Sixteen years have passed since the original performance of Avenue Q at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, a venue so intimately claustrophobic that it makes the Merrimack Valley High School auditorium look like the TD Garden. Within a few months of that low-profile premiere, Avenue Q went on to become a Broadway bonanza, winning the most prestigious of the Tony Awards before achieving some success overseas. I’ve wanted to see the play for more than a decade now, but, as far as I’m aware, no professional production has ever been staged in New Hampshire—that is, not until this past Thursday, when the Winnipesaukee Playhouse in Belmont raised its curtains on the first of eleven performances.
My first conscious memory of Avenue Q dates back to 2008, when I came across a mash-up music video, assembled by someone on YouTube, that set the song “The Internet is for Porn” to footage of World of Warcraft. We’re speaking of a time when YouTube was still in its toddler stage, a few years before it became a cultural staple, and when literally anyone who mastered the fundamentals of Windows Movie Maker could command some level of respect. This was true even of this video, which so sloppily synchronized the music and the gameplay that it was all but impossible to find out what was happening. As was likely true of most of its viewers, I watched it just for the song, the source of which I knew nothing about.
For those still outside the know, Avenue Q is a sexually explicit parody of Sesame Street, originally produced by a number of veterans of that program. A deliberately ridiculous Bildungsroman, the play transplants the saccharine themes of Sesame Street to the crude and unromantic environment of the supposedly grown-up, living in poverty on the periphery of New York City. Several of the musical numbers teach a straightforward life lesson, not unlike those performed on Sesame Street, but with much more vulgar themes. If you’ve heard a single song from this play, it is likely either the aforementioned “The Internet is for Porn”, “If You were Gay”, or “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, all of which can be understood in and of themselves, even if one knows literally nothing else about the play.
On the other hand, if you haven’t heard of any of these songs, then perhaps you hesitated just for a moment when you read the last of those three titles. Certainly, there’s no need to explain to you the substance or the meaning of that song: it explains how prejudice is ubiquitous, even universal, but it argues also that, if we acknowledge the bigotry that is endemic to all, then we would probably have a little more success in developing and maintaining friendships. Sounds like a delightful and refreshingly candid message, don’t you think? No? Do you think it’s a dangerous message, maybe even an offensive message, one which seeks to perpetuate the seemingly endless suffering of the minorities in this country by equating their bias to that of the whites who daily repress them?
If so, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of the song. The song does not examine racism as a social or governmental institution; instead, it looks upon racism as a personal element, as a single manifestation of the broader problem. Obviously, this analysis is limited, even narrow—but only if “the goal” is teleological, if “the goal” is to provide an exhaustive, comprehensive description of racism. Not only is this goal plainly impossible, but it is not the goal that was pursued when the song was composed, so why would someone accuse the songwriters of failing in their task—or of committing moral malfeasance, as the case may be—when the two criteria are clearly unalike?
Much more can and should be written on the irrationality of this objection, but for now, let us note that the objection has been raised. Curiously, this objection was unheard when the play became a minor pop culture phenomenon a decade ago, and it is only now, in the ongoing culture of political correctness, that a song such as this would be examined firstly as a problem. In other words, the first order of business, so we have decided, is to identify what is wrong with the song, rather than to identify what the song is. That is both an obstacle to understanding and an impediment to inquiry, the nature of which we are still struggling to grasp and comprehend in the Trumpish Age.
Not only this is an obstacle and an impediment; it is also a reduction, a reduction of the song to a single and immediate judgment, one which has not been scrutinized or questioned by the delivering person. You might dismiss the significance of this, as we are speaking only of a silly song, but if we continue to indulge the bad psychic habit that results in this misguided judgment, then we will be in awful shape, indeed. The first action taken after this misguided judgment is delivered is most likely to censor the song, to demand that it be changed in future performances, solely to satisfy the suspicious desires of the self-appointed moral judge, a judge whose credentials can never be questioned.
Accordingly, I was worried that the material of Avenue Q would be revised before its performance at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse. I suspected that its message, however honorably intended, would be deemed unpalatable in these times of perpetual political warfare. Honestly, I was surprised to see that the play was being performed at all: when the characters—most of them white, but one of them black, and one of them Asian—plead with the audience and with the world to “stop being so PC”, an inattentive or dishonest viewer might believe that the production was financed by Trump’s re-election campaign. No matter the characters, during the final number, reassure us that Trump is “only for now”; to the zealot, this disclaimer is far too little, far too late. [See endnote.]
I’m pleased to report that this rendition at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse wasn’t censored at all. In fact, with the exception of a single verse in the “Schadenfreude” number, the performance wasn’t even amended—and for the record, the verse in question obviously was not omitted for political reasons, though this raises the question of why it was omitted at all. Nope, every volatile element of the original production remained: the character Christmas Eve, who was perfectly portrayed by a woman named Amelia Fei, still speaks in lallation; Gary Coleman isn’t upset for more than seven seconds when he hears Kate Monster tell a racist joke; and the same Kate, in “The Internet is for Porn”, is surrounded by men who sing about their masturbation habits.
However, to provide a decontextualized summary of some of the play’s cruder moments is to miss the point completely. Yes, Christmas Eve’s opaque accent is repeatedly sullied, but her character is probably the only one in the play who isn’t a hapless imbecile. Yes, Gary Coleman’s demeanor is often reminiscent of a minstrel performer, but his character embodies the spirit of affirmation of life that enables his neighbors to embrace their absurdities and failings and persist. And yes, Kate has to listen to a lot of anatomical vulgarities, but she also declares, “I hate men,” so there’s that.
I mean, if you watch Avenue Q and spend the entire performance sulking in your chair, ruminating bitterly on the play’s political inadequacies, then maybe you should pay particular attention to the penultimate scene: when Princeton attempts to declare his superiority of wisdom to the new kid on the block, his pretension and presumptuousness are made immediately apparent, and the kid responds by raising his middle finger in his face.
You don’t have all the answers, and neither do I. Let’s take a couple of hours and just have fun, okay? Jesus.