'Q' put them on the A-list

Times Staff Writer

The musical always begins with the same songs: "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" and that disillusioned anthem of a generation caught between what college promises and what the real world delivers, "It Sucks to Be Me."

But Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who wrote the music and lyrics for "Avenue Q" with book by Jeff Whitty, say that even after an eight-year creative gestation, a 2004 Tony Award, a short-lived Las Vegas production and the launch of a national tour, every opening night of "Avenue Q" is, in a way, a brand-new show -- even though they finally called a moratorium on rewrites after the show went on the road.

In fact, Lopez had to choose between coming to Friday's opening-night performance at the Ahmanson Theatre and going to the Philippines for the bow of yet another production of "Avenue Q." "I am part Filipino, and I had to choose between here and Manila. I've never been there," he mused. "And it's like, how Filipino am I? It's like three-eighths, so I guess in the end, Hollywood won out. But I still may go out there. I'm this kind of weird racial miasma of things, I don't know what I am, so I kind of want to go there and see if I like it."

Even now, since most audience members don't know their faces, Lopez, 32, and Marx, 37, can watch their show in relative obscurity, as they did at the Ahmanson. But, Lopez says, he'll always be the guy who isn't laughing.

"I can't. I really can't," he said in a conversation at the obligatory pre-show dinner with theater donors -- chicken, thank-yous and enough wine to get him through his unprepared remarks. "I've seen the show so many times that I just can't see it as a show. I see it as a succession of written words and things that actors will screw up. When they do great things with it, I'm really happy, and when it's less than my memory, I berate myself."

For his part, Marx says he's the guy who's usually laughing when no one else is. "Every cast has different patterns and nuances," he observed backstage. "We're not laughing for the same reasons, because not only have we heard the joke a million times, we made up the joke. When I hear them invent new things, that's where the fun is for me."

Although "Avenue Q" is autobiographical -- both men found themselves living off their parents and trapped in low-level jobs in New York in their first years out of Yale University (Lopez) and the University of Michigan and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Greenwich Village (Marx) -- it no longer sucks to be them.

"I assume that you are all very rich and that somehow your money trickled down to my show," said Lopez, to much laughter, to the well-heeled crowd at the pre-show dinner. "I started writing this show when I was 24; now I'm 32. I'm not even the guy you want up here -- he's dead. Now I'm a father of a 2 1/2 -year-old, a prospective home buyer, I'm no longer young and hip.

"I was a loser, and this show is about people like me, most of whom continue to be losers and never get to these rooms," Lopez continued. "I want to say thank you, because I feel lucky to be going to places I never thought I'd go."

"Avenue Q" has led to a virtual alphabet of new opportunities for the pair, both separately and together. Lopez and Marx wrote songs for a musical episode of the NBC comedy "Scrubs," receiving an Emmy nomination along with Debra Fordham for a song title that captures the same glass-half-empty worldview evident in "It Sucks to Be Me" -- it's called "Everything Comes Down to Poo."

Lopez, who wore jeans to "Avenue Q," spent most of Friday shopping for a suit for the next day's Creative Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium. "I guess I had the preconception that everything in L.A. is so relaxed, I didn't bring a suit," he fretted. (They lost the Emmy to a suggestive Christmas song from "Saturday Night Live.")

Lopez recently teamed with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, to create "Finding Nemo -- The Musical," a 30-minute stage version of the movie, for Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Lopez is also working on a new musical project with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of "South Park," and a stage musical with his wife, which Lopez cryptically describes as being "about consciousness."

And these days, "Avenue Q" has gained special notoriety on YouTube, via a video that splices together images of GOP Sen. Larry E. Craig's emphatic denials of his homosexuality with puppets singing the "Avenue Q" song "If You Were Gay" ("that would be OK . . . I'd shout hooray").

"We've been working with each other since 1998, so, yeah," says Marx in answer to the question: "So are you sick of each other?" -- but with affection.

Earlier this year, the pair split geographically. Lopez lives on New York's Upper West Side with his wife and daughter, Katie, but Marx has relocated from New York to Los Angeles. While Lopez and Marx were in L.A. working on "Scrubs," Marx fell in love with the city. "I made the mistake of renting a convertible, a Mustang convertible, and I just said: 'Why am I staying in New York? This is fun.' I wanted to make a go of it here," Marx said. Now he has a new agent, a house in Laurel Canyon and professes to eat a Fatburger every day.

Still, for both songwriters, there seems to be a certain unshakable bond to being a former loser, East or West, and to being part of a show that stands up for all of loser-dom.

"It's a time capsule," Marx said of "Avenue Q." "We wrote it at a time in our lives when both of us lived on Avenue Q -- I was in Brooklyn, he was in Astoria, Queens. We remember exactly where we were when we wrote this, because it was our lives and our words.

"The whole thing is encapsulated in the song 'It's Only for Now,' which we meant to be a comfort to ourselves and everyone else, saying: 'This is a phase, you'll get through it,' " Marx added. "The more you write it for yourself, and specifically for yourself, the more people think it's about them."

diane.haithman@latimes.com

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'Avenue Q'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 14

Price: $25 to $90

Contact: (213) 628-2772

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