and some of the plotlines and characters that didn't make it along the way.

Playbill On-Line: What were your first thoughts when approached about writing the book to this comedy?
Jeff Whitty: My agent called and said "How do you feel about writing a musical starring puppets?" I'd never written a musical before; I had just written plays. But, I listened to a demo CD of some of the existing songs and just loved it. Actually, one of the big hooks for me was not even so much the really, funny over-the-top songs like "The Internet is for Porn" or "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," but "There's a Fine, Fine Line" which had sort of this deeper emotional content and that I thought was the most subversive thing; to write a show where you really cared about these puppet characters. Because it's one thing for people to say they laughed really hard, but I really love it when people say they were moved by the show.

PBOL: Tell me about the process of writing Avenue Q.
JW: We began cranking out a draft. I wrote this sort of unwieldy long draft because I was still trying to figure out exactly what it was to write a book from the musical. [Director] Jason Moore came onboard shortly after that and I wrote this entirely different draft that was much leaner and had the "Purpose" story arc that exists in the show now. But, it was sort of too clean and didn't have the anarchic feeling I thought the show needed, so I combined both drafts and took the best from each and that pretty much led us to what the show is now.

PBOL: Was the task of writing your first book more difficult because you were also forming a story around a set songlist?
JW: It was hard, but I have to say I was really glad I didn't know squat about how to structure it, or even what had come before. I knew a couple musicals in and out, but overall my knowledge of musical theatre is slim. I think that was a real advantage because Avenue Q needed a really fresh approach anyway. So, I was able to come to it with a clean slate and invent the language of the show. The surprise of it was that the things that really worked were these tried and true staples of common, traditional Broadway musical structural elements that the show has. I think that's why people respond to it so much is that is does pay homage to those traditions. People's views of the book for a musical are very frequently that it's just sort of there to string the songs together. It was my goal from the beginning to make the book as funny and sharp as the songs.

PBOL: The songs venture into non-traditional musical theatre territory, was there any material too taboo for the show?
JW: Over the course of writing the show, there were just endless discarded storylines and scenes. Some of which were just really, really hilarious. On opening night of the Broadway production, I gave the cast a booklet — I pulled all of the cut scenes out of all my drafts off my computer and there were like a couple hundred pages of these really crazy stories. I can read you some of them: The title of the booklet is "I Have Never Lain With a Man" — which was a line of Mrs. Thistletwat's that made me laugh really hard and I kept trying to work it into every draft, but eventually I couldn't work it in without throwing the rhythm of the scenes off. In one plotline Rod was feeling lonely, so Nicky created a robot version of himself. There was an offstage character, Mr. Glickman, who hung himself in Princeton's apartment before he moved in. Roma Torre, the reporter from [local television station] NY1 was a character. At the beginning of the second act, Kate leaves Avenue Q to work for the Fresh Air Fund — benefitting the inner city children of Switzerland. At one point, all of the human actors played two and three characters, so Christmas Eve (Ann Harada) was going to play Kate Monster's ex-boyfriend in these flashback sequences. There was an endless scene, the final scene of the first draft, it all ended in an airport where Princeton stopped Kate from getting on a plane. PBOL: Was it hard to decide what to cut?
JW: I mean, they're crazy things now because it seems so logical what the show is. But, at the time, we didn't know. A lot of looking for the show was finding what the tone was going to be and what the storytelling style is going to be. And I just learned, going draft after draft, that the quicker and cleaner it could be and more straightforward I could make it, the better it would set up the songs and tell the story. And just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. I became utterly fearless about throwing out entire scenes and lines I liked because you could hear it in the audience when you were really hitting the right rhythm.

PBOL: Are you planning on writing more librettos?
JW: I've got some projects I've got to get cranking on now, but then I'm really hoping once these are finished, that I'll find a musical project I really want to do. I've been talking with a lot of people about musical ideas and I've decided I don't want to do an adaptation of anything. Ultimately, I want to do original stories. A lot of what I loved about doing [Avenue Q] was that it was so completely original and it was really scary — in an exciting way — to have no outline.