Interview with “Avenue Q” Executive Producer Stephen Gabriel
I had a chance to chat a bit with Stephen Gabriel, President of Work Light Productions. Work Light Productions is bringing the Tony Award winning musical, Avenue Q, to St. Louis at the Fabulous Fox Theatre on April 30th, where it will run until May 2nd. (Read our article about the production here.) He gave me some great insights on the production, and theatre in general.
Great! Well, you are in for a treat.
It looks awesome. Everything I’ve ever seen about it looks great. So, how did Work Light become involved with the national tour?
We’ve been in the business of working on and producing shows for the touring market for North America . We are also close colleagues of the original producers from the Broadway show. They wanted a little bit more exposure for the tour. We take shows from big markets like St. Louis, to smaller markets like Columbia.
So, we were able to get the rights to the show through our colleagues from New York. We didn’t have to do much with it, because the show was conceived so well, and built so perfectly. We just had to get a new company together, and reproduced what they did in New York. Our version is surprisingly faithful to what audience members would have seen in both St. Louis and New York.
What do you think of the original show moving from Broadway back to off Broadway?
I want to say, that might be one of the first times that has ever happened. This show is so unique in the audience that it appeals to. It plays well as a big musical, and as a small intimate musical. It has been a terrific success off Broadway, and I think it is going to run for a really long time.
It’s a new paradigm now. The lines between Broadway and off Broadway have blurred. A show can have a really long life, and it doesn’t need to play at a large capacity theater. It can go play in a small 500 seat theater , and play for an incredibly long time. The story is so good that it is just going to continue to draw audiences.
Does it ever draw the wrong crowd? It has some pretty adult themes, but played with puppets. Do people ever mistake what it is and bring children?
Actually, it is very rare. We’ve really taken concern in making marketing materials that really caution about bringing children. We’ve actually had a lot of fun with those marketing materials. It’s not really a straight up warning, but it is enough to warn not to bring the little ones. There is a lot of fun playing with the theme, and I think people really get the message.
What’s really interesting is the normal subscriber audience. People who might be expecting more straight up theater like, 42nd Street, or the like. What we’ve found, is that they might start the evening a little shocked. However, as the evening goes on we get very positive feedback from people who may not have bought a single ticket knowing what it was. They buy it being on a subscription, and then turn around and they are very happy they did.
This is its second national tour, correct?
Yup, we are going into year three now. It is probably end up going another year. After we wrap it up this summer, we are going to take it to Japan for two weeks. Then we are back in the States from January 2011 until the spring. In the summer of 2011 we go to Korea. We will be going on 4+ years before this tour winds down.
Wow, that’s incredible. Is it going to be shelved after that?
I think we probably will. The normal life for a tour is maybe two years out on the road. To hit four or five years is really spectacular. A lot of time only the biggest of the big shows do that. Then what happens you take it off the roads for a few seasons, and you have a whole revival of it. We are looking forward to having a long relationship with the show.
Do you as an executive producer travel with the show or do you run the show from your offices in New York?
What we do out of our office, we are kind of like the general managers of the tour if you equated it to baseball. We are making sure all the parts are playing right, from the road crew, the actors, to the musicians, and that everyone is operating properly. We go out probably every three or four weeks to check in. We have a whole management team that actually travels with the show.
Have you ever had the chance to be at the St. Louis Fabulous Fox Theatre?
Yeah, I love that theater, it is one of the old time classics. It is also a great market in St. Louis, and I think the show will play really well there.
Yeah, it is great just to step inside the theatre. It looks fantastic.
It is historical. It truly is. These theatres were built in a particular era that saw when theatre was becoming a very important thing in this country. Theatres like the Fox have a really great legacy, and it is awesome when we get to go in them.
Avenue Q is very heavily influenced by the Jim Henson Workshop, and Sesame Street. Have you guys gotten feedback from people involved with those groups?
I haven’t personally. I know that in the beginning there was some communication, and that we actually carried a disclaimer stating, “This show is not associated with Sesame Street in any way.” However, I think the writers of the show feel like it is a loving homage to it. A lot of us grew up on it, and it had an influence on you. There is nothing in it that mocks Sesame Street. In fact, if anything it pays tribute to it in a way that isn’t offensive. If you read a lot of the reviews we get from across the country, you see that people equate it with the life lessons it teaches you as a kid, Avenue Q teaches you as an adult. It rings really true, and the show is really honest that way. There is a parallel to the two that is really interesting.
There is a song in the play called The Money Song, where a character actually passes a hat around to the audience. I heard the money goes to a charity, what charity do the proceeds go to?
It goes to a charity by the name of the Valerie Foundation. It is a great organization based out of Monmouth, New Jersey. It raises money for children who get life threatening diseases like leukemia and cancer. It helps to make the troubling times they spend in the hospital a little bit more caring and comfortable.
In the show itself it is a mock money collection. One of the characters, Nicky, is living on the street and trying to collect money. Princeton tries to raise money for Kate’s school. It is actually all done in jest, but they do go out in the audience, and audience members do contribute money. We just wanted to have a place for it to go that was legitimate. So, while we are having fun, the money does go to a worthy cause.
You are on the board for International Performing Arts for Youth, how did you get involved with that?
When we first started our company, one of the original avenues we pursued was creating theatre for young audiences. I have three children, aged 5 to 11. We would read them books, and we decided to start getting the rights for them. We got the rights to things like Flat Stanely and A Year with Frog and Toad. We’ve actually played St. Louis a number of times with these shows. We created these musicals for a young audience. It is something we were all passionate about doing. They are the next generation of theatre goers. I think live theatre is very important for kids. We’ve spent a lot of time developing new works that hit that age group.
It is kind of funny that we are doing a show like Avenue Q, which isn’t really for kids, but it is based on children’s theatre and television.
Through that work though, I got involved with International Performing Arts for Youth, and it is a terrific organization. It does great work at supporting theatre throughout the country, and internationally as well.
Do you think theatre has taken a bit of a hit over the past few years? With people instead spending more time in cinemas?
Theatre seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance, even with the recession we’ve had the last few years. There really is no replacement for people getting into a theatre. I find it very similar to sporting events, when the crowd gets going it gets a lot more exciting. Even in a movie theatre you don’t tend to get the same reactions.
I was actually in Minneapolis last week where we were playing. The audience consisted a lot of late 20s to late 40s. It isn’t what you normally see. There is a lot of new work bringing in younger crowds. Things like our show Avenue Q, Rent, and there is a new show coming out on Broadway featuring music by Green Day. The theatre form is being used so well now by pop and rock musicians, the people who speak well for these younger age groups. We are in a really exciting time of new theatre.
Yeah, it would be hard to convince some of my friends to go to a musical, but I think something like Avenue Q might be different.
If they are in their 20s or 30s, and they just really aren’t into musicals because they don’t like the form. I think Avenue Q is the show to see for people like that. The music is easily accessible, and the story is real easy to relate to. It is about getting out of college, and finding your way in life. Everyone relates to that. Younger people who haven’t experienced live musical theatre, this is the show they should go see.