Their 'Q' rating keeps going higher and higher

Special to The Times

"If you told me a year ago that our show would be playing in Las Vegas, I would've said you're crazy," admits Jeff Marx, one half of the songwriting team behind Broadway's rags-to-riches fairy tale of success, "Avenue Q." Robert Lopez, his collaborator, nods in agreement.

They weren't the only ones taken by surprise. With their first commercially produced venture, Marx, 29, and Lopez, 34, managed to snag last year's Tony Award for best musical, beating out shows from established Broadway heavyweights including Tony Kushner and Stephen Schwartz. "Avenue Q's" inventive marriage of "Sesame Street"-style puppeteering and grown-up subjects -- poverty, sex and racism -- ushered in the fresh voice of a younger generation fearlessly poking satirical fun at society's foibles.

That same spirit of irreverence is very much on display during the pair's recent visit to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, in which "Avenue Q" was nominated for a Grammy for best musical show album (ultimately losing to Schwartz's "Wicked"). During a photo shoot in their West Hollywood hotel, the two playfully torment a photographer, acting much like a couple of "Avenue Q's" arrested-development residents who had unexpectedly hit the jackpot.

"There's a little piece of us in each of these characters," Marx says. "We try to speak to people just like us, out of college and seeking their place in this scary world, when you're not even qualified to hold a job."

While in L.A., Lopez and Marx were doing what any young, successful, award-laden talents would do: meeting with Hollywood execs. Since "Avenue Q" began life as a concept for a television series, it's not surprising to find them in discussion with networks about a possible spinoff. "We are talking to NBC and ABC," Lopez says. "There was even talk of doing it for this upcoming season. But with Vegas not even open yet, we decided to hold off."

"It's working so well on stage now that we want to wait until it tapers off," Marx says. "If there's going to be a series, it's still a year or two out."

In place of the stage musical's self-contained plot, an "Avenue Q" series would be more episodic, Lopez says, blending puppets, live actors, animation, videos and other elements to serve a different "life lesson" each time. "There'd be something about doing the laundry, something about your parents visiting, your grandparents passing away -- things as small as jury duty and as big as death."

Also on the drawing board is a possible VH1 series, which Lopez describes as "reality TV meets the musical." That concept grew out of their original plan for what later became the animations in "Avenue Q." "We shot video of the two of us walking around New York, lip-syncing a song called 'How Much Do the People in Your Neighborhood Make?' and edited in the answers we got from people on the street."

For the big screen, Marx and Lopez are collaborating on a movie for Universal Pictures and Marc Platt Productions. "We can't really say what it's about," Marx says, "but generally it's a very high-concept, star-driven musical, with traditional dance numbers and live action -- with people, not puppets."

"People actually ask us all the time if we only write for puppets," Lopez says. "The answer is no."

But don't tell Disney. The House of Mouse, which owns the Muppets franchise, is also in talks with Marx and Lopez about resurrecting "Avenue Q's" original incarnation as "Kermit, Prince of Denmark," their first collaboration.

In addition, Lopez and his wife, Kristen (also a lyricist), are writing a musical version of "Finding Nemo" for Disney theme parks. "Since we're expecting our first child in April," Lopez says, "it's a really nice thing to be working on."

Not forgetting the medium that made their careers, Marx and Lopez have teamed with their longtime heroes, "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, on a new stage musical. "We spotted them in the audience [at 'Avenue Q'] and went up to them at intermission," Marx says. "They thought we were really weird, until we whipped out our playbill and showed them our bios, where we list them as one of our inspirations."

"We talked for a long time afterward," Lopez says. "It turned out we had the exact same idea for a musical that they had had 10 years ago. Both of us were thinking about doing it, so we decided to do it together. It's about religion -- and one particular religion -- but we can't really talk about it yet."

"Avenue Q's" continuing prominence and popularity notwithstanding, Broadway and soon Las Vegas will be its only venues for the foreseeable future. Last year, on the heels of the show's Tony Award victory, the theater world was stunned by the announcement that in lieu of a much-anticipated and almost certainly lucrative national tour, the show's producers had agreed to an exclusive, open-ended booking at the new Wynn Las Vegas resort.

Although they had no say in the producers' decision, Lopez and Marx feel it was the right one. According to Lopez, there were two major problems with a traditional road tour. "One was that that we would have to be touring in 3,000- or 4,000-seat houses, which is what hit Broadway shows do." Venues that size, he notes, would have destroyed the intimacy that has characterized "Avenue Q," from its first reading in a church basement workshop to its current run in Broadway's 800-seat Golden Theatre.

"The other thing," he says, "was that for a national tour we would've had to change the script for some areas of the country, where some of the profanity might be a little too extreme. Whereas in Vegas...."

Both problems were solved when hotel developer Steven Wynn agreed to build a 1,200-seat theater specifically for the show, where it will be performed exactly as written. The only changes will be upgraded production values to accommodate the slightly larger space, with projectors instead of plasma screens for the animations.

The Las Vegas production of "Avenue Q" is slated to open this fall and will play 10 shows a week, compared to eight on Broadway. Finding performers with the right combination of acting, singing and puppeteering skills is challenging. One goal currently being pursued is to open the Wynn engagement with most of the original Broadway cast, including John Tartaglia, who originated two key roles but recently left the show.

Talks with Tartaglia are underway, and Lopez and Marx are confident he'll return if acceptable terms can be reached. "We know he wants to do it," Lopez says.

Marx rejects often-leveled accusations that the glitzy Sin City setting contradicts the sensibilities the show claims to represent (its down-and-out characters live on Avenue Q because they can't afford to live anywhere else). "As far as selling out is concerned," he says, "when you're on Broadway, you're paying $100 a ticket, so what kind of audience can afford that? It's the same as Vegas."

Despite the expectations generated by their early success, Marx says he and Lopez aren't driven by pressure. "I wish we felt more pressure -- we would work more." Their unusual approach -- writing music and lyrics together at the same time rather than dividing the tasks between them -- makes for some long hours and hard work. "When we started, we were hungrier," he says. "We could work till 4 in the morning on 'Avenue Q,' because that was our golden ticket possibility. But now, we're really enjoying the show's success, and we don't feel the same pressure to work till 4 in the morning."

"So expect our next to be a lot worse," Lopez says. "And to take much longer."

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