Hit Broadway musical ’Avenue Q‘ features cute Muppet-type puppets drinking, taking drugs and surfing the net. Time Out talks to producer Cameron Mackintosh about bringing it to his new West End theatre
Cameron Mackintosh could hardly have become such a major player in London’s theatre if he didn’t stamp his foot occasionally, but I have never met him when he is not bubbling over with enthusiasm. Today he’s on overdrive as two cherished projects coincide: the refurbishment and renaming of the Albery Theatre as the Noël Coward, and the launch of ‘Avenue Q’, the opening show under the theatre’s new name. So it’s a quick tour of the gleaming bars, the number one dressing rooms (known as ‘Noël’ and ‘Gertie’ after Gertrude Lawrence, Coward’s favourite actress), plus a chance to try out the seats in the gods and admire the new and improved sightlines. The chat as we go is mostly along the lines of how to sell a musical in search of an audience that’s cynical about musicals.
The originality of ‘Avenue Q’ springs from the fact that most of the characters are puppets, but they are not the grotesque puppets of either the ‘Shockheaded Peter’ or ‘Spitting Image’ tradition. Instead they resemble the child-friendly puppets that belong to the morally improving world of ‘Sesame Street’. However, what happens to these puppets as they share their experiences of coming out, finding a place to live, and falling for the lure of drugs, drink and raunchy sex plays no part in children’s TV, especially when Trekkie Monster extols the virtues of porn on the internet, or when they acknowledge the fact that ‘everyone’s a little bit racist’.
Compared to ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’, you could hardly call ‘Avenue Q’ subversive. Instead, it is jaunty, naughty and even occasionally moving, and should appeal to the fanatical fans of ‘Friends’. Mackintosh saw the show on Broadway over three years ago when he immediately thought that it would sit comfortably in one of his smaller theatres. He only ever anticipated being the show’s landlord, but as a result of a long-standing relationship with the American producers and director Jason Moore, he was persuaded to become a producer as well. It’s an unusual move for someone who usually loves to be in at a show’s germination and to follow it all the way through to its birth.
He had no desire to anglicise the piece. ‘Obviously we’ve changed the “Mexican busboy” reference to something that will make sense both here and in America. It was the same when I worked with Tom Lehrer. Tom never minded you changing anything as long as it was in period.’
I imagine that Mackintosh would have preferred to have brought the New York cast over from the States, but that’s not the case apparently. ‘Often if you are from another world, your observations can be sharper because you’re not part of it,’ he says. ‘[The recent revival of] “Oklahoma” was more interesting here than it was on Broadway.’ Director Jason Moore is also happy with his English cast and even, surprisingly, their American accents. Workshops started many months ago as the actors had to learn to become puppeteers. ‘One of those skills,’ says Moore, ‘that when it’s done well looks really easy and is horrific when it’s done badly.’
Transferring a small show from a small theatre is a risky business. ‘Avenue Q’ originated in a tiny off-Broadway theatre and took six months to become a word-of-mouth hit. There were qualms about moving it to Broadway where it would be competing with the high production values of shows like ‘Wicked’. Nevertheless, it was the smaller show that walked off with the Tony awards. ‘What it’s got going for it,’ Moore says ‘is that it’s not like other Broadway or West End musicals that people have seen before. So we don’t have to deliver a big tap dance number. In any case, puppets can’t tap dance because they have no feet.’
In putting the musical into the Noël Coward, they’ve kept the intimacy here too, but a small theatre means small returns, especially with relatively low seat prices. Some people will be worried by the fact that Mackintosh has put both ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, which is playing in Wyndhams next door, into theatres that are normally reserved for plays. He defends himself by saying that there are no straight plays waiting to come in compared to a plethora of musicals. It’s true that ‘Avenue Q’ will be up against strong competition. ‘Spamalot’ and ‘Wicked’, its two American compatriots, will be over here shortly, and every day seems to bring news of yet another musical revival from ‘Cabaret’ to ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. ‘They’re even turning Shakespeare into a musical,’ Mackintosh says, referring to the RSC’s musical adaptation of ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’. ‘There’s never been a better time to go straight!’ he adds with a gay glint in his eye.
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