Avenue Q(ueasy)

It’s a good Q’s, bad Q’s situation …

Bad Q – er, news: After a run lasting more than six years and 2,534 performances, the Broadway production of Avenue Q at the John Golden Theatre closed on September 13, 2009. I loved Avenue Q, and I wanted very badly to see it one more time (I’ve been twice), but it wasn’t possible. I would have loved Ave Q if I hadn’t known a couple of people in the cast. It was shocking, it was sweet, it was one of the funniest things on the planet, and it was a pocketful-of-tissues kind of show: you’ll laugh till you cry, and cry till you laugh. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. (“George Bush! Is only for now…” That song alone does just what I just said.) It only ended on Broadway (the 21st longest-running show!) because the theatre managers wanted to bring in a show with a big name star. Well, you know, what are six Tony Awards? Sheesh. (For the record, it was replaced by Oleanna, which closed fairly quickly due to poor ticket sales. Idiots.)

Good news: Last week I had an email inviting me to come back to Q (“come multiple times!”) – they were opening at New World Stages for another Off Broadway run. (Wait – they announced this right after the show closed on Broadway? It’s been open Off Broadway since October? … Oh.) Wonderful! I was very sad when Q ended, for several reasons.

Bad news: My old friend Jen, the final remaining original cast member, is not part of this cast. Maybe that’s why she didn’t let me know about the Off-Broadway production?  So, not only were the producers stupid in not offering her the larger roles as they became available, they didn’t keep her on  for this?

(ETA: OK, I’m confused. According to the cast list on the (woefully un-updated) website (“Avenue Q will re-open Off-Broadway at New World Stages later this fall”), which I checked after I received the email, no original cast members whatsoever. Then I just stumbled on an article: she returned to the show at the beginning of May. ?  I give up.)

Worse news: Gary Coleman passed away on May 28.

I don’t remember whether I had been filled in on the cast of characters before we went to see it, or whether “Gary!!” took me by surprise. It was ridiculous, it was sublime: Gary Coleman, former child star, was a character in Avenue Q – played, I think across the board (wait – not in London), by a young black woman. I think we only ever saw the original actor: Natalie Venetia Belcon, who was phenomenal. The character of Gary Coleman – as opposed to the real person – was the superintendant of the apartment building where they all lived, and was actually presented pretty sympathetically. “From the very beginning,” Mr. Whitty said, “when we wrote the show, he represented a certain spunkiness and attempting to overcome life’s disappointments.” – I get that. I got that. He was the one the others turned to; he was sort of the grown-up of the group. Which I suppose highlights the patheticness of the characters’ lives. The song “It Sucks To Be Me”, in which characters argue about who has the worst life (my theme song), ends as he comes on: “I’m Gary Coleman, from TV’s Diff’rent Strokes; I had a lot of money that got stolen by my folks” – to the unanimous conclusion “It sucks to be you!” “The world needs people like us” “Who’ve been knocked around by fate’/’Cause when people see us, they don’t want to be us” – “Try having people stopping you to ask you, ‘What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?’ It gets old.” It didn’t feel like cruelty, though I’m never altogether comfortable with real people being used in fiction. I guess I just assumed they had his permission. Which, sort of, they did. And didn’t. I never got around to checking until now.

Worst news (depending on how you look at it): The character is staying in the show.

The New York Times has an online article about it, and quite frankly the tone of both Jeff Whitty, book writer for the show, and Danielle K. Thomas, who played Gary on tour and now Off Broadway, was more along the lines of “thank God we have jobs” and “thank God we don’t have to do too much to the show” than “what a shame a man who had a crappy life has died”.

On May 28, 2010, the real life Gary Coleman died from complications of a brain hemorrhage. Following his death, Off Broadway announced that the show would be dedicated to Coleman. They released a statement saying, “The creators, producers, and company of Avenue Q are terribly saddened to hear of the death of Gary Coleman, whose tremendous gifts brought delight and inspiration to audiences around the world. While everything in life may be only for now, we suspect that Gary’s legacy will live on for many years to come. Gary’s memory will certainly endure in the hearts and minds of those of us who live on Avenue Q. When the show concludes tonight at 10pm at New World Stages, Danielle K. Thomas, who portrays Mr. Coleman in the musical, will pay a tribute to him from the stage.” [< Vocabulary word for the day: “Plug”. Can you say “plug”? I knew you could.]

“We probably cut 20 words out of 1 million from the show tonight,” Mr. Whitty said. [Like changing “former child star” to “child star” – excuse me? How did “former” make that one of the offensive lines?]

At the Friday night curtain call, Danielle K. Thomas, who plays Coleman, gave a tearful speech in honor of the real-life man, referencing the show’s opening number by saying, “I just want to say that, for me, it has never sucked to be Gary Coleman.”

Which I’m sure was lovely – and apparently the audience was appreciative, but then why wouldn’t they be? They had their tickets, some of them anyway, before Gary Coleman died, and the ones who bought their tickets knowing the situation were probably ghouls.

What bothers me most is this Gary Coleman quote, from various sources, heard at the 2007 New York Comic Con: “I wish there was a lawyer on Earth that would sue them for me.” Apparently, though he initially seemed to approve the character, he faded out of the discussions, and after a few years of it, apparently, became weary of it. Could it have been desperation for money? Maybe. Could it have been a desire not to be mocked any more? Probably. Gentle as the mockery was, sympathetic as it was, funny as it was – I loved the character – it was borderline. In short, it was only funny when Gary Coleman was alive. (Based on this quote, it shouldn’t have been funny then either – but I went with the “gentle and sympathetic” thing and didn’t look into it – and, for what it’s worth, both times I saw the show were – I think – before that quote came out.)

“After watching it tonight, I would miss him too much,” Mr. Whitty said. “Personally, I would miss him terribly.”

Well – tough. I would miss him too; like I said, it was a strange and wonderful concept, the having of a woman playing the man and the having of the man as a character … but he was a wonderful character in the show. Better, I certainly would think, than one of the Hungarian production that use Michael Jackson; that’s a little obvious, isn’t it? Still, that production and those which use a local pseudo-celebrity in Israel and Mexico show it can be done: change the show. Show some integrity. Apart from George Bush in one line, Gary Coleman was, iirc, the only individual singled out by name in the show (in a very great deal more than one line).

And you know what I just realized, which is what makes me a little queasy? Queasier even than the rest of it, I mean: this is prime publicity for Q. There were several articles in the NYT and NYT Magazine, and the story was picked up everywhere – Mom saw it on our news.

Profit out of other people’s pain – I think that qualifies as Schadenfreude. I’ve been a huge Ave Q fan for seven years, but this kills it.  I’m really, really sorry to find such a lack of conscience. Damn, I’ll miss Q.

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