Uptown-Bound: Director Moore Preps Avenue Q for a Broadway Upgrade

Uptown-Bound: Director Moore Preps Avenue Q for a Broadway Upgrade "I think the charm of the show is that it's homegrown," Avenue Q director Jason Moore told Playbill On-Line.

Stephanie D
Stephanie D

Seated in the balcony of the Golden Theatre at a recent technical rehearsal, the helmer revealed how little the show has changed for Broadway.

"The puppets are just bags of fur and their plastic eyes; so to keep it simple is what I wanted to do, because that's what the essence of the show is.

"In a lot of ways the show is very similar," he continued. "The story and the songs are all the same. The puppets are the same size, too. The set is the same size as it was at the Vineyard [Theatre]," mused Moore, though noting an additional step to the stoops that line the fictitious street — giving eight more inches in height to the connected buildings.

"In terms of moving uptown, we wanted to look for a theatre that the existing set could fit in very easily because actually it's 80 percent smaller than human scale. So, we couldn't make the set any bigger because then it would start to look realistic and I didn't want that. So getting bigger wasn't really an option."

The bigger Broadway budget, however, has afforded the show some minor luxuries: two new band members; slightly more sophisticated animations to fill the now widescreen plasma televisions that adorn either side of the Golden's proscenium; scenic detailing; more complex lighting and effects (including fog and a bubble machine); and more puppet costume changes—there are now separate puppets for each outfit, alleviating the complicated backstage puppet traffic. "Things in the show that already were kind of big theatrical moments have just gotten a little bit bigger," Moore explained. "But, it was really important to me to keep the charm of what made it work downtown and I think we've been able to do that."

Another plus for the production is the presence of five understudies. The lack of which, as Moore puts it, "wrecked us downtown." An injury, caused by the fall of puppeteer (and designer) Rick Lyon during the show's fifth preview, resulted in some cancellations while the company restaged the work with Lyon offstage. In the final days of the Off-Broadway run, Natalie Venetia Belcon — who plays "Diff'rent Strokes" star Gary Coleman — also suffered an injury, causing the show to close before its last weekend. Moore concluded, "It's thrilling to actually have the understudies to ensure that the show will go on."

Moore, an emerging director whose previous credits included Off-Broadway's The Crumple Zone as well as TV gigs on "Everwood" and "Dawson's Creek," was poised for this career-making venture. "[It was] one of those great things for me — because I was at the point in my career where I was looking for the big break — and it just so happened that I knew the writers, I knew the producers and it kind of all came together." Though he quickly added, "I interviewed a lot."

Once aboard the creative team‚ which includes conceivers and composer-lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx as well as bookwriter Jeff Whitty, the musical — already almost three years in the making — took shape.

"I was involved quite a bit in the evolution of this storyline," said Moore. "It was [originally] a set of songs and characters that had been in a variety show format and there had been another story. When I came on, we took all those existing songs and came up with this new storyline for Princeton about finding his purpose. [Lopez and Marx] then wrote a couple new songs for this particular storyline." After testing the material at Manhattan Theatre Club, where the director simply narrated the story amid the songs, and further workshops at the Eugene O'Neill Music Theatre Center, the work was tweaked even more for the Vineyard.

Focus is a major concern, as it is for all directors. The task of working with puppets and puppeteers simultaneously onstage made the matter a little more complicated for Moore. "It was really tricky and I still wonder sometimes... because I've asked people what they looked at, and I find that people have a very different response. Some people — and I find that they tend to be theatre people — end up watching the puppeteer more. And people who are just sort of Joe Theatregoer end up watching the puppet. And I thought, well 'That's what cool about theatre.'

"Ultimately, as a director, you try and tell people where to look, but unlike film or television where you force them to look at something, you can't control it completely. Allowing the audience to see what's going on theatrically and to follow the story, I think engages them in two ways.

"It was something we thought a lot about. That's the reason the set is so gray; [the puppeteers] wear gray, and then the puppets and humans are in colorful tones, so they pop out in front. We try and light them with a spotlight. Sometimes we include the puppeteer on purpose, sometimes we include just the puppet. It usually has to do with the emotional content of the moment. As the show goes on and it gets more emotional, I think the audiences do connect to the puppeteer more because they've spent time with them, so we start to light them a little brighter. I don't think everyone has the same experience. I don't mind it. Some people also kind of go 'I don't know where to look and it freaks me out.'" Moore laughed.

What was his biggest concern? "I felt like it was really important that the show survive whether you knew 'Sesame Street' and children's television shows or if you didn't. 'Clueless' is an adaptation of 'Emma' by Jane Austen. It works either way, if you know the book and if you don't. So, I wanted [Avenue Q] to function on its own. It pays homage to children's television — there's 'Sesame Street,' 'Electric Company,' 'Mr. Green Jeans' — but it also is a story that's set in New York City, so it has great traditional musical theatre values.

"Thoroughly Modern Millie goes to New York to find her big job and her love—that's basically what Princeton does too."

Rick Lyon, Jennifer Barnhart and Trekkie Monster from <i>Avenue Q</i>.
Rick Lyon, Jennifer Barnhart and Trekkie Monster from Avenue Q.