Puppet party on ‘Avenue Q’

“Avenue Q,” the Tony Award-winning show coming to San Francisco this week, grew out of a project for a musical theater class.

Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote something called “Kermit, Prince of Denmark,” in which they proved the power of combining puppets and the Bard.

“It did get us a lot of attention,” Lopez says during a recent phone interview from his office in New York. They based their idea on two facts: 1) Everyone knows and loves Muppets, and 2) It wouldn’t be too big of a stretch to have a puppet break out into song. (This was in the late 1990s, a time when the musical was at a low point in American culture.)

Having recently graduated from college and at a crossroads, they decided to take the concept a step further by creating original puppet characters based on their own lives, then filtering their stories through the metaphor of children’s TV.

The show reflects Lopez’s reality at the time: “They tell you you’re special, then you’re thrust into an indifferent world, that cares increasingly less and less about you.”

The plan worked. Originally conceived as a television series, the show was seen by a producer, who went on to guide it to the theater. It landed on Broadway, and won the theater’s biggest prizes — best musical, best original score and best book for a musical — in 2004.

It had a successful stint in Las Vegas (not as long as its creators hoped for, though) and enjoyed success in London, where audiences, Lopez says, “found it a lot less risque than they thought it would be.” Yes, these are puppets who swear, have sex and deal with messy issues such as racism and unemployment.

Despite the ongoing critical acclaim, Lopez says the show remains slightly under the radar, unlike, say, “Wicked,” and it’s known for finding audiences whose members are perhaps younger than the average theatergoer, or who are not necessarily musical theater fanatics. He says there’s an exception to that in San Francisco, a theater town where the show has enjoyed more buzz than he’s accustomed to.

After several years, he still likes the excitement of playing in a new town, where reactions can be “electric.” He says, “The experience of new audiences make you see it again for thefirst time.”

Avenue Q

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco

When: Wednesday through Sept. 2

Tickets: $30 to $90

Contact: (415) 512-777 or www.shnsf.com.

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