When Avenue Q first appeared on Broadway in 2003, many of the obvious failures of the self-esteem movement felt like they were just starting to sink in. Youngish people weaned on the saccharine messages of 1970s children’s television were now adults, reconciling themselves to an adult world in which dreams don’t always come true, everyone is not special, and—sorry—you can’t be anything you want to be.
Somewhere along the way, these realizations bred a collective sense of betrayal: Sesame Street duped us! And those feelings were perfectly captured in Avenue Q, which featured a motley crew of Muppet-like characters confronting real-world issues from commitment-phobia and racism to internet porn and unemployment. The show was the breakout hit of the season and went on to win best musical at the 2004 Tony Awards.
Despite being rooted in era-specific pop culture (a fictionalized Gary Coleman is one of the main characters), Avenue Q has proved surprisingly durable, running on Broadway for six years before transferring to off-Broadway in 2009, where it has remained in production ever since. Last month it celebrated its 15th anniversary, an impressive feat in an industry where the average run of an original musical is less than 350 performances.
I recently spoke with Kevin McCollum, one of the show’s original producers, about what makes Avenue Q an enduring hit. With three Best Musical Tonys under his belt, McCollum is among the most successful Broadway producers of the last 20 years, with credits that include Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, in addition to the currently running The Play That Goes Wrong.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Fast Company: Take me back to the beginning of when you were first introduced to Avenue Q and when you first realized there was something special there.
Kevin McCollum: I was first introduced to the show when [puppeteer] Rick Lyon came into my office with [show creators] Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez. Rick walked in with Nicky the puppet, and Jeff and Bobby started talking about their show . . . Nicky the puppet starts talking [in a Nicky voice], “Well, it’s really great to be here, Kevin.” And I said, “Well, thank you,” and I was immediately taken that I was really having a conversation with a puppet about their idea for a TV show.
FC: That’s how it first started? It was going to be a TV show?
KM: Well, that was their instinct because they were working in the television world … We started doing some workshops, and it was clear the whole idea—because they were writing a kind of TV show—it was a little too episodic. I think the real breakthrough was we very quickly realized that we needed a book writer, and Jeff Whitty and [director] Jason Moore joined the team, and we shaped it into a stage musical.
FC: When I saw it years ago, I remember thinking it was a very Gen-X kind of a show. It used the language of 1970s children’s television to transmit grownup disappointments. As it’s gone on, now it seems like some of those same stereotypes apply to millennials. Is there a difference in the way older versus younger generations have reacted to it?
KM: No. I think this is the secret to the show: Avenue Q is a place that every young person coming to New York or a big city goes through, unless they come from a lot of privilege. If you really think about it, we spend a lot of money on training our children, and educating our children, until they’re 21 years old, and then go all the way through college—and then it’s, “Okay, you’re on your own.” And we kick them out of the nest.
There’s a lot in our show that is timeless about a young person finding their voice and finding their tribe. It’s really a show about being on your own. I’m 56. At the time, I was 41 when I produced it, but I know what it was like when I was an actor, and worked acting gigs, and had a roommate … There’s never been a show to really talk about that period of time in a young person’s life, and that is a rejuvenating audience. Every freshman year, there are kids from all over America, that now might have heard about Avenue Q, who make a pilgrimage to see it.
FC: Some of the humor is, I don’t want to say dated, but some of what we consider appropriate to joke about might not be the same as it was 15 years ago, or it’s definitely evolving.
KM: Could you give me an example?
FC: Well, you make jokes about racism, and it’s not always in a punching-up kind of way.
KM: Well, I will say this. I think the wonderful thing about our show is we’ve never tried to be politically correct, but we are human truthful, and human beings are often quote-unquote inappropriate, especially young people trying to find their way. The song Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, I think, is a very important song, because what you try to pretend that you deny yourself can sometimes actually come out in another way. So the idea is, if we could all admit we’re all a little bit racist, maybe we could all relax with each other a little bit more, and we’d all get along a lot better.
FC: Some of the references feel frozen in time. Not necessarily in a bad way, but you have Gary Coleman in there. You have “the internet is about porn,” which, of course, it’s not about porn anymore—maybe it wasn’t even in 2004 . . . I wonder if there’s ever been any discussion about updating some of those references, throwing a reference to Snapchat in there to make it more modern?
KM: It’s a good idea. We haven’t gone there because, again, I would argue that I’m not sure you’re correct that the internet is not still for porn—in terms of the most lucrative businesses on the internet
FC: Certainly a debate worth having.
KM: It’s something that we may or may not look at. Our job as producers is to support the authors, and the good news is that human beings are human beings and rite of passage is rite of passage. Rents are expensive, and you have to find who you want to date, and who you are, and how you feel about all kinds of ethical and life lessons. I think what makes it really work is that children’s television was there to teach young people how to say “thank you” and be polite, and we’re using the children’s television format to give them life lessons. And even if we’re not the most specific on the latest technology, we are very specific on the universal heart of what it’s like to get through your day as a young person trying to find your voice in a big town.
FC: I read back in 2013 that there was a film version in the works. Is there any news on that front?
KM: It’s always in discussion. I am hopeful—sooner than later.
FC: The movie business has a special way of keeping things in development for a very long time.
KM: [Laughs] That’s a magazine called Not So Fast.