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'Avenue Q' Songwriters Lopez and Marx

Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx are the songwriting team behind the 2004 Tony award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q (which won Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical). Their subversive show features people and puppets and is about a group of aimless 30-somethings with low expectations and active libidos. It includes such songs as It Sucks to be Me, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist, If You Were Gay, and I Wish I could Go Back to College.

31:32

Other segments from the episode on August 2, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 2, 2004: Interview with Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; Interview with Red Grooms; Review of Dale Peck's “Hatchet Jobs.”

Transcript

DATE August 2, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx discuss their
Broadway musical "Avenue Q"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Broadway musical "Avenue Q" won three Tony awards this year--best musical,
best original score and best book of a musical. My guests, Robert Lopez and
Jeff Marx, wrote the songs and came up with the show's original concept.
Their idea was to write a musical that took the kind of songs and puppets that
they grew up with watching "Sesame Street" and imagine what it would be like
if those puppets sang songs that gave advice to young, mixed-up adults about
being single, finding a job, coming out and so on. New York Times theater
critic Ben Brantley wrote, `The songwriting of Lopez and Marx demonstrates
that ambivalence, indecision and low expectations can be the basis for a
thoroughly infectious musical.' The cast of the show includes actors and
puppets. Here's a song about political correctness that's called "Everyone's
A Little Bit Racist," and it's sung by a group of white, African-American and
Asian actors, along with several puppets.

(Soundbite from "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist")

Mr. JOHN TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Say, Kate, can I ask you a question?

Ms. STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Sure.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, you know, Trekkie monster upstairs?

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Uh-huh.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, he's Trekkie Monster and you're Kate
Monster.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Right.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) You're both monsters.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Yeah.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Are you two related?

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What? Princeton, I'm surprised at you. I
find that racist.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Oh, well, I'm sorry. I was just asking.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Well, it's a touchy subject. No, not all
monsters are related. What are you trying to say, huh, that we all look the
same to you?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Huh?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Huh? Huh?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No, no, not at all. Oh, I'm sorry. I guess
that was a little racist.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) I should say so. You should be much more
careful when you're talking about the sensitive subject of race.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, look who's talking.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What do you mean?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) What about that special monster school you
told me about.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What about it?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, could someone like me go there?

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) No, we don't want people like you.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. You see?

(Singing) You're a little bit racist.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) Well, you're a little bit, too.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (Singing; as Princeton) I guess we're both a little bit
racist.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) Admitting it is not an easy thing
to do.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (Singing; as Princeton) But I guess it's true.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) Between me and you, I think...

Mr. TARTAGLIA and Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Princeton and Kate Monster):
everyone's a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn't mean we go around
committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find no one's really
color-blind. Maybe it's a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgements
based on race.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No, not big judgements like...

GROSS: I asked songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx if there were landmines
they had to be careful of in writing that song.

Mr. ROBERT LOPEZ (Songwriter): We usually write in public. We write on the
streets of New York City and in cafes, and we have a very collaborative
process where each of us is, you know, writing lyrics and throwing lines and
bouncing ideas off one another. And we were on a bus, I remember, writing
this song, and all of a sudden, I realized that everyone was sort of looking
at us. And, you know, it was...

Mr. JEFF MARX (Songwriter): We were singing that Christmas Eve part about...

(Singing) ...the Jews have our money and the whites have...

Yeah, I mean, it's OK for an Asian woman to be singing it, because, you know,
she, you know, has permission to do that, but we don't really.

Mr. LOPEZ: And whenever we write the songs, we would speak in the character
voices, so we would sort of do a...

Mr. MARX: Monsters and such.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...mock Japanese accent for Christmas Eve. We'd do a Gary
Coleman accent, whatever that was.

Mr. MARX: It was really offensive.

Mr. LOPEZ: It was pretty offensive. So we had our share of horrified
onlookers.

GROSS: Why don't you tell us a little bit about the very premise of "Avenue
Q."

Mr. LOPEZ: I guess to just put it all in a nutshell, "Avenue Q" is a
fictional place. It's a community way outside. It's in New York City, but
it's way out in the boroughs, far away from Midtown, Manhattan. It's the only
place where college graduates can afford to live with their BAs in English and
their entry-level jobs and their crappy lives. And it's a place where--and
some of these inhabitants are puppets, and they all get along together in this
building on Avenue Q. So...

Mr. MARX: Very much like an adult version of a children's show you may
remember except these are all college graduates and, you know, a lot of them
are unemployed and looking for their purpose in life and trying to make ends
meet...

Mr. LOPEZ: Find their way in the world, yeah.

Mr. MARX: Yeah, and dealing with breakups and relationships.

GROSS: So how do you use the puppets interacting with the actors on stage?

Mr. MARX: Well, the puppeteers are--they walk around on stage in full view.
They're dressed in black and grey and they hold the puppets in front of them
and they walk around carrying them and the puppets have no--they're cut off at
the waist. They have no legs. And the puppets talk to each other. The
puppeteers really don't acknowledge each other.

Mr. LOPEZ: No.

Mr. MARX: They do their acting through the puppets. And there's some human
characters, too. There's Brian, there's Christmas Eve and there's Gary
Coleman. And those human characters interact with the puppets. Nobody
interacts with the puppeteers. They're just there to, you know, breathe life
into the puppets.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, the puppets are the characters. And the style of puppetry
and the style of puppets is very much in the children's television Jim Henson
kind of vain. And what we're able to see on the stage of "Avenue Q" is the
style of puppetry--you're able to see the puppeteers do their work.

GROSS: Now was "Sesame Street" the equivalent of Broadway musicals for you
when you were growing up? Was Jeff Moss, who wrote a lot of the songs, your
Cole Porter? Was Miss Piggy your Ethel Merman?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes.

Mr. MARX: In a way, yes.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes. Well, we definitely looked at the songs of Jeff Moss and
Joe Raposo and held them up as...

Mr. MARX: Paul Williams.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...models. Paul Williams. Just it--they did amazing work back
then, and we were all watching it and taking it in, and I think it probably
was our first exposure as kids to characters breaking into song, which is part
of the reason why we chose to work with puppets in the first place in our
adult lives. We wanted to--we realized that musical theater has become
something of a cliche to our generation, not that we agree with that.

Mr. MARX: And let's face it. I mean, you don't really see people our age
too much listening to "Oklahoma" and "Funny Girl."

Mr. LOPEZ: Right, but...

Mr. MARX: You know, it's a bygone era for the most part.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...we realized that when a puppet breaks into song, you--there's
not a bone in your body that says, `Oh, right, that puppet would never break
into song,' because you're already trusting that it's alive. You already
believe that it's alive.

GROSS: Well, did you...

Mr. MARX: So...

GROSS: ...initially intend to write these songs for a kids' musical? I mean,
this is an adult musical, but when you started writing songs with the idea
that puppets would be singing them, were you thinking, `Well, it's going to be
for kids'?

Mr. LOPEZ: Never.

Mr. MARX: No, no, no. We wanted to write a musical about ourselves and our
friends and the idea that people our age were coming out of college. I was
coming out of grad school. We were both living in apartments owned by--well,
I was living in an apartment owned by my parents. Bobby was living with his
parents, so was everybody else we knew. And the people who were out living on
their own, you know, were out in Queens and Brooklyn where you wouldn't really
even want to visit. After college, when you are--even through college, you're
led to believe that you can go out and set the world on fire, but you find out
quickly that only...

Mr. LOPEZ: It's a lot more complicated than that.

GROSS: Well, this reminds me of a song. Let's hear another song from the
cast recording of "Avenue Q." And this is a song you both wrote called "It
Sucks to be Me," in which everybody is thinking that their life is even worse
than the next person's life and they're almost competing for whose life is
more depressing.

Mr. MARX: That's the opening number. Right after Princeton sings "What do
You do With a BA in English?," everybody comes out and sings this.

GROSS: So this is "It Sucks to be Me" from the cast recording of "Avenue Q."

(Soundbite from "It Sucks to be Me")

Mr. JORDAN GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) When I was little, I thought I would
be...

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What?

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) ...a big comedian on late-night TV.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Oh.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) But now I'm 32, and as you can see, I not.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Nope.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) Oh, well, it sucks to be me. It sucks to be
me.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Oh.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) It sucks to be broke and unemployed and
turning 33. It sucks to be me.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) You think your life sucks?

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) I think so.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Your problems aren't so bad.

(Singing) I'm kind of pretty. I'm pretty damn smart.

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) You are.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Thanks.

(Singing) I like romantic things like music and art. And as you know, I have
a gigantic heart. So why don't I have a boyfriend? (Censored) it sucks to be
me.

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) Me, too.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) It sucks to be me.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) It sucks to be me. It sucks to be Brian...

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) ...and Kate...

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) ...to not have a job.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) ...to not have a date.

Mr. GELBER and Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Brian and Kate Monster) It sucks
to be me.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) ...(Unintelligible) Now come home when I want you.

Unidentified People: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) You're not my mother, Rod. Hey, Rod, Nicky, could
you settle something for us? Do you have a second?

Mr. RICK LYON: (As Nicky) Certainly.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Whose life sucks more, Brian's or mine?

Mr. GELBER and Mr. LYON: (In unison; as Brian and Nicky) Ours.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) We live together.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) We're close as people can get.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) We've been the best of buddies...

GROSS: That's music from the cast recording of "Avenue Q." My guests Robert
Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote the songs for the show.

Well, let me ask you what was the most depressing aspects of your lives when
you got out of college and were trying to make that transition into figuring
out what you were going to do next, figuring out what your adult lives were
going to be like. Bobby, let's start with you.

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, when I was in college, I knew I wanted to write for the
musical theater, and I don't think I knew exactly how stupid a dream that was
because so few people get to do it and have a living at it. But I didn't give
myself a plan B. I didn't give myself another career path that I might have
in mind. I just decided I would move to New York and do it, and I ended up
moving back in with my parents.

So I was living in New York and I realized, `Well, nothing is going to be
happening for me. I'm not going to have a Broadway musical for a while now.'
And I was temping and I was living with my parents, and that's being on the
bottom of a very, very tall totem pole. You realize that, you know, suddenly
you're in the middle of the hierarchy. College is a very equal, you know,
egalitarian society where everyone goes to the school. It doesn't matter how
much money you make. It doesn't matter, you know, who you are. Everyone's a
student. But when you get out of college, you realize, `Oh, it's all about
money. It's all about success and who you are.' You know, if you live with
your parents and you want to be a Broadway composure, tough luck. So that
was--I realized, `Oh, well, I've got a very long, difficult journey ahead of
me.' And it's sort of funny when you take a long view of it, and I think a
lot of that humor was part of, you know, the humor we were able to find in
"Avenue Q."

Mr. MARX: I think--this is Jeff--when you come out of school and, in fact,
Bobby went to Yale. The better the school, the worse you feel it. You feel
like--you just have this vague notion that you're talented and you're smart
and you're going to do something with your life that's, you know, important or
respectable. And when you get out of college, there just are not all these
opportunities banging down your door like I suppose when you're a college kid
you dream that there will be. And the truth is, you know, that with time,
you're thrust out into the world and you figure out how to make your own life.
But, you know, those first few weeks, months and years out of college--college
does not prepare you for real life, so you don't know what the hell to do with
yourself.

Mr. LOPEZ: I remember I was temping. I temped for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals
and my job was to sit and write these form letters every day, all day long to
satisfied Viagra customers who would write in with their ideas. They--people
would be so happy with Viagra that they would come up with a jiggle and they'd
send it in to Pfizer and I had to tell them, `Well, Bob Dole is our
spokesperson currently, and we have an advertising campaign.' And, you know,
that was my life.

Mr. MARX: But--and...

GROSS: Oh, wait, wait, wait. Do you remember any of the jiggle?

Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, I should have saved them, but I wasn't allowed to. I wish.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, well.

GROSS: Well, go ahead.

Mr. LOPEZ: For copyright reasons, we're not allowed to.

GROSS: Uh-huh. My guests are songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. We'll
talk more about their musical, "Avenue Q," after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote the songs for the hit
musical "Avenue Q."

Now you met each other at a BMI workshop? Do I have that right?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, the--it's called the BMI-Lehman Engle Musical Theater
Workshop. It's a great program for aspiring musical theater writers. We'd
only been working together for about a year and we had written a project,
although, you know, I had been writing songs my whole life. Since I was 11
years old, I'd been wanting to write for musical theater.

Mr. MARX: I didn't. I was brand new at it. I didn't really write until I
met Bobby...

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: ...in the workshop.

Mr. LOPEZ: But we--our very first project together was something called
"Kermit, Prince of Denmark." Our--the assignment was to write an adaptation,
a full musical. And in this version of Hamlet, of course, everyone lives at
the end. It's a funny case of mistaken identity. Kermit the frog, in the
beginning, is in an airport on his way to meet his buddies, the other Muppets,
in Denver, Colorado, and he gets on the wrong plane and ends up in Denmark.
Get it?

GROSS: Oh, got it. Got it.

Mr. MARX: So we wrote a whole bunch of songs for that, just one after the
other. They came real easy. The class was laughing their butt off. We were
having a great time. We won a huge award for it, and it--I mean, a huge cash
award for it, which helped us not have to temp so much and actually write
more. So we went, `Hey, maybe there's something to this.' We started getting
jobs, writing stuff for the Disney channel, for a touring children's theater
company called Theatre Works USA, and when those jobs really were supporting
us, we said, `All right. Let's, you know, write something for real for
adults, for people like us.' And the idea came to us for "Avenue Q."

GROSS: So is there a verse that you can sing from "Kermit, Prince of De--Frog
of Denmark or Prince of Denmark?" Which was it called?

Mr. LOPEZ: "Kermit, Prince of Denmark."

Mr. MARX: "Kermit, Prince of Denmark."

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MARX: We could sing it or we could even get you the demo if you want, to
have...

GROSS: No, sing it. Sing it.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) I packed my sweaters, my shoes and my slacks, turned off
the e-mail, the phone and the fax. I'm on vacation. It's time to relax in
Denver. La, la, la, do. I'm going skiing and taking it slow. I find it
freeing to go with the flow. With all my being, I'm ready to go to Denver.

And he gets on the wrong plane going to Denmark, and so sort of mayhem
ensues...

GROSS: That's great.

Mr. MARX: ...like every great Muppet movie should.

GROSS: Now, Jeff, you mentioned that you had never written songs until you
met Bobby at this workshop. So...

Mr. MARX: Right.

GROSS: Now my understanding is that you both write the music and the lyrics
together. Jeff, did you have a music background?

Mr. MARX: Yeah, I had always played piano by ear. I still don't read music,
which is why Bobby usually plays the piano. But I've--you know, I played for
myself and I read the cords and I played it at cocktail bars and stuff like
that, but I had never written anything. And I had always sung and I was a
musical theater performance major in college, but, you know, I found that I
didn't enjoy acting, and I didn't feel that I wanted to go make a career out
of it, so I went into law school. And I went through law school. And in law
school, they have a parody review ever year called "The Law Review."

GROSS: A UE review.

Mr. MARX: Exactly. "The UE Review." And I ended up writing some songs for
that. It was my first time writing anything and I found that I was actually
good at it. And I took some of the lyrics and I applied to the BMI workshop,
hoping that I could get into this community where I would meet young, talented
people and find clients. And instead of finding clients, I found a
collaborator and stopped practicing law, and Bobby and I have been making a
living writing musicals.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song from your musical, "Avenue Q." And
this, again, is an adult take on the kind of song you used to hear on "Sesame
Street." It's called "If You Were Gay." Would you set it up for us? Tell us
what's happening in the story when the song is sung.

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, this is our introduction to two of the major characters but
not the main characters. It's--they're two roommates, Nicky and Rod. Nicky
is a loveable freeloader. He's sort of rotund and cute and pudgy...

Mr. MARX: Jolly.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...jolly. And Rod is an uptight investment banker who, you'll
find in the song, is in the closet.

Mr. MARX: He's also a Republican.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, right.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. This is "If You Were Gay" from the cast
recording of "Avenue Q."

(Soundbite from "If You Were Gay")

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Why do I care about some gay guy you met? OK, I am
trying to read.

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Well, I didn't mean anything by it, Rod. I just think
it's something we should be able to talk about.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Well, I do not want to talk about it, Nicky. This
conversation is over.

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Yeah, but, Rod...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Over!

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Oh, OK, but just so you know...

(Singing) If you were gay, that'd be OK. I mean, 'cause, hey, I like you
anyway, because, you see, if it were me, I would feel free to say that I was
gay, but I'm not gay.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Nicky, please, I am trying to read. What?

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) If you were queer...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Oh, Nicky.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...I'd still be here...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Nicky, I am trying to read this book.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...year after year...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Nicky.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...because you're dear to me.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Ah!

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) And I know that you...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) What?

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...would accept me, too...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) I would?

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...if I told you today, `Hey, guess what? I'm
gay,' but I'm not gay. I'm happy just being with you...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) High-button shoes, Pal Joey.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...so what should it matter to me what you do
in bed with guys?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) You see, that's gross.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) If you were gay...

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Ah!

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...I'd shout hurray.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) I am not listening.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) And here I'd stay.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) La, la, la, la, la.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) I wouldn't get in your way.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Ah!

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) You can count on me to always be beside you
every day to tell you it's OK, you were just born that way, and as they say,
it's in your DNA, you're gay.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) I am not gay.

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) If you were gay.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Rod) Ah!

GROSS: That's from the cast recording of "Avenue Q." And my guests, Robert
Lopez and Jeff Marx, wrote the songs for the show. It won three Tonys this
year, including best musical.

OK. Well, Jeff, I don't think I'm giving away anything here. Jeff, you're
gay, and, Bobby, you're straight.

Mr. LOPEZ: That's right.

GROSS: So...

Mr. LOPEZ: How did you know that?

Mr. MARX: And married.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. LOPEZ: No, that's true. I just got married in October.

GROSS: Congratulations.

Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you.

GROSS: Congratulations. So I'm wondering what are some of the personal
things from life that might have inspired the song?

Mr. MARX: This song?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: The more personal stuff in "Avenue Q" is about the relationships
and the breakups. There's a fine, fine line. It was written when Bobby and I
were both going through hard times in our relationships. And there's a song
called "The More You Love Someone The More You Want to Kill Them," which came
directly out of the same thing. I think that was really out of my boyfriend
troubles.

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, I mean, the truth is that Jeff was already out of the
closet when I met him, so I never had to, you know, nudgingly poke him out as
Nicky does in that song. But, you know, when you're straight in the musical
theater business, people are always trying to tell you, `Oh, come on, you're
gay. You just don't know it yet,' or, `You're gay. Come on. Admit it.' And
I really--I always have to say, `No, I'm not. I'm not.' So I kind of
identify with Rod in that song, even though he is.

Mr. MARX: I never thought of it that way.

GROSS: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote the songs for the musical, "Avenue
Q." They'll be back in the second half of the show.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, artist Red Grooms describes his vision of ruckus Manhattan.
There's a new book collecting his work. Maureen Corrigan reviews "Hacket
Jobs" by Dale Peck, the controversial book reviewer for The New Republic, and
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx talk about Muppet songs, TV themes and other music
that influenced the musical "Avenue Q."

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez.
They wrote the songs for the Broadway musical "Avenue Q" and came up with the
concept for the show. It won three Tonys this year, including best musical
and best original score. It's an adult show inspired by the puppets and songs
Marx and Lopez grew up with watching children's shows like "Sesame Street."

What are your favorite Muppet songs from when you were kids that you grew up
with?

Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, there were so many.

Mr. MARX: I think you can't beat "Rubber Duckie."

Mr. LOPEZ: The "Rainbow Connection" is just a fantastic song.

Mr. MARX: You know, there's a song that's not really that well-known. Maybe
it's just not known by me when I was a kid 'cause it was written later, and
it's called "I Don't Want To Live On The Moon," and it was written by Jeff
Moss, and Ernie sings it.

GROSS: Do you want to sing a few bars of it?

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `I would like to visit the moon on a rocket ship high
in the air. Yes, I'd like to visit the moon, but I don't think I'd like to
live there. Though I'd like to look down at the Earth from above, I would
miss all the places and people I love. So although I may go, I'll be coming
home soon, 'cause I don't want to live on the moon.'

GROSS: That's sweet. I'm wondering if TV themes made a big impression on you
two when you were young.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, I remember loving the "Gilligan's Island" theme. I would
sing it in the shower and just--there's all of these tapes of me when I'm four
years old singing the "Gilligan's Island" theme.

Mr. MARX: Really?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: I remember loving--the show didn't last long but the song sure
did, "The Greatest American Hero."

Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, me, too.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `Believe it or not, I'm walking on air. I never...'

Mr. LOPEZ and Mr. MARX: (Singing) `...thought I could feel so free, flying
away...'

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `...on a wing and a prayer...'

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `...who could it be?'

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `Believe it or not...'

Mr. LOPEZ: Jeff and Bobby sing the hits.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `...it's just me.' Do we need to pay royalties for that?

GROSS: Oh, that's great. So did either of you ever, like, write for a rock
band or a pop band?

Mr. LOPEZ: No.

Mr. MARX: We actually thought about it. We wanted to at one point do songs
just for the hell of it, like a Beatles album, but we never got around to it.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, we like to write for situations and we like to have
specific characters in their songs. There's something about adding music to
drama that allows you to--I don't know, it just--it somehow--I think the
originality of being able to pair a song with a dramatic situation is what's
attractive, at least to me, about musicals.

Mr. MARX: I agree. When one character is singing it to another character
for a particular reason, to get something out of the other character or to
communicate it something or, you know, to get to another plot point, it takes
you somewhere more than when Johnny Mathis sings the song, which is also
great, but it's a different purpose, you know, in the dramatic context. It's
more of a participation with the audience.

GROSS: Now I have another kids' TV question for you. If "Sesame Street" was,
like, the Broadway of children's television 'cause of all the great songs,
then I think "Schoolhouse Rock" was, like, the jazz hipster place because,
you know, you have, like, Bob Durough and Dave Frishberg and Jack
Sheldon doing the music for it.

Mr. MARX: Lynn Ahrens did some of it.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. MARX: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: She went on to write musicals.

Mr. MARX: Yeah.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: She went on to write "Ragtime" and "Once On This Island" and a lot
of big Broadway stuff, "Anastasia," the movie.

GROSS: So did you watch any "Schoolhouse Rock"?

Mr. MARX: Sure.

Mr. LOPEZ: I never saw that, actually...

Mr. MARX: Oh, I did.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...as a kid.

Mr. MARX: I did.

Mr. LOPEZ: I got into it later, though. (Singing) `I'm only a bill and I'm
sitting here on Capitol Hill. Dah, dah, dah, dah. I hope someday I'll be a
law. Yes, I hope and I pray that I will, but today, I am still just a bill.'

Mr. MARX: Did you ever see--there's a "Simpsons" episode that parodies that
song?

GROSS: Oh, yes.

Mr. MARX: Yeah. (Singing) `I'm an amendment to be. Yes, an amendment
to'--and it's, like, he's a flag-burning amendment sitting on the steps of
Congress.

GROSS: It's right after the Contract for America.

Mr. MARX: We should do one now.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, right. Right. Exactly.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) `The constitutional amendment about gays not marrying.'

Mr. LOPEZ: I actually grew up on children's television, definitely, but my
show was "Electric Company" as a kid. They, you know, had "Easy Reader" and
it was a little bit more advanced than "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers,"
but I was really into it. And it had some puppets on it, too. It just
had--the words were longer, and I remember a song called "T-I-O-N." It was
(singing) `T-I-O-N, tion, tion, tion, tion'--which explained a rather
complicated, you know, spelling rule.

GROSS: Did--yeah.

Mr. LOPEZ: I think we're definitely children of the '70s. Jeff was, like,
born in '70. I was born in '75. And during that time, the kids were just
exposed to so much education on television. There wasn't so much of the, I
don't know, stuff that's like the "Teletubbies" and "Barney" and stuff that's
just aimed to keep kids quiet. This was all really, really quality stuff that
was on back then, and I kind of wish I was able to raise a kid in that time
period instead of looking at the possibility of having to do it now.

GROSS: Well, I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for talking with us
and good luck to you both.

Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, thank you.

Mr. MARX: Thanks a lot.

Mr. LOPEZ: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: And my guests have been Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who wrote the
songs for the musical "Avenue Q."

(Soundbite from "Avenue Q")

Unidentified Actor #1: Why does everything have to be so hard?

Unidentified Actress #1: Maybe you'll never find your purpose.

Unidentified Actress #2: Lots of people don't.

Unidentified Actor #1: But then I don't even know why I'm alive.

Unidentified Actress #1: Well, who does really?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Actress #1: Everyone's a little bit unsatisfied.

Unidentified Actor #2: Everyone goes round a little empty inside.

Unidentified Actress #4: Take a breath, look around.

Unidentified Actor #2: Swallow your pride.

Unidentified Actress #2: For now...

Actors: For now...

Unidentified Actor #3: Nothing lasts.

Unidentified Actor #4: Life goes on.

Unidentified Actor #5: Full of surprises.

Unidentified Actor #4: You'll be faced with problems of all shapes and sizes.

Unidentified Actress #1: You're going to have to make a few compromises for
now.

Unidentified Actor #6: For now.

Actors: But only for now. For now. Only for now. For now. Only for now.
For now. Only for now.

Unidentified Actress #5: For now, we're healthy.

Unidentified Actor #7: For now we're employed.

Actors: For now, we're happy.

Unidentified Actress #2: It's not overjoyed.

Unidentified Actor #4: And we'll accept the things we cannot avoid for now.

Unidentified Actor #5: For now.

Unidentified Actor #7: For now.

Unidentified Actress #2: For now.

Actors: But only for now. For now. Only for now. For now. Only for now.
For now. Only for now. Only for now. For now, there's life. Only for now.

GROSS: That's "For Now" from the cast recording of "Avenue Q." Robert Lopez
and Jeff Marx wrote the songs for the musical.

Coming up, artist Red Grooms and his vision of a ruckus Manhattan.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Red Grooms discusses his new book of works
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest is painter and sculptor Red Grooms. A new book collects
reproductions of 50 years of his work along with critical essays about him.
Grooms grew up in Tennessee, but he's best known for his paintings and
sculptures of Manhattan. In the mid-'70s, he created an installation piece
called Ruckus Manhattan that transformed a large Manhattan gallery into a
three-dimensional, miniature, comic-booklike version of the city. You
actually walk through a Red Grooms subway car to get into that city. Grooms
said, `What I wanted to do was a novelistic portrait of Manhattan from Battery
Park to Grant's Tomb. I also felt it had to include the dark sides of life as
well as the lighter ones. Prostitutes, thieves and gamblers, tourists,
shoppers, babies, moms and dads--I wanted to get it all in. It got quite
busy.' Although much of his work depicts Manhattan before September 11th,
Grooms continues to paint the city, and the new book includes several of his
canvases about New York after the attacks.

Red Grooms, welcome to FRESH AIR.

The first thing I'd like to do is read an excerpt of the essay that Arthur
Danto wrote in your new book. And he says--and he's referring to when you
started doing your New York work--`The city was still reeling from the
upheavals of the '60s and the air was sour with kind of hopeless desperation.
My sense of ruckus Manhattan was that it ridiculed the decay and made the
dirt, disorder and menace all at once funny. And yet exactly because what it
lowered through comedy was itself so powerful, so full of threat, violent
energy and even terror, it abruptly made it over into something we could live
with and even come to cherish. It was an enactment so filled with affection
and fun that all at once the city, Manhattan, despite its social disorder,
became a place of wonder.'

That sounds really right to me in terms of the effect that it has on turning
Manhattan, which can be a very kind of threatening, oppressive place, into a
place of wonder. Does that sound right to you?

Mr. RED GROOMS (Artist): Yes. It was actually--Arthur wrote a review after
we had finished it in 1976. It was so, you know, encouraging, what he said,
and actually, he defined the moment, I think, as well as it could have been
defined.

GROSS: What were--like, in the '60s and '70s, what were your favorite New
York places or buildings or neon signs, delicatessens?

Mr. GROOMS: Oh, it's good. Well, the big Bonds sign on Times Square--you
know, it had these--it was a big waterfall, really. I don't even know what
Bonds is. I think it was a clothing store that was in the building below, a
sort of a men's haberdashery or something. I may be wrong on that. And it
had these colossal kind of an Adam and Eve, and they were nude, and there was
this--and a terrific waterfall, and then somehow in the midst of that, I
think, was the great cigarette ad, I guess for Camel, you know, that actually
smoked. It would blow out smoke rings. I love that. I thought that was just
great.

GROSS: How did you realize that this city could be a great subject for you?

Mr. GROOMS: I don't know exactly, but I always was fascinated from childhood
with some kind of mythic city that I felt that Nashville wasn't, really. It
was too small, and I used to, you know, kind of daydream about it being
bigger, having taller buildings and more people. And I don't know. I was a
big movie fan. Maybe I got it from the movies or something, you know, big
spectacle films. Also I liked books about the Middle Ages. So, you know, the
medieval towns, for instance, the walled cities--there's some kind of energy
that's confined there, and I liked that a lot. You know, that seemed like big
time to me.

GROSS: Now you've done a few portraits of New York since September 11th, and
let me ask you to describe your painting Heroes on a Shield(ph).

Mr. GROOMS: Yes. My wife and I actually are just 10 blocks north of the
Trade towers and, you know, we saw the initial hit on the north tower from our
apartment, and it was just a--overwhelmingly staggering event. So afterwards,
you know, doing the whole process afterwards, I didn't really know what to do
about it. I couldn't really respond visually, but I did think--actually, I
was thinking back about the superheroes like Captain Marvel and his shield.
And so I thought of the shield as being, you know, protective. And then it
was--so that piece really is about the people that had taken it on themselves
to protect the city and to do the very tough work that was required to get
back on our feet--the police and the firefighters, the mayor. And I haven't
yet done anything and probably never will about the actual event itself.

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing what your dreams look like or what they
looked like when you were younger, and part of what I'd like to know is if you
ever dreamed in the kind of cartoon imagery that you came to incorporate in
your paintings.

Mr. GROOMS: Well, you know, I can tell you that more recently I've had
extraordinary dreams that are very, very, very sinister, really like Bosch
paintings, you know, of hell--just incredibly sinister things happening.

GROSS: Would you describe one of the images from one of those Bosch-like
dreams?

Mr. GROOMS: Well, there's a lot of morphing, you know, a lot of stuff turning
into other stuff and it's, like, entirely evil and just amazing, you know,
completely surreal and just--you know, I have quite a few of those. I don't
really know the reason for it.

GROSS: Were there paintings or images that scared you when you were very
young?

Mr. GROOMS: Yes, I was very frightened by the Parthenon. And Nashville has
this famous replica of the Athens Parthenon, and now it has a marvelous
sculpture of Athena. But at the time, it was totally empty except for these
strange Greek sculptures along the wall, and when my parents would take me in
there, I just wouldn't go in. I would scream and ran out because of this big
vast space. I didn't like it at all.

GROSS: You've suggested that--and like in your new book, you suggest that it
might be that fear of big, empty space that explains all the kind of, you
know, cluttered, crowded, jangled imagery in your paintings.

Mr. GROOMS: Yes. Well, the horror of vacua.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROOMS: Yeah. I don't know exactly why I have that either. I am
claustrophobic I must say, but I don't know why I have that. The basic thing
is sometimes it's just because I can't edit or something. So I'm trying to
get everything in and, therefore, I have to use up all the space right up to
every last, you know, little bit of it.

GROSS: Now you live part of the year in Manhattan and part of the year...

Mr. GROOMS: Yes.

GROSS: ...in Tennessee and I think it's...

Mr. GROOMS: Right.

GROSS: ...rural Tennessee about three hours of our Nashville. And some of
your Tennessee paintings are included in the new book. And the style of
painting is similar but very different. You know, most, I'd say, of the
Tennessee paintings are a much--kind of calmer both in the style and in the
subject matter. I mean, you have paintings of logs and grass and...

Mr. GROOMS: Right. That's because--you know what?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROOMS: I thought I could be a kind of Andy Wyeth in Tennessee, like
Brandywine, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROOMS: Then I realized, `My gosh, nobody likes mine anyway.' And, you
know, I wasn't really up to this stuff--I'm not into--I can't do that like he
can do it, you know? And so, yeah, at first I was really kind of proceeding
along those lines, but because, you know, I do shows in New York and, you
know, there's a time limit and I really have to work on the New York stuff, I
work on my New York stuff a lot down in Tennessee.

GROSS: Now you do have a Tennessee piece that kind of fits with the New York
sensibility that you're famous for and I'm thinking of the Tennessee Fox-Trot
Carousal which is a carousal where instead of horses, you ride on historical
figures...

Mr. GROOMS: Right.

GROSS: ...ranging from everything from The Everly Brothers to Andrew Jackson
and Davy Crockett. And were you specifically commissioned do to a carousal?

Mr. GROOMS: No, actually it was my concept to do it. Actually I wanted to
make a small, sort of a sculpture amusement park. I've always wanted to do
that actually. And I'd had a large show at Grand Central Terminal. This was
in '93, and I was kind of excited by the response to that. So I really
thought I could start--actually, my intention was it would be a commercial
park.

GROSS: Oh, like a real commercial...

Mr. GROOMS: Yeah, like a...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. GROOMS: Yeah, 'cause I always liked--you know, P.T. Barnum is one of my
heroes.

GROSS: So when people pay to get on the carousal, who gets the money?

Mr. GROOMS: Well, actually unfortunately nobody is right now because they
had to disassemble the carousal after--this would be its fifth year--because
it sort of went into debt and needed help. It's run by a non-profit group.
And now there will be delay right now because it's going to eventually go to
the Tennessee State Museum and they're going to have a special pavilion for
it.

GROSS: Oh, well, too bad, but at least it'd be in a museum...

Mr. GROOMS: Well, it'll bounce back...

GROSS: ...so that's great. Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. GROOMS: ...and then hopefully they'll charge.

GROSS: No, but they'll keep the money, right?

Mr. GROOMS: I hope somebody makes some money.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROOMS: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Red Grooms, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GROOMS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Artist Red Grooms. The new book "Red Grooms" is a retrospective of
his work along with three critical essays.

Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection by Dale
Peck, a critic famous in the book world for his negative reviews.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Collection of criticism by Dale Peck in "Hatchet Jobs"
TERRY GROSS, host:

A new collection of book reviews called "Hatchet Jobs" by critic Dale Peck has
some of his colleagues talking about the death of civility in reviewing while
others are hailing Peck as the courages voice of reason and truth. Book
critic Maureen Corrigan throws in her two cents.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

This year's Fiddling While Rome Burns award(ph) for most entertaining but
insular literary controversy goes to the brouhaha over Dale Peck and his
notoriously nasty book reviews. Given that you're listening to this book
review, you may be one of the 20 or so Americans who know who Dale Peck is. I
arrive at that guesstimate based on the recent NEA report that told us what we
already know: The number of Americans who read literary fiction, plays and
poetry is drastically shrinking.

For the unenlightened masses who don't know Dale Peck from Dale Earnhardt,
he's a book reviewer who writes for The New Republic and other venues, and
he's made a name for himself by among other things suggesting in perhaps the
greatest non-sequitur in the history of the printed word that the writing of
novelist David Foster Wallace might be improved by having--How shall put
this?--vigorous anal relations with another man.

Peck is also known for making impossible-to-prove pronouncements in his
reviews. The most famous being the opening line of his review of a memoir by
Rick Moody. `Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.' You can read
these shockers and more in the just-published collection of reprinted review
essays by Peck called "Hatchet Jobs." Since it's my turn to weigh in on Peck
and his works, I'll officially declare myself on the fence, a position, by the
way, that Peck who embraces extremes, would surely disdain.

Many of Peck's witchy observations throughout "Hatchet Jobs" made me laugh out
loud like I do when I read consistently more acute critics like James Wolcott
and Christopher Hitchens. Peck undeniably has a voice, opinions and a lot of
energy. In a genre that's clogged with quote, "larded book reports masking as
book reviews," his caustic essays evince a Dranolike ability to cut through
the sludge, commenting, for instance, on the market-driven trend toward
identity politics in literature that categorizes otherwise unrelated books
under the labels Black Literature(ph) or Gay Literature(ph). Peck says that
such divisions have about as much volatility as the chalk line Lucy used to
draw down the center of the apartment she shared with Ricky, splitting couch,
table and coffeepot in half.

But here's a problem. Peck often trains his big critical guns on puny
targets. That quote I just read about the inanity of grouping books by the
race or sexual orientation of their authors appears in a scathing roundup
review of new novels by Terry McMillan, Safire and Jamaica Kincaid. A
negative review of those writers with the possible exception of Kincaid is
what's known in the trade as a dog-bites-man story. When Peck does go after
the big game, his firepower isn't nearly as dazzling as he tells us it is.
Peck's big theory about the state of contemporary literature is that it all
went wrong with James Joyce. `From Joyce through Pintion(ph) and DeLillo,' he
says, `literature split into self-referential experimentation or dumbed-down
realism.'

When Peck elaborates on his pet theory in the afterward to this collection, he
tells us how daring he's being. `Though I normally write in the morning, I am
writing this in the middle of the night like a fugitive. My hands are
literally shaking as I type. Sometimes even I am overwhelmed by the extent of
the re-evaluation I'm calling for, the sheer'--expletive
deleted--`presumptuousness of it.' But this kind of chest-thumping about the
cannon has been going on throughout the 20th century. In the 1930s and '40s,
the renowned British critic, FR Leavis dissed Jane Austen, Dickens and
virtually the entire comic tradition in English. And in the 1960s, American
critic Dwight Macdonald identified this same split between high art and mass
cult.

The firing squad didn't come for Leavis or Macdonald at dawn to execute them
for their radical views, and Peck needn't shake so much for simply joining
their ranks. And for someone so allegedly radical, Peck is quite conservative
in terms of the types of books he even chooses to notice. There's nary a kind
word here about genre fiction or memoir or the embattled numbers of midlist
writers whose work has profoundly shaped the interior lives of the readers who
love them: Laurie Colwin, Lorrie Moore, Scott Spencer, Christopher
Tilman(ph). These and other superb writers don't fall into Peck's polarized
high-art, low-art categories. Here's a Utopian thought: Maybe if Peck and
the rest of the reviewing community, myself included, devoted more space to
the wonderful writers out there who haven't gotten their due rather than to
the established big names or easy targets, the NEA might have less occasion to
issue another gloom-and-doom report about the nation's lack of enthusiasm for
reading.

GROSS: Maurine Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Hatchet Jobs" by Dale Peck.

I'm Terry Gross.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Recording engineer David Baker's music career
TERRY GROSS, host:

We just learned that the recording engineer David Baker died in his sleep last
month of an apparent heart attack. He was 58. His career spanned 40 years,
recording a wide range of musicians including Shirley Horn, Art Farmer, George
Russell, Maceo Parker, John Zorn and Sun Ra. In fact, he was one of the
recording and mixing engineers for the first FRESH AIR theme which was
composed and performed by pianist Jackie Byard. In 1998, David Baker won a
Grammy for his work on Shirley Horn's CD "I Remember Miles" which he recorded
and mixed. We'll close with a track from that recording.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHIRLEY HORN: (Singing) Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a
little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart? Are you smart?
You're my funny valentine.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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