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On the 'Avenue' ...

January 31, 2008 By:
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Composers/lyricists Jeff Marx (left) and Robert Lopez of "Avenue Q"

Some good GPS advice: To get to "Avenue Q," go straight to "Sesame Street," and then make a U-turn.

A really huge U-turn.

Broadway audiences have turned to "Avenue Q" for the ultimate street theater that it is; the show, a parody of the puppets that make Muppets a must-stop pop on children's TV, hit the yellow-brick road and then some on Broadway, snatching the 2003 Tony Award as best musical right under the green eyes of Elphaba and "Wicked," and adding a couple more in the process.

Next stop: 11th and Walnut streets where the soft-cloth, rag-tag band of buddies from the outer boroughs of New York burrow into Philadelphia's Forrest Theatre for a run through Feb. 10 in the Cadillac Broadway Series.

It's all very much a Marx brotherhood of humor: Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez collaborated on the show, which intersects at cute and cuddly, with the occasional detour into bawdy before knowing they had turned a tenement topic into a palace.

A burned Burt? An unearnest Ernie? A kookie monster with a taste for graham-crack crust?

No -- this is a salute to "Sesame Street," not sabotage. Indeed, Marx had once worked for "Sesame Street."

Not that he's above throwing a rubber rock through its window. After all, "Sesame Street" never promised full puppet nudity as this does or, for that matter, have viewers be lulled by the allure of a character named Lucy the Slut.

Hit the road, Jack -- even a sunny day that sweeps the clouds away can get swept up in a nub of naughtiness.

Marx has often walked down this street before, but this "Avenue"? A completely different kick, with such songs as "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" showing the degree of fun he's up to.

But then, he didn't have to worry about his B.A. It was the J.D. he got after graduating from Yeshiva University's law school that he was concerned about.

"I loved law school, but I didn't love practicing," he says with a laugh, remembering his short stint as an entertainment attorney until he docked his plans to practice and attend the prestigious BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York.

Case dismissed? Not quite. "I actually joined BMI to find clients. I didn't think I had any talent to write songs."

Objection overruled -- and different objectives ruled the day. "They accepted me at BMI, they told me, because I was funny," he says of the funny valentines/parodies he played for them. "They accepted me because I made them laugh."

If John Grisham can be a movie star, then ... But before he could travel down "Avenue Q," there was the introduction to the pre-Broadway byways by way of cocktail-hour gigs.

'Alley Cat,' Anyone?
The attorney attuned to music who "played piano by ear" had his eyes opened with those early engagements. "I was a member of the Steve Fortgang Bar Mitzvah Band," he says proudly.

"Twenty dollars a show."

And all the chopped liver he could eat?

"Well, all the girls would run after me after the performances. It was like I was Elvis," he recalls.

But he left that building for other ventures, and eventually found the way to his Broadway baby -- an experience he says was "overwhelming, and humbling and fulfilling."

And filled with reminiscences of the street where he lived. "When we wrote 'Avenue,' we were actually just writing about our lives and those of our friends," recalls Marx, not knowing the mark he and his rainbow coalition of characters would create in musical theater.

"We lived parallel lives," but now his is a career nonpareil, as he rolls in royalties and acclaim from a legion of lyrical and musical adventures inside and outside theater.

Indeed, Marx is not about to poo-poo any TV work, because, after all is said and done, he concedes that "It All Comes Down to Poo."

In fact, that number earned him and Lopez an Emmy Award nomination for their incisive handiwork on a musicalization of a "Scrubs" episode.

After that, scrub living in New York; Marx decided to move to L.A. -- stat. "I just loved being out there so much doing that show," that "Avenue Q" was quickly displaced by Hollywood and Vine.

But only geographically; not in his heart. Yet he's been able to cross the street a lot, trafficking in different script treatments; at one time, there was talk of the musical being made into a TV series. Make of it what you will -- and many do just that, taking "Avenue Q" and its characters to heart. "The show" -- which got the imprimatur from the impressed "Sesame Street" executives -- "has taken off beyond what we dreamed," notes Marx.

Ah, the dream ... imagine Tevye and Golda in that dramatic dream sequence of "Fiddler," only mixed up with these Muppet-like maniacs, and you have what audiences at an AIDS benefit had: a Fiddler on the Road.

Or as it was known by those who concocted it: "The Avenue Jew," opening with the untraditional image of Trekkie Monster eating his fiddle. Far from the home he loved? Close to Marx's heart, "although I didn't write any of the numbers for that."

The number of his successes multiply as multinational tours crisscross "Avenue Q" with such sites as King George Street. Tellingly, Tel Aviv is prominent on the show's global schedule.

Of course, some changes had to be made when the "Avenue" hit the Ayalon Highway; the character Christmas Eve became a puppet called Latina and the role of Gary Coleman -- what you lookin' at? That's right, a character named Gary Coleman -- was changed to an Israeli icon, Michal Yannai, played by ... Michal Yannai.

Wasn't Coleman available? "I understand he wasn't happy we created this character with his name," says Marx of the perfectly legal avenue he chose to do so. But then, how'd he know it was legal?

"I'm a lawyer, remember?"

Sue he ain't going to do about an Internet posting that his mom was upset about. What would un-kvell a Jewish mother?

"According to Broadway insiders," went the posting about how Marx supposedly praises colleagues, "if you write a show and Marx sits all the way through without muttering snide comments, snorting or loudly farting, your show is in good shape."

Does it get him bent out of shape? It is, after all, so out of character for this down-to-earth guy.

"No," chuckles the man who wrote "The Internet Is for Porn" for his puppets, and who has no idea where the comment came from.

But it's in keeping with his self-deprecating wit that he concedes: "I like it. Let them keep it there."

After all, says the not-so-naughty but truly nice Jewish lawyer lyrically taking the high road that is "Avenue Q," "it makes for some good stories." 

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