“All musicals are always big puzzles,” says playwright Jeff Whitty, while carefully downplaying his contribution to the hit musical Avenue Q.
When he arrived at the workshop, the songs “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet Is for Porn” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” were already written. His task was daunting.
“I was handed a pretty insane grab bag of characters. I had to find a place for everyone, flesh them out and find out who they were.” And create a coherent, logical but, most importantly, funny storyline.
One of the most endearing characters in Avenue Q is one who could easily have become the most obnoxious. Rod is a Republican theatre queen and the subject of the song “If You Were Gay,” in which the other denizens of Avenue Q try to convince the bright blue closet case that they will still be his friends if he comes out.
Whitty loved the song but felt the challenge was to make the character one the audience could identify with instead of despise or mock.
“Rod is funny to a point,” says Whitty. “But I then wanted the audience to care for him and go on the journey.”
In Buffalo, the touring company was hit and miss for the opening-night blue rinse/overdressed set. Puppets having sex onstage and jokes about racism were edgy enough, but a fantasy sequence where Rod and his roommate Nicky actually experience the ecstasy of gay romance left approximately half the audience cold. The other half were in delirious stitches.
The big problem with the script was getting Rod out of the closet. Rod has an unrequited crush on his roommate Nicky. They share a bedroom, carefully tucked into twin beds, but both are painfully aware of Rod’s love/lust for Nicky. Having a crush on a straight friend is almost a rite of passage for a gay man, but straight audiences could easily find it creepy. Fortunately, Nicky’s joie de vivre means he wants only to encourage Rod to come out of the closet and fall into someone else’s arms, where he will be happy.
Whitty laughs as he recalls the various convoluted plot contrivances that were tried and discarded. In one version, Nicky built a robot version of himself; in another, Nicky invented helium bubble wrap to make packages lighter and therefore cheaper to mail, which resulted in all of Nicky’s possessions floating away.
The final solution, which remains in the show, is startlingly simple, far from obvious and uproariously hilarious. As a bonus, it contains an explicitly gay sight gag that gently mocks our culture while also saluting it.
“I paid off my student loans,” says Whitty.
Avenue Q opens at the National Arts Centre on Tues, June 22. nac-cna.ca