Five years ago, when Avenue Q was playing Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, Robert McClure stood outside the stage door after seeing a performance, waiting for autographs. "I was obsessed," he says.
McClure is now starring in the national company of the 2004 Tony Award–winning musical. McClure plays — or, more precisely, is the puppeteer for — Princeton, a college graduate who moves to Avenue Q, where he and the street's other inhabitants, both puppet and human, seek a good job, love and a "purpose." He also performs the puppet role of Rod, a closeted, Republican investment banker. The show, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty, is both a loving homage to and send-up of "Sesame Street." The puppets, conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, have the same kind of charm as Jim Henson’s beloved creations, but their concerns, their language and their actions are definitely not for kids.
For McClure, a New Jersey native who made his Broadway debut in the 2002 revival of I'm Not Rappaport, performing in Avenue Q is a job unlike any other. "I had eight callbacks over two and a half months," says McClure, who was a replacement for Nicky/Trekkie Monster on Broadway. "Before I was cast, I went through a three-day puppet camp. I remember walking into puppet camp, and they said, 'Step One: Make sure that I can see the puppet inhale before he speaks.' I thought, 'We're going to be here a really long time.' It's all those nuances that create a living, breathing character for the audience. For instance, Princeton and I look at the Kate Monster puppet; I never look at Kelli [Sawyer], who plays her. The same for her and Kate Monster — they'll both be looking at Princeton's eyes, but never at mine. It creates relationships puppet to puppet, not person to person, which enables the audience to dive into that world."
In the earliest incarnation of Avenue Q, the authors did not intend for the actors to be visible. "When they first presented the workshop, they were hoping it would be picked up by television," says McClure. "They were going to film it traditionally, with the puppeteers hidden. But they couldn't afford a set for the workshop, so the actors were out there. When our producers approached them after the show, they said they wanted to create it as a theatre piece, and they wanted the puppeteers to be seen. I think you’re getting the best of both worlds, because the puppet has this larger-than-life innocence, and the person has an intimate, human expression. The audience subconsciously takes the more complicated human performance and puts it on the puppet. I compare it to looking through binoculars — one eye is seeing one thing, and the other eye is seeing another thing, but your brain combines them into one image, one character. "I'm always amazed at the audible responses from the audience in very sweet moments," he continues. "That's the show's sucker punch. People come expecting the raunchy puppet show, and they get that: they get all of the laughs they're expecting. But I think they don't expect to care as much as they do. I think that's why the show won the Tony: because it was surprising how much people felt for these characters, and how much they related to them. The writers thought the show was going to have a very specific target audience. And I think they've been surprised at how big the target audience is."