Don’t shush the house

Special to The Times

HAVING written the musical “Avenue Q” with the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, I’m glad none of us knew what lay ahead once we were done. If we had known, we might have frozen in terror and never been able to finish.

Blissfully unaware of our futures, we wrote the show during marathon sessions at Starbucks, in diners, in each others’ cramped apartments. We’d get actors together to perform it, bare-bones, for an audience, and we’d take what we learned and go back to work — at a humid theater festival without air conditioning, at least once in a park, and frequently in our director’s living room because, unlike us, he actually had one.

During the writing process, which lasted for five years in Jeff and Bobby’s case and 2 1/2 in mine, we put “Avenue Q” before a “test” audience several times. We listened to them carefully and returned to work, bowed but not broken.


In the meantime, we supported ourselves by working as temps, as interns, and I even survived the last impoverished stretch by working as a go-go dancer. Though it was the perfect “day” job (the hours were from midnight to 3), the writing on the wall became evident when I was introduced to one of the city’s head drama critics while shaking my wares. “Yes, I did write that hit off-Broadway musical,” I told him, hoping he didn’t notice the sweaty dollar bills affixed to various parts of my anatomy.

“Your life has certainly changed!” people sometimes say, now that the show’s moved to Broadway, won a few Tony Awards and is poised to open at the Wynn Las Vegas resort. And it’s true, to some extent. Our lives have changed. Take, for example, Jeff Marx’s massage chair.

For the Vegas production of “Avenue Q,” we rewrote a few sections of the show that we wanted to improve. But in rehearsal we found that our improvements turned out to be hardly that. So it was time to go to work like in the old days, and we trudged to Jeff’s apartment nearby.

In front of his TV sat a massage chair.

Jeff had recently survived a difficult romantic breakup and bought the chair as consolation. You know the chairs — the ones in every Sharper Image store. I’d always snicker as I passed the dazed customers testing them, undulating as though possessed by a listless demonic presence.

But I gave Jeff’s chair a whirl. And I must say I found it quite lovely — its kneading mechanical fingers hitting the sides of my spine just right. Suddenly filled with a Zen-like calm, I found myself asking about upholstery options. When I disembarked, Jeff said, “You know? It’s nice. I can say ‘I’d like a massage chair,’ and I’m able to get one.’ ”

Our lives have changed. Jeff and Bobby moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. While I hang on to the rent-controlled apartment I’ve had for 12 years — all 8 by 22 feet of it — I bought a little house in the Catskills, where I write this now.

And life has changed in ways unrelated to “Avenue Q”: Bobby and his wife had an adorable daughter. I found a great boyfriend. Jeff found a partner as well, but now, since the breakup, I suppose his massage chair offers the perfect “Wanna drop by my place?” excuse.

So our lives have changed, yes. Improved? In many ways. But not in the manner we perhaps expected.

Hollywood came calling. My own experiences there led me to an unexpected discovery: I much, much, much prefer the world of theater. If at the end of my life my writing is seen only onstage, live, ephemeral, never to end up on screen or on the DVD rack at the Virgin Megastore, I can still die a happy man.

In theater, the writer is king. We have pull on practically everything, from casting to choosing directors to approving sets. And unlike in the worlds of film and TV, the writer is, well, powerful. We get to protect our little awkward, fledgling scripts until we feel they’re ready to show to others.

In my first few months of work on my first Hollywood script, I felt like a pregnant mother whose fetus was constantly being removed, rearranged and replaced. I dreaded that when the script was finished it would be like something out of the ‘70s horror flick “It’s Alive!”

Eventually, I embraced my submissive side and accepted this kind of collaboration. The relationship to the audience is utterly different in the screen trade, and I learned to work within its mechanisms.

But my experiences only confirmed what I’ve always suspected: Theater rules. The only disadvantage is that the pile of cash that stage offers is smaller than the pile of cash offered by film and TV. But on an artistic level, who can replace a live audience as the arbiter of your work? O ye gods of the film world, don’t tell me your film-screening questionnaires can compare to a live and laughing or restless or attentively hushed crowd. Theater is born and dies at the ending point: the audience. All the artist needs to do is listen and ruthlessly revise.

Writing “Avenue Q” forced Bobby, Jeff and me each to develop a strong set of audience-listening ears. During previews off-Broadway, we rewrote nearly half of the show in a month based on what we heard. Was the audience laughing? Did we seduce them into silence? And most important: Were they, on some level, moved?

I’ve always felt that what makes “Avenue Q” subversive is not that the puppets swear or have a love scene so flagrant that Tommy Lee would blush. There’s a moment in Act 2 when the audience becomes utterly silent, that beautiful silence when nobody dares cough or rustle, because they’ve come to care about a character going through a difficult time. This character, I might add, is made of foam and fur and googly eyeballs and sits on a puppeteer’s arm. The audience uses its own imaginations, not CGI, to relate to someone who couldn’t be less like them on the surface. What could be more subversive than that?

We owe our success to our audience, the collaborators who didn’t even realize it. They were with us all the way, telling us what they needed for “Avenue Q’s” offbeat journey. And they were there even when my plays were at dumpy theaters in the East Village, before success ever came. The audience will be there even if Bobby, Jeff and I blow all of our “Avenue Q” royalties at Texas Hold ‘Em during our time in Las Vegas and have to start anew.

So while our lives have changed, the live audience never will — they’re there, unpredictable, challenging, generous, demanding that they be taken on a beautifully executed journey. And no matter what the changes in my life may be, I hope to forever be their slave. It is their advice I want. The audience may not speak in bullet points, but its feelings couldn’t be clearer, from moment to moment, when an artist listens, ears pricked, in the theater.

It is my wish that every writer will find enough success to buy his own massage chair. Mine’s coming in four to six weeks. In teal.

Jeff Whitty won the 2004 Tony Award for best book of a musical for “Avenue Q.” His other works include “The Hiding Place,” “The Plank Project” and “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler,” which will open at South Coast Repertory on Jan. 13. “Avenue Q” opens Thursday at the Wynn Las Vegas.