By Andrew Gans
26 Sep 2003
Stephanie D'Abruzzo, in her Main Stem debut, is currently offering two of the finest performances on Broadway. D'Abruzzo is one of the stars of what may be the funniest musical to ever grace the stage: Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty's Avenue Q, which began life at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre last season before transferring to its current home, the intimate Golden Theatre. The actress portrays, among others, the boyfriend-searching Kate Monster and the boyfriend-stealing Lucy T. Slut, and you might say her work is puppetry perfected. D'Abruzzo manages to bring each of her characters to full life, easily navigating between the show's hysterical and touching moments. In fact, one of the highlights of the musical (and there are many) is the first act's only ballad, "There's a Fine, Fine Line," delivered tenderly by D'Abruzzo. I recently had the pleasure (and a pleasure it was — D'Abruzzo is as charming, funny and open offstage as she is on) of chatting with the actress, who is thrilled to be making her Broadway debut, one that she hopes will pave the way for more non-puppet projects in the future. I think Avenue Q is just the beginning for the multi-talented performer, who also took part in this past week's thrilling Chess benefit concert.
Question: I think I laughed more during Avenue Q than any show since Dame Edna.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo: That's awfully touching. That really means a lot because Dame Edna's fabulous!
SD: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. For so many of us this is our Broadway debut. To be able to do that — something that I, personally, have always wanted and dreamed of doing and never thought it would happen — to have it happen this way is just mind boggling. I enjoy every second that I'm onstage, except when a phlegm ball comes up! [Laughs.] That I don't enjoy.
Q: How'd you get involved in the show originally? Had you worked with the writers before?
SD: I never worked with the writers before, but I had worked with [co-star and puppet designer] Rick Lyon before, and actually the writers had — I think this is pretty common knowledge — the project that they had won the Kleban Award for was a project they had written called Kermit Prince of Denmark that they were trying to pitch to Henson as sort of a Muppet movie or some sort of project that they could actually do. And, my husband was working — at the time — for the Jim Henson company. He's a long-time writer; he got laid off last year with everybody else. So, he was talking to the boys, and they had mentioned that they were doing this project and that they were looking for a female puppeteer who could sing. And [my husband] Craig showed them some of my stuff, so that's how the boys got in touch with me. Although Rick was about to give them my name as well because I'd worked with Rick Lyon for some time, too. The puppetry world, especially the television puppetry world in New York, is a pretty small circle, so all of us puppeteers have worked together at one point or another.
Q: That's nice, all of you are experiencing this success together.
SD: Absolutely, and it helps a lot when it comes to instincts and rhythms and just being on a live stage with somebody knowing that you not only feel comfortable with that person — like in the case of John Tartaglia, I've known and worked with him for seven, eight years. We know each other pretty well, we know each other's instincts pretty well. That helps a lot.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your background, where you went to school.
SD: Oh, sure. Well, I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and I was very active in theatre and such. Then I went to the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, which happened to be pretty method-heavy. And, me — being naive and 16 and living in the suburbs — not having a lot of life experience thought naively, "Well, if I can't wrap my little mind around method, that means I can't be an actor." So I went to pursue something else. I went to Northwestern University and studied radio-TV-film production, but I was still doing a lot of performing. I was acting in student films; I was in an improv troupe. I took a few theatre — the theatre classes that I was allowed to take as a non-major, which weren't many. I actually did do a mainstage show there.
Q: Which show?
SD: Do Not Go Gentle, a show directed by Reeves Collins. His were the only classes I was allowed to take; that's why I got in. Because at Northwestern they make you put your acting teacher at the top of your audition page, and I didn't have one! It was very difficult to go in and audition as a non-major, but he knew me, and he'd seen me perform, and he knew I could do it. Yeah, it was a brand-new piece that hadn't been published yet. The playwright, Susan Zeder, actually came up and worked with us a little bit on it, so it was a great experience, and that had been the last stage thing I had done before we did the first readings of Avenue Q. And I missed it. I missed it terribly. I loved working in television, and I loved working for the Muppets. . . Let me go back to college. When I was in college, I fell in love with production, but I still loved performing, and I still loved writing and music. And puppetry, particularly the Muppet-style of puppetry, was a great way to combine all these things that I enjoyed doing.
Q: Did you come to that yourself or did someone suggest it to you?
SD: I came to it myself because at first I thought maybe I'd go into children's television writing and producing, and then I started watching "Sesame Street" again, and I became fascinated by the Muppet performers. I'd always been a Muppet fan, but I was looking at them with a fresh angle and a new eye, and I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is an area of performance that I think I'm really cut out for." The only thing I didn't have experience in was the actual manipulation, so I taught myself the Muppet style of performance. I had access to video equipment, and I did my own video production, learned how to work off of a monitor as the Muppeteers do, and learned lip-synch, learned eye focus, and really wanted to make that a big goal, because also, especially when I was in college, I was sort of not a castable type. I was not right for the ingenue but was way too young to be a character actor. And I'd always been a character person, but when you're 21 years old, how much character work are you gonna get? [Laughs.] Even still now, I'm hoping that someday soon I can grow into the character actor that I think I am — appearance-wise. Puppetry was a great way to play all of these different characters that I, physically, would never be cast as. So, that's why I went and pursued and particularly the Muppet style of performance, because at the time it was catering to a more adult audience. Spring of my senior year of college they happened to be having a big cattle call looking for female performers. I went, actually I didn't go blindly — a puppet project that I had done in college won a student Emmy. It was a Public Television Award by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. David Rudman, who's a Muppet performer at "Sesame Street," his home base is in Chicago, and his wife happened to see this little inch mention of the award in the Sunday Tribune. Talk about a needle in a haystack! [Laughs.] And, it mentioned that I was influenced by the Muppets and that I went to Northwestern. When he came back, she gave him the little clipping, and he looked me up, and he saw my work, and he told me about this big audition coming up. So, he took my tape back. So, I went — I didn't have to go through the cattle call, I was able to just come for the callback. But, still, it was right place at the right time. The thing about an audition for Muppets, though, is there's no job at the end to get. We're all freelancers. We're all part of a talent pool. So, really, all getting through that audition did was put me in a talent pool. So, eventually, I made my way to New York and worked my way up the Muppet ladder very slowly. So, that's how I got into working with the Muppets and working on "Sesame Street."
Q: Would you consider yourself more of a puppeteer or more of an actor?
SD: I consider myself an actor much more because, first of all, all of the work that we do as puppeteers is acting. It's just the puppet is a mask more or less. And, in the Muppet style of puppetry, 99% of the time, you're providing the voice of the character, and I know that doesn't happen a lot in other styles of puppetry. But in this case, it really is, you're flushing out a full character, it just happens to be a puppet. But, also, I've been wanting to branch out and do other things. It's just what I didn't know when I wanted to pursue this is that there is quite a stigma involved, especially — not only considering the fact that I'm a puppeteer, but I'm a puppeteer who works primarily in children's television. That's sort of a double whammy. It's sort of been challenging to have people take me — and I don't mean seriously as an actor by "Oh my God I'm the best thing since sliced bread" — I just mean, consider me, rather than look at my resume, see all of my credits and say, "What real acting have you done?" Because it is a legitimate style of performance. Also, I've done some voice-over work, but again that's also been in children's television. And I haven't had the time or opportunity to really get out there and do all of the things that I needed to do to establish myself in a theatrical career. Also, because a couple of years ago, I'm looking through Backstage, and I'm looking at breakdowns, and I'm still running into the type problem. [Laughs.] The nice thing about Avenue Q is that I'm playing characters that I would never physically get cast as, which is great. But, on the other hand, I think I'm proving that I can play them, which I'm hoping maybe will raise awareness among the industry that when someone goes in to audition, don't look at their brown hair, and say, "Well, we're looking for a blonde." Think wigs, think costumes. But I understand the realities of the situation as well. It takes a lot of imagination when you're in a dull room, behind a card table looking at 200 people to say, "Well, if we just doll her up, I bet she could do this." It's a challenge, but I'm kind of hoping — just the fact that people can connect what I'm doing to the performance that I'm giving — that maybe they'll say, "Oh, well she really is an actor." I belong to all the acting unions — SAG, Aftra and Equity. There's no puppet union. My classification is actor, it's not specialty act. [Laughs.]
Q: I think this will open doors for you.
SD: And, it's not even just me, but hopefully someone will be able to look at a resume of any puppeteer with a raised eyebrow and say, "Ok, maybe there's more to this than meets the eye," since I've seen what other puppeteers can do.
Q: Were you a fan of musicals before this?
SD: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, of course! What actor doesn't love musical theatre, even the ones who are die-hard Shakespeare, London Academy of Dramatic Arts . . . Deep down you have to have a soft spot in your heart for good musical theatre. But sometimes even the bad stuff is enjoyable — kind of like bad television — on a guilty pleasure level.
Q: Do you have any favorites?
SD: Well, the last thing I saw that I just went ga-ga over was Urinetown, and I'm sure that that's a popular favorite these days in the theatre community, but I couldn't believe my eyes and ears at what I was seeing. And I thought, "Wow." I had heard about it from friends, and I didn't get to see it when it was Off-Broadway, although I did know a couple of people who'd seen it then. And I just fell in love with everything about it, the whole pretense. The whole fact that they kept it that downtown feel, kept it with a single wall for a set, using spray cans as fog. I love that stuff. I love when people don't take themselves too seriously, and I love that a Broadway musical was able to do that.
Q: Were there any performers that particularly inspired you when you were growing up?
SD: When I was growing up, I wanted to be an amalgam of Julie Andrews, Madeline Kahn and Bernadette Peters. I wanted Julie's voice and looks — I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen when I saw "Mary Poppins" as a kid. I wanted Madeline Kahn's sense of humor; I thought she was also gorgeous. And I wanted Bernadette's sass and talent and all of their comedic abilities. I thought that these women were just about the best things I'd ever seen.
Q: And you're also getting to do a little bit of "Rose's Turn" each night.
SD: Oh yeah! That was Stephen Oremus' — our music supervisor — [idea]; that song "Special" went through a couple of incarnations. Originally three years ago it was a song called "Two Lips" — "Everybody's got two lips. Count 'em, one. Count 'em, two." Then, unfortunately, the joke sort of ended with that first line. But "Special" came along. It was a fine song. Stephen came in, and also Gary Adler, our music director. We all worked together with our choreographer, Ken Roberson, and we sort of rethought the ending at the same time we were choreographing it. And the "Rose's Turn" thing came from all of that. It was a great little discovery and moment.
Q: How difficult are the puppets to manipulate?
SD: We're all pretty used to it. I've had at least ten years of experience puppeteering professionally. Thank God, a lot of it comes second nature. Because if I had to think about it too carefully during the performance, my brain would break because there's so many other things. In fact, I'm grateful sometimes that I can focus on the music. During "Fine, Fine Line" though, it's really difficult — I almost wish that I either had the puppet and wasn't visible and was working to a camera or was on the stage and didn't have the puppet because the song is so important to get right. And, the puppet is so important to make that look right, and my brain is really split, more than at any other part of the show. That's when I feel like I'm at full capacity mentally. But fortunately we're so used to little our tricks and our little crutches that we use as puppeteers. We know what works as far as the way the puppets move and what's a funny reaction. What you can do with one head and one arm, which is really all a lot of the puppets have moving in the show. That experience helps so much. And Rick's puppets are beautiful. They're not hard to move. They're really flexible, and he's always been great — even before the Off-Broadway run saying, "Look, is there anything that you need specifically in the head? Do you have any complaints?" Because he's a puppeteer as well. He knows — there's no one better to be building puppets than people who actually perform them.
Q: In a couple scenes you're going back and forth between two puppets and two voices. Does that ever get confusing?
SD: That's actually less confusing than anything else. The hardest thing about that is figuring out when to breathe. Because, especially that first cafe scene, you really want that dialogue to be bang, bang, bang. And, finding a spot to breathe has always been the toughest part. But no other voice than Kate's could possibly come out of Kate for me. And, no other voice other than Lucy's could come out of Lucy. My other biggest concern during scenes like that is not to stumble on a line that I know that Jen [Barnhart] is puppeteering on because I'd feel really bad about messing her up. She's so good that she could follow anything I did, but it's just a guilt thing. It doesn't help being Roman Catholic, too. [Laughs.]
Q: Do you ever forget that the puppets aren't real or is it just the audience that forgets that?
SD: Oh, they're props. It's funny, a lot of people ask that, but if I forget that they weren't real, people would lock me in the loony bin. [Laughs.] When you go backstage and see them hanging on hooks. Even when I first came to Henson, they're on tables, and you know that they're not real. It's when the performer puts them on that the magic happens. The first time I ever saw Marty Robinson performing Telly and Snuffleupagus or Kevin Clash performing Elmo, that's when it was magic. Seeing them on a table, seeing them on a stand. They live in boxes — that's the reality of the situation. The characters are real, but the puppets are just pieces of fur. Very beautiful pieces of fur.
Q: Do you have duplicate puppets backstage in case something happens?
SD: Well, we have different puppets for a lot of the different costumes. For example, there are about five or six Kates: the naked one, the one that's on her date, the wedding-dress Kate. Because changing costumes on puppets is horribly difficult. There were a few costume changes that had to happen when we were downtown at the Vineyard, and our puppet wrangler, Phoebe Kreutz, who's amazing, she went nuts. She had a really quick change for these puppets, and puppets can't help you! It's like dressing a Barbie doll. And, not even that — at least Barbie dolls have stiff arms; the puppets have limp arms, so it's difficult to do. There are multiple puppets as far as having different costumes. Fortunately, knock wood, nothing traumatic has happened to any of them. But if it does, there are ways of switching things out. Like the naked Kate and Princeton aren't seen on stage for a very long time. I think that if anything happened to the primary Kate, the one that's onstage for about 80% of the show, then something would be switched that way. But, yeah, there are a lot of multiples. I really want to get a picture backstage with all five, six Kates hanging around me.
Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
SD: For a year. Last one, July 4, 2004.
Q: Do you think the show will tour?
SD: I don't know, everybody asks that question. We were actually joking at dinner one night about the all oven-mit production of Avenue Q! We were thinking about what regional companies would do with the show. We know it's not going to be done in high schools. It's a little too racy, but colleges and regional what they would do — the finger puppet version of Avenue Q?! We joke around a lot with that. We're really not sure. Tours haven't been mentioned to us yet — it would be interesting, though. I know a lot of friends who can't make it out to New York who would love to see it come and tour. I would be really curious to see how it would play in other cities. I think it would, it's funny and it's just a good solid story. I think, right now, it's a great New York show for New York at a time when New York needs it . . . It's amazing when we go to the stage door the cross section of people we meet. Everyone from 16-year-olds to 89-year-olds, and they all say the same thing. They all really love it. They feel that it speaks to them, and you realize that it's not just for the 20-something, 30-something crowd. Well, the story of finding your purpose is pretty universal. It just hits you more in the gut after you've graduated from college. There are a lot of people who go through that their whole lives.
Q: You just recorded the CD. Will there be any special material or songs that were cut on the recording?
SD: We wanted to record — there was a song called "Tear It Up and Throw It Away," which never made it Off-Broadway, but it was one of the first songs that was written for the show. It was between Nicky and Kate, and Kate had gotten a jury duty summons, and his advice was "Tear it up and throw it away." We had actually had a contingency plan that if we weren't running too late during the recording session that we would just do that to piano. But as it was, the session went from 9:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night, so at 11:30 they just said we can't. It's a shame, but actually for people who have seen the show a long time ago, they might not notice it, there's a little underscoring in the money song when Christmas Eve and Brian come out saying, "we sold all your wedding gifts for cash," there's a little "Tear It Up and Throw It Away" there — that was done sort of as a little homage to it. It's a very inside thing.
Q: Do you remember any of the lyrics from "Tear it Up and Throw It Away"?
SD: Oh, yeah. "Tear it up and throw it away, throw it away, throw it away. Tear it up and throw it away, and go about your day. Oh, but I can't do that, this is an official summons." Really, it wasn't much more than that. One of the reasons it got cut — it didn't contribute to the plot much but really the main reason why it was cut is because no one knew — since it was a puppet tearing the jury duty summons up and throwing it on the floor at the end — there was no way of getting that off the stage. It would be there through all of Act One. And, it's sort of funny that that was a really big reason to why it was cut.
Q: Do you know whether the sheet music will be released?
SD: Gosh, I hope so. I love the idea of high school kids auditioning with "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada"! [Laughs.]
Q: You're also involved in the Chess concert that's coming up. What will you be doing in that?
SD: Oh, I'm just in the choir. It's great. We don't have to be off book. Poor Ann Harada, she's one of the featured ensemble people — the reporters, the merchants — and they have to be off book! . . . I love the show Chess. It was Ann who said, "They need sopranos." Of course, I went to her and said, "You know, high As were not mentioned." [Laughs]
Q: Do you have any other projects lined up?
SD: Not right now. I plan on going back to "Sesame Street" in the fall during the day. That won't be every day, and then in January and February there was a show I worked on called "Oobi" — for the Noggin Network — it's actually a very sweet pre-school show. It's puppetry without puppets; it's bare hands with eyeballs. And I play Oobi's little sister Ooma. It's very simple noun-verb language. It's a very sweet little show, so that's going into its second season there. It's gonna be challenging doing both of them, but both of them are projects that are so close to my heart, I would feel really terrible not being able to do them. . . I'm really hoping that it will all work out. . . As far as more theatre, I can't wait to do more things like this Chess concert. And to do things without the puppets on stage because it's what I've wanted to do for so long. And there's something sort of liberating about not having to worry about the lip-synch. It's like, "Wow, I can use my right hand." Even being able to use your body properly to sing or to help support. I really hope that more opportunities like that come up. The only thing I can hope for is just to keep working in one way or another. I think that's all that any actor wants to do. . . I love getting out there and doing it. I love to work.
Q: I think you just have to enjoy the ride and see where it takes you.
SD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, doing the show is so great, and being with this group of people is so wonderful, too. It will be sad when it ends because, actually, four of us have been with it since the very beginning, Johnny and Rick and Ann and myself. You become very close, and the ladies — Natalie [Venetia Belcon] and Jen and Ann and myself — we all share a dressing room. We call ourselves the foster kids that nobody wanted. [Laughs.] . . . . It's become our little support group. I couldn't imagine doing it without them. I am so lucky to be in this cast with this group. You really couldn't ask for a better group. Being on Broadway is on one thing, being in a good show is another thing, being in a hit show is another thing, but if you don't have good people around you, there's always going to be that emptiness when you go out onstage. And a lot of people have said that [our joy of working together] is reflected in our faces during the show.
If you haven't seen Avenue Q, get thee to the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street), and then e-mail me and tell me how much you loved it! For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 . . . By the way, the Avenue Q cast will celebrate the release of its cast recording (Victor Records) on Oct. 13 at 6 PM at Tower Records (Broadway and 66th Street).