The edgy and hilarious Avenue Q has been a runaway success since opening on Broadway two years ago. Described as “a wonderfully dirty puppet show,” the critically lauded show won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book in 2003.
What happened next, no one involved with the show could have predicted: Casino magnate Steve Wynn struck a deal to make it one of the headlining shows at his new resort, Wynn Las Vegas. The new incarnation of the show debuted last month.
Although at the time of this writing the local reviews aren’t in yet, it’s a safe bet that this raunchy, wickedly funny musical—featuring puppets interacting with live actors, performing songs such as “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay”—is like nothing the Strip has ever seen.
Jeff Whitty, who won a Tony for writing the production, has been instrumental to the show’s success. (Interestingly, he has another musical in the works starring Andre 3000 of the hugely popular musical group Outkast.) Speaking to Casino Player from Wynn Las Vegas, the 32-year-old Oregon native spoke about the genesis of the acclaimed production, and its surprising journey to the heart of the Vegas Strip.
CP: What do you think of the progression of Avenue Q from New York to Las Vegas?
JW: When we moved to Broadway from Off-Broadway, I just tried to take the “this will be interesting” perspective. I’m excited about the show coming here [to Wynn Las Vegas], and we’ve been getting unbelievable support from the people at the casino. It’s nerve-wracking though, because there’s nothing like it in Vegas as far as I can see.
How did “Avenue Q” originate?
We wanted to tell a story about a condition that not many shows are about: the weird feeling of your dreams never coming true, and where do you go from there. The show does have its outrageous elements, but from the very beginning my goal was to try to make people actually care about these puppets. To me, that’s what is the most subversive part of the show. People sort of feel bad for Rod [one of the lead puppets] by the end. I think that it’s a fun credit to the audience that they can go that distance with these things that are made of foam.
We started off structurally trying to do something really daring and experimental. And what we learned over the course of doing a bunch of workshops with just music stands and puppets, was that, as far as the structure of the show, the audience loved it when we followed the tried-and-true forms of the traditional Broadway musical. The way the story develops is very true to Broadway even though it feels different [because the lead characters are puppets]. The minute we found the whole arch to the show, this character who is looking for his purpose in life, then everything else came together. It was like this kind of Christmas tree that we could hang the ornaments on.
Did you make any adjustments to the show, to cater to Las Vegas audiences?
People who saw Avenue Q in New York won’t probably notice a huge difference but, for me, even when there is even a little word change, I get real excited to see how it is going to play. We gave Lucy [one of the lead female puppets] a whole new ending, which occurred to me six months after the show opened in New York. I was like, “Dammit! Why didn’t I think of that!” It was the perfect ending. And now we get to put it in.
Interestingly, the puppeteers are actually seen onstage with the puppets. From the beginning we wanted to make the puppets the main characters and have the humans be the supporting cast. I just love it when people from the audience say they cried during Act II. They just can’t believe they’re moved by this bizarre concept. No one comes there expecting that. They come expecting to see the puppets having sex, which I like. But I also think the only way you can really touch people nowadays is by making them laugh. People today are so attuned to sentiment because there is such a deep irony in the culture.
At Wynn Las Vegas, the Curtain Rises on Avenue Q .