Last night I saw Avenue Q and had many a hardy laugh and a surprising number of tears. Proud to say I discovered and championed the show long before the rest of the world – about ten years ago. This was my first time seeing it in its finished form.
It seems to me songwriters Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx happened on a terrific idea – to depict the indignities of unmoored young people using the format of Sesame Street – and this set up certain parameters that allowed their fine songwriting wit to shine. The characters talk like contemporary twenty-somethings, and the tunes mimic the simple pop you hear in America’s most-admired children’s show. It’s a felicitous combination, and, naturally, the human-puppet interaction also gives rise to a lot of humor (and some ribaldry).
The importance of parameters cannot be overstated. It’s difficult to write in a vacuum. I’m currently struggling to write a silly doo-wop song, and the struggle is tied to the fact I’ve been given only one parameter: it’s got to be doo-wop. But Lopez & Marx had a mold to use, and came up with great didactic songs about racism, acceptance of homosexuals, and what to do when you get a jury summons (Tear It Up and Throw It Away – since cut).
Many singers I know are attracted to the lovelorn ballad, It’s a Fine Fine Line but there are many similar tunes out there that I think are stronger. For me, the highlights of the score are truly unique ideas for songs, like You Can Be Loud As the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love), The Internet Is For Porn and Schadenfreude. I can’t think of anything that compares with those.
The more I think about Avenue Q, the more I think it illustrates the idea that if you have really strong ideas for songs, execution is almost secondary. Perhaps better songs could have been made out of Purpose or that fund-raising number, but, as I was drying my eyes after I Wish I Could Go Back To College, it struck me that this is just about as good a score as we’ve seen in the past 25 years. Sure, we’re only a tenth of the way through, but I’ve no trouble calling Avenue Q the best musical comedy of the 21st Century, so far.