When I was a kid, my parents had a cassette tape of songs performed by Sesame Street characters in Bert and Ernie’s bathroom while Bert was taking a soak. I’ll give you a minute to mentally digest that.
Even as a little kid I wasn’t really into Sesame Street or the Muppets. But my parents played it in the car so often that I memorized every word, every melody and every nuance of performance. We learned about morality and to treat one another well. Folk broke out into song to encourage us through our trials and tribulations. The lines between right and wrong were clearly defined, making it so simple and oh so obvious as to which paths should be taken throughout our lives. And above all: We’re all special. I am special. It felt like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.
Then we got older, and time and circumstance brought to a head the creeping realization that life actually wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and jaunty musical numbers. The lines between right and wrong were fine. People judge one another and use one another. And what about me being special? Where is my chosen one-like path in life? Where is my blankety warm Sesame world? Nothing is as I was told. Life is a sliding scale of gray; sometimes it’s great, sometimes it sucks.
This is what formulates the premise of Avenue Q, which URI is preparing a production of in November.
Avenue Q features a Sesame Street-type of set, where puppet and human characters interact. At this first glance upon arriving to the theater, you’d probably assume you were at a play for children. Then you hear songs that teach us it’s okay to make loud noises during sex, how we’re all a little bit racist and how the Internet is for porn.
“Firstly, we are trying to get out in publicity that even [though] the poster has the puppets and is cute, it is absolute not for kids,” says Paula McGlasson, the director of URI’s production.
In fact, it’s the juxtaposition of puppets singing about adult themes that makes Avenue Q work in the first place. “I think the truths that are told in Avenue Q are truths that we sometimes find hard to accept as adults,” Paula says. “But when it comes through the mouth of a cute furry puppet, you can recognize it: you can laugh at your own foibles, your own errors and it doesn’t hurt. It’s the genius of the show.”
Avenue Q tells the story of a character named Princeton, a recent college graduate who moves to Avenue Q in New York and tries to figure out what to do with his life. Moving into a building run by Gary Coleman (yep, that Gary Coleman), he meets the girl next door and various other neighbors. How these characters interact and experience sex, racism, love, betrayal, homosexuality and Schadenfreude variously come up and, staying in line with Sesame Street style, are incorporated into song.
Avenue Q was a hit; it lavished praise from The New York Times, won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical and became the 23rd longest running play in Broadway history. “Several years ago my husband and I saw the show on Broadway,” Paula says. “The memory of the show stayed with me. It was one of the most unique, fun, fresh musicals I had seen in many, many years. And I had so much fun as an audience member I knew it was something I wanted to direct.”
Throwing puppets into the mix offers another challenge, and especially so in this musical’s case. “When you see the Muppets, you think Jim Henson; you don’t see puppeteers,” Paula says. “In Avenue Q of course the puppeteer stands right in full view of the audience and the puppet is right on his hand beside him.” It’s a challenge she and her students are embracing. “I hope that audiences will come with open minds and curiosity and a good sense of humor and have an enjoyable evening. It’s a definite challenge for us, it’s a challenge for the students and we’ve thrown another thing at them; they have to learn puppetry as well. It’s about story telling. I hope everyone comes to hear.”
Avenue Q | November 13-23