No one wants to begrudge viewers (especially paying viewers) a little low humor. As Mike Huckabee's favorite essayist G.K. Chesterton once observed, vulgarity is "a God-given holiday from the intellect." Everyone needs an occasional vacation. Of greater concern is the sense that Avenue Q might be a telling reflection of the current state of the American musical. We've traversed a long downward spiral from Oklahoma!'s life-affirming opening number, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," to Avenue Q's opener "It Sucks to Be Me."
As this mini-saga about life, love and sexual identification in a ratty neighborhood on the outer fringes of New York City plays out, there's enough double-entendre and outright crassness to embarrass everyone. But to what purpose? The jaunty ditty "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" is a prime example of the show's duplicity. Despite a pretense that the song is parodying intolerance, the brash lyrics are pushing reflex buttons that should make us all feel smaller for having laughed in the first place. Parody be damned. It turns out that we in the audience are the puppets, and the strings of our baser instincts are being pulled.
Yet Avenue Q is the little show that knocked off the mighty Wicked and the Pulitzer Prize-caliber Caroline, or Change for the 2004 Tony Award as Best Musical. We all know that awards aren't to be taken seriously. But when this score, with songs like "The Internet is for Porn," is more admired than Stephen Schwartz's addictive music in Wicked and Jeanine Tesori's powerful tirades in Caroline, an unsettling statement is being made about the dim future of the Broadway musical. Let's face it: Lyrics like "grab your dick and double click" are not quite in the Ira Gershwin-Larry Hart-Stephen Sondheim orbit.
The performers who operate the puppets, especially Robert McClure and Kelli Sawyer, are amazingly adept at what they do. I also was amused by the appealing charm of an oafish neighbor played by Cole Porter. (With a name like that, how could he not be charming?) Porter's large girth and breezy manner make him an ideal tenant for the Fox stage. Which raises another concern. Despite a set that is way too busy and even distracting for this show, Avenue Q is too intimate a piece to fill this playing space. The New York production is ensconced in one of the smallest theaters on Broadway. But at the Fox, straining to see these puppets is like watching a show through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. By the time the evening is over, you've had to work really hard.
We'll give the show's creators this: They know their youth-skewing, Muppet-loving audience. Presumably this target audience is the same crowd that has grown up laughing at one-liners from Letterman and Stewart. That's mostly what we get here: one-liners. One amusing bit in which a popping Champagne cork is confused for a suicidal pistol shot was funnier in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, another tale of loneliness among New Yorkers. At least the Avenue Q writers are stealing their material from the best. But to suggest that songs about sex and racism will encourage young people to support musical theater is the same specious argument that if kids read comic books they'll find Shakespeare. Fat chance.