And though you would expect Avenue Qto be in as close touch as possible to the current scene, most of its activities, jokes, and comments seem to belong to a distant past. Are there really a lot of young stockbrokers in the closet in 2003? (When last heard from before the crash, the big Wall Street houses were actively recruiting presentable token gays. Has niche marketing suddenly died?) Is it really middle-aged folks who crowd the city's noisy restaurants, singles bars, and late-night dance clubs? The only time Avenue Q's characters go out, it's to see a local performer in a nearby cabaret. I think video rentals are mentioned once, but neither puppets nor full-figure actors evince any interest in movies or TV, nor conduct elaborate relationships via chat sites and instant messaging. ("The Internet," one number dismissively tells us, "is for porn.") And isn't this the generation whose twin gods are gossip and celebrity? Avenue Q's only bow in that direction is to feature a famously washed-up ex-sitcom star (vivaciously burlesqued by Natalie Venetia Belcon) as the super of the building where its curious folk reside. But is Gary Coleman still funny? (For that matter, was he ever?)
For all its deficiencies, Avenue Q (already rumored to be moving to Broadway) has a fair amount of amusement to offer. It's certainly an improvement over the kind of Brit-Broadway megalith musicals, now slowly dying one by one, that tried to bash you over the head with their importance. The current Broadway musical (Producers, Hairspray) is coarse, lighthearted, spoofy, and cozily based in some pleasant media corner of the not-too-distant past. It's the equivalent of comfort food, after a ghastly meal, two decades long, of indigestible proletarian cooking gussied up expensively for the carriage trade. Who wouldn't want a little apple pie and ice cream, after years and years of dried-out boiled beef and carrots, hard to swallow even with the designers pouring on the nouvelle-cuisine horseradish?
photo: Joan Marcus
Zanna, Don't!: urbane cowpersons
Zanna, Don't! By Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris
John Houseman Theater
450 West 42nd Street
Avenue Q By Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty
108 East 15th Street
Still, the musical can't stay in this giddy interregnum forever; eventually it's got to stop looking backward and smirking, just as it had to stop posing earnestly with its artistic nose in the air. Eventually it has to live in the present, and in the theater; it has to stop living off remaindered movies and TV shows, just as it had to stop living off the lumpy Great Books list of the Lloyd Webber-Boublil-Schonberg era. With the smaller orchestras mandated by the new Musicians Union contract, the most sensible tactic for Broadway might be the most daring: to drop amplification altogether, and invent an unplugged sound that would not only suit the theaters' acoustics but would also guarantee, permanently, that the musical theater sounded like itself, and not like a recycled imitation of something else. If in the meantime I prefer Zanna, Don't! to Avenue Q, it's because the former at least lives in the present, while the latter is trying desperately to retreat to the same past it aims to ridicule.