With the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q hopping the pond to the Noel Coward Theatre, many are wondering about what changes were made to the New York City-set people-and-puppet musical for its London debut. The show's Tony-winning bookwriter revealed them to Playbill.com. "I went a little overboard when preparing the London draft," Jeff Whitty told Playbill.com about the show's transatlantic transfer. "I was e-mailing contacts in the United Kingdom: 'Do you know what a Long Island Iced Tea is?' 'Do you use the word 'folks'?" the scribe fretted, though all for naught. "It turned out that, thanks to the prevalence of American television, the cast knew almost every original reference I changed, so most of them were changed back."
Changing the New York references and setting were never considerations for the writer. "Avenue Q is a New York story, and fortunately the city is so famous it translates everywhere. I couldn't imagine changing the Empire State Building scenes to the Tower of London or anything like that."
Vernacular modifications (such as using the term flat for apartment) were also not a problem according to Whitty. "A few changes were made, but they're universal ones that work in both the UK and the States. We wouldn't use 'flat' for 'apartment' because we don't say that in New York. Sometimes it was a matter of making changes for references that come easily in the States but require a few seconds of processing in the UK — if you're landing a laugh in a song that's moving quickly, you can't afford those few seconds. So we found some happy mediums."
For a brief period during the start of previews, the character of Gary Coleman was changed to simply Gary, a former child star, but that alteration, too, has gone by the wayside. Whitty explains "In previous versions of Q, I'd always felt two things about Gary: lots of people, including my parents, don't know who he is, and also I felt the show was relying too much on his name for laughs, so we wrote a version that introduced a character who lived entirely within the world of the show. There were no huge changes, but his introduction was new, and I changed book lines [referencing Coleman] throughout. It worked okay. Then we decided to listen and see what happened if we put the word 'Coleman' back, but keeping most of the changes we'd made, and it worked better. Many people in the audience there know who he is, so why not capitalize on his back story? I think for all that work we have a stronger launching pad for the character now. I came up with new lines that I'm much, much happier with, and that will actually be heading to Broadway at some point." The audience played a key part in making or keeping changes. "The die-hard Q fans were apparently throwing fits over the changes, especially during the previews when we weren't using the word 'Coleman,' but we write the show for people who are seeing it for the first time. Avenue Q was written entirely in such a process — listening like hawks to the audience and using them as our guide. I love our fans dearly, but we can't write the show for them (or for ourselves, for that matter) — our work is to make Avenue Q the most explosive experience for a first-time audience."
So, what then has changed? "For those who haven't memorized the cast album, there won't seem to be many changes at all. The experience of the show is almost exactly the same in London as in the United States. For me, knowing the show so well, it's peppered with changes, but usually it's a matter of two or three words changed, a few lyrics, a few changes in the orchestrations. And some cuts in the book and score that keep the show from eddying."
"Long Island Iced Tea, though, is an example of a reference that got an immediate laugh in the States and didn't in London. [The volatile cocktail plays a key role in the courtship of the romantic leads Princeton and Kate Monster.] I felt we needed the laugh, so I agonized about finding a disgusting drink that would land the laugh, and thanks to Simon Lipkin, our Trekkie Monster [in the London cast], we have one that works nicely."
When asked if the changes applied to the Las Vegas run were utilized for the London production, Whitty replied "That's an interesting question, because the differences between New York and the full Vegas show are far greater than any changes we've made for here." He notes that he does not refer to the 90-minute Vegas version, which played later in the Nevada run. "Before we wrote the Vegas version, Cameron Mackintosh had taken on the West End production, and he brought Bobby [Lopez], Jeff [Marx], Jason [Moore, the director,]... he made us examine the show carefully, and a lot of good came out of it. One example is a new orchestration in 'Purpose' that always gives me the chills — the beginning is slower, more magical, and sets up the emotional journey so gorgeously." He added "A lot of those changes were put into Vegas, and the London production script is actually based on the full Vegas version."
Of any other minor changes to dialogue, lyrics or songs, Whitty says "They're so small it's trifling to list them, really. We've cut about two minutes from Act 2, and those cuts make the act travel so much better. Everything else is small."
Avenue Q began previews in London June 1 and will officially open June 28. Original Broadway star Ann Harada reprises her turn as Christmas Eve opposite Jon Robyns (as Princeton and Rod), Simon Lipkin (Nicky and Trekkie Monster), Julie Atherton (Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut), Clare Foster (Mrs T.) and Sion Lloyd (Brian). For more information visit www.avenueqthemusical.co.uk.
Whitty's The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler enjoyed a world premiere at South Coast Repertory in California. He is at work on a number of projects including an untitled musical project for Universal with music by Outkast's Andre 3000.
Avenue Q began life in 2002 with an Off-Broadway run at the 200-seat Vineyard Theatre, where it was extended four times. It then opened at the Golden Theatre on Broadway in July 2003 to critical acclaim. The show went on to win three 2004 Tonys: Best Musical, Best Original Score of a Musical and Best Book of a Musical.