Interview with Jeff Marx

Interview with Jeff Marx, writer of Avenue Q
Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street



Monday-Friday at 8pm
Saturdays at 2 and 8pm
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Additional Information

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Interview with Jeff Marx
writer of Avenue Q
by Corine Cohen

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Corine Cohen: How did you come up with the concept of "Avenue Q"?

Jeff Marx: My collaborator, Bobby Lopez, and I wanted to create a show that would appeal not only to musical theater fans, but also to people who didn't necessarily already love musicals. We found that one way to "allow" characters to sing was to use puppets -- because when human actors start breaking into song, a lot of today's audiences have a hard time accepting it, but when puppets start singing, somehow nobody has a problem with that. When Hugh Jackman starts breaking into song, people's brains tend to go, "Oh brother, here he goes again," but when the puppets start singing, somehow it seems natural. When you're already believing the puppet is real, it's not that much of a jump to believe it should start singing.

Anyway, so we wanted to create an adult show using puppets, and we thought it would be neat to create a world like the children's television shows we grew up with, but instead of having the puppet characters teach us how to read and count and get along, the puppets would instead teach us about things like coming out of the closet, dealing with breakups, having one-night stands, finding your purpose, getting along without your parents' money, etc.

CC: Who are the characters based on?

JM: We basically based the characters on ourselves and our friends. Bobby was just out of Yale undergrad, and I was just out of law school. He was temping at Pfizer, writing letters on their behalf to satisfied Viagra customers, and I was interning here and there for various Broadway producers, trying to learn the trade. We both realized that here we were with pretty advanced educations, and the only jobs available to us were entry-level brainless jobs where they weren't interested in us as talented, smart people, only as an extra set of hands to get coffee and such.

And we looked around and saw that so many of our friends were in the same situation, unsatisfied with their stupid jobs and barely making enough money to eat Ramen noodles and live in crummy little apartments out in Astoria and Brooklyn. Naturally, we thought this was pretty funny, and we decided to write a musical about this aspect of American society -- the whole generation of people our age who graduates from college thinking they're pretty special and then finds, to their shock, the rude reality that they're only about as special as everyone else. The characters in "Avenue Q" grew over time and became exaggerated, but they started out based on ourselves and specific friends of ours.

CC: Will you be making "Kermit the Prince of Denmark" into a film anytime soon?

JM: That was Bobby's and my first project together. In the spirit of wanting to write something that not just musical theater fans would see, we decided to write a spec Muppet movie, just for fun, just to develop our chops, and knowing that it would probably never see the light of day. In fact, the BMI Workshop encouraged us to just pick something we'd enjoy writing for our first project and not to worry about the rights. They said your first project probably won't get produced anyway, it'll just serve as a calling card, so just do something you'll enjoy and do well.

When we finished eight songs, however, we sent it in to the Kleban Award, and we actually won! As part of a tie, we shared part of $150,000. So, feeling sorta confident about the piece and all the great feedback we were getting from it, we found a way to get it to people at the Jim Henson Company. Unfortunately, this was before the movie "Chicago" brought movie musicals back into vogue, and the people there said they weren't making movie musicals anymore and they weren't interested.

So that, we thought, was the end of that, and we decided to give up on writing for The Muppets and instead create our own set of characters that wouldn't rely on somebody else's company to use. That became "Avenue Q." Of course, Henson then made its nonmusical movie, "Muppets From Space," which didn't do so well, and then they ended up selling what was left of the company to a huge German conglomerate, EMTV, which in turn went bankrupt and then sold the company back to the Henson family, which then sold it to Disney. (Whew.) So Disney now owns The Muppets, and we're in talks with them. They know and like the project, so we're hoping they'll actually make the movie someday -- but you just never know.

CC: In the song "Only for Now," you say "George Bush is only for now." All I can say is, I agree. As they say, "Fantasies Come True."

JM: People keep asking us what we'll change that line to if Kerry wins. We haven't thought specifically about what to change it to yet, but we're certainly hoping it comes to that.

CC: What are your views on same-sex marriage?

JM: If two human beings want to exchange vows and declare before each other, their families, their friends, the world and their God that they want to become a sacred union, I don't see why our government has any business stopping them because of their genitalia.

CC: I wanted to congratulate you on your three Tony awards.

JM: Thank you very much. Mine is in Florida at the moment, visiting with my parents for a while.

CC: What is next? You have found your "Purpose" and "It Does Not Suck to Be You."

JM: When "Avenue Q" opened on Broadway, we started getting all kinds of offers from Broadway producers, and we politely turned most of them down. Nearly all of them consisted of turning hit movies into stage musicals. Somebody's going to do a good job with those, but they didn't interest us as much as coming up with something original. We have three projects on our plate right now that we're excited about, besides developing a TV series based on "Avenue Q" (with all-new material). First up is a movie musical comedy we were hired to write for Universal Pictures. Basically, it's your typical Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler movie, but a musical, and we don't know who's going to star in it. But it's going to be funny. The second is a series for VH1 that's a sort of mockumentary/documentary-meets-musical, where Bobby and I will be walking around the city and breaking into song when the moments strike. And third, we're planning to write a stage musical about religion with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of "South Park." That one might take a while to get going, though, since they're so busy and we're so busy.

CC: Tell me about your upcoming project about religion.

JM: It's actually about a particular religion, but we don't want to say which one. But it's going to be smart and funny. It's going to actually apply to all religions in that every religion has myths and fables that are all pretty much equally ludicrous. But we're going to examine one in particular.

CC: Tell me about Las Vegas. It must be very exciting that you will be there and New York.

JM: About a year from now, a second production of "Avenue Q" will be opening at Steve Wynn's new Las Vegas hotel, Wynn Las Vegas. We were just out there a few weeks ago, meeting with Steve and touring the construction site. It's very exciting -- they're building a $43 million theater specifically to house the show! The hotel is going to be absolutely amazing. We think it's going to be a perfect second home for "Avenue Q."

CC: What is your favorite song in the show? Who is your favorite character? Are you Rod?

JM: I'd have to say my favorite song is "There's a Fine, Fine Line." Because that's the point where Kate Monster's heart has been broken because Princeton dumped her, and she sits quietly and intellectualizes about it for the first half of the song, before getting angry and lashing out against him. She takes a real emotional journey in that song, and the audience goes with her. I love that at that point in the show, the audience is so invested in the character and what's going on with her -- her hurt and her feelings -- that they've completely forgotten that she's a puppet. When I hear people sniffling and see them dabbing their eyes during that song, I know the storytelling is really succeeding, and that's tremendously rewarding. I'm not Rod. Don't tell my boyfriend, but I'm Trekkie.

Corine Dana Cohen, Associate Producer of the Drama Desk Awards, works as a freelance writer.

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