It’s a Saturday afternoon on Granville Island, and outside the Arts Club, crowds of shoppers and tourists move in the usual waves of bustle and chaos. Nothing is out of the ordinary. But inside and up the stairs of the venerable theatre company, there’s graphic, hot puppet sex going on. The fur is flying, so to speak, and nobody can stop laughing. Puppets giving blow jobs? Yep, this is Avenue Q.
The Tony Award–winning musical about facing the crap-tastic realities of post-college life and figuring out one’s purpose celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. That’s a decade of shocking audiences and making them squirm and giggle with songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn”. And, of course, choreographing puppet sex.
“It was a hilarious moment yesterday,” director Peter Jorgensen says during a lunch-break interview with the Straight. “All the puppeteers around the bed were going, ‘What about this position? We could flip her this way? Could she jack him off? No, that doesn’t read.’ ”
“We’re trying to find as many different sex positions as possible and we’re like, ‘Are we that vanilla?’ It was surreal,” Jeny Cassady chimes in, laughing.
Cassady is the unofficial puppet guru for the show. The Vancouver-based former actor has spent most of the last decade working with puppets in TV and film. She hasn’t appeared on-stage in a musical in at least 12 years, but she couldn’t resist the allure of Avenue Q.
“My favourite thing about the whole show is that it’s adult,” Cassady says with a laugh. “It takes this traditional, cute loveliness of puppets—and I’m referring back to all the days of people going, ‘Oh, you’re a puppeteer? My kid needs a birthday party puppet. Could you come out for that?’ It just brings me such great joy to have a show and, yes, there’s a puppet and, yes, they have sex! There’s nipples on this puppet! Look at it!”
“I think my parents might be a little shocked,” Jorgensen admits. “But Avenue Q took musical comedy to a new place. They’ve honoured the past and pushed the form further. Without Avenue Q, we wouldn’t have Book of Mormon. It opened up new possibilities for mainstream, commercial, edgy musical comedy. It’s great for the art form as a whole to realize, ‘Oh, musical comedy can be so much more than Guys and Dolls.’ ”
Indeed, this show is something of a cultural and generational touchstone, focusing on Princeton, a new college grad who moves into a shabby New York apartment and meets an array of colourful 20-somethings trying to make it in the Big Apple. It explores universal themes of what it means to grow up, fall in love, and be happy, and whether those three things can even coexist. And while most everyone can agree that dirty puppets are awesome, what’s made Avenue Q such a resounding success isn’t just its shock-and-awe trappings. What draws Jorgensen, Cassady, and everybody back to the show, time and again, is that this little off-Broadway musical dared to use puppets to ask big questions, and packs a surprisingly emotional punch.
“There are so many great things in the show: the music, the lyrics, the story,” Jorgensen says. “But for me it’s the heart—the beautiful, furry heart of Avenue Q that makes it worthwhile.”