The songs that comforted us in childhood are the dangerous ones—the “wicked old songs” of Schubert’s famous Lied. They make us feel that everything’s all right again, or at least that it’s going to be. The funny part is that you need their comfort most when you’re still young: Adult responsibilities loom, but who wants to deal with them? And when life gets to be too much for you, what’s warmer to wrap yourself in than a security blanket of the music you heard as a kid? You’re always aware, of course, that this regression will do you no good in the long run, and the lurking discomfort of that awareness is the reason works exploiting childhood nostalgia usually contain either satiric subversion or a nightmare climax—the guilty pleasure carries its own punishment.
The two young shows that opened on consecutive nights last week neatly illustrate opposite approaches to the difficulties involved in being young and looking back. Zanna, Don’t!, subtitled “a musical fairy tale,” is a therapeutic fantasy for outsiders trying to outlive the traumas of high school. Avenue Q is a joshing quasi-revue that uses TV to get a grip on the post-college traumas of entering the work world. Ironically, it’s the supposed adult show that supplies sentimental escape; though more cleverly wrought, Avenue Q retreats, as a whole, into a toddlers’ mishmash. Zanna, Don’t!, despite writing that’s weaker point by point than its rival’s, shoulders its dramaturgic responsibilities like an adult, and ends up being both better fun and more coherent theater as a result.
Zanna, Don’t!‘s musical palette is like an oldies AM-station mix that you might have listened to in junior high almost any time in the post-Elvis era. Until its hero, Zanna, started conversing with birds, I half thought its opening number was an instant replay of Hairspray‘s “Good Morning, Baltimore.” Things are very different, however, in the alt-world where Zanna resides: Gay is not only good, but dominant. Kids have either two moms or two dads (the school board is having a big debate on whether or not to add that scandalous book Heather Has One Mommy and One Daddy to the school library); high school football players envy the chess champions for being sex symbols; and the burning issue on which the student leaders want to center the spring musical is whether or not to allow heteros in the military.
What keeps this from getting schematic is that writers Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris, with director Devanand Janki, have really imagined, as well as structured, their mirror-image world. The foolery, the pop-art colors (including a broad lavender stripe across the middle of the set), and the engaging young cast all trick you into lowering your defenses, so that the creators can hit you, at the end, with a very elegant double whammy. The result is a musical-with-a-moral, suitable for teenage audiences, in which the moral, gratifyingly, is dramatized rather than lectured at you. The writing rides low in the water for adult entertainment, though Janki’s spirited staging and frolicsome spoof choreography offer a cure for gloomsters of all ages. (A high point of the dancing is a hilarious bull-riding number, in pre-opening homage to Urban Cowboy.) The shortfall hardly matters: Whatever its commercial fate Off-Broadway, Zanna, Don’t! will most likely be the high school musical of choice for the next dozen years—undoubtedly stirring up First Amendment fights in six out of 10 locales. While it’s with us, praise should be applied to the performances of Anika Larsen, Robb Sapp, and Jared Zeus. The relentless good cheer of Jai Rodriguez, as the title character (a romantic enabler with a magic wand), wore me down slightly, but you have to admire his ability to sustain it.
If only the makers of Avenue Q had something like that sustaining power. But no; they start out by parodying Sesame Street, a bite-size place built for the limited attention spans of preschoolers, and to the bite-size inconsequence of Sesame Street they return at last. That the infant-geared songs take up wacky adult topics—teaching words like “Schadenfreude” and moral apothegms like “Everyone’s a little bit racist”—doesn’t make the songs themselves any more adult in essence, and doesn’t particularly help the show hold together. The same stricture applies to the sight of puppet master Rick Lyon’s shaggy post-Muppet creations, who make up half the cast, having sex or whacking off to downloaded porn. You don’t have to go back to the Bunraku to research puppet sexuality, which has been commonplace in the U.S. since the days of Wayland Flowers. The joke is only for people who grew up on Sesame Street to see Muppet-like figures designed by a Henson disciple doing it.
I don’t mean that Avenue Q executes its little diversions badly. Within their limits, the songs are ingenious and well-turned. And the puppetry (Muppetry?) is first-rate. Lyon, injured by a fall during previews, was contributing only puppet voices from offstage at the press performances, but Stephanie d’Abruzzo and John Tartaglia, singing and acting while carrying on the bulk of the puppet manipulation, are outstanding performers on all fronts. What’s dispiriting is that, having announced its central topic—the misery of twentysomethings faced with a suddenly terrifying adult world—Avenue Q has such meager perceptions of it to offer. Surprisingly little of the action derives from the actual life and condition of Gens X and Y. Alternating with tiny blips of mild satire, the plot consists of boy meeting girl, dumping girl, and in the end doing something public-spirited for her people out of guilt. This is more moralistic than Zanna, Don’t!, even with a climactic number that tells you doing good things for others is a great way to bolster your own ego. (It only begins to hint, too, at the causes that are driving the young into less self-interested activity.)
And though you would expect Avenue Q to 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?
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.