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Avenue Q

The trials and tribulations of the people (and puppets) in the neighborhood.

Jennifer Barnhart: A Happy Home on Avenue Q

About the author:
When Jennifer Barnhart graduated from the University of Connecticut with a dual concentration in acting and puppetry, she had no idea that her two areas of interest would ever come together on a Broadway stage. Luckily for Barnhart, Avenue Q came along with its unique blend of music, puppetry and naughty comedy, a combination that played to her strengths. Barnhart brings a grounded presence to her multiple roles in Avenue Q, working in tandem with a male puppeteer on some of the show's most expansive creations, notably Trekkie Monster and Nickey. She's also the kindergarten teacher from hell, Mrs. Thistletwat, and one of the aptly named Bad Idea Bears. Newly returned to the show after a brief hiatus, Barnhart shared her memories of life on the Avenue with Broadway.com.

Avenue Q recently celebrated its fourth birthday on Broadway, but my first experience with the show came in 2001 when I attended a reading at the York Theatre. At that time, the piece was a series of brilliantly funny vignettes and musical numbers that rendered me hoarse from laughter. I had gone to support my puppeteer friends Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Rick Lyon, Lara MacLean and John Tartaglia, and I remember leaving the theater thinking, "I don't know where this is headed, but I hope it takes off—and I hope I get to play with these people someday."

Fast forward to January of 2003: I get a call from Rick saying that Avenue Q will be produced off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Would I be interested in auditioning? After one round, I was cast as "Mrs. T./Bear and Others." Needless to say, I was excited by the prospect of putting the show on its feet and figuring out the staging with these talented folks.

Our work at the Vineyard was incredibly collaborative. Jason Moore, our director, let the puppeteers inform the staging of the piece, and choreographer Ken Roberson looked to us to help him discover the gestural language of the puppets as he strove to create dance moves for creatures that had no legs. There was a great deal of rewriting, both of the music and the book. On opening night, book writer Jeff Whitty presented us with an unusual gift: the 126 pages that had been deleted from Avenue Q.

Things were looking great as we started previews: Audience response was wonderful; the show was going smoothly; we were having a great time. Then, during our fifth preview, Rick fell off the stage in the blackout following "The Internet Is for Porn." He sprained his ankle, and we had to cancel the rest of the performance.

The next day, we met to discuss our options. We had no understudies. We had to think fast. Christine Daly, our production stage manager, suggested that since I lip-sync to others' vocal performances, perhaps I could just do that the whole time for Rick's characters. I ended up doing so for the next five weeks, assisted by John and Stephanie, who also did some doubling up. Rick sat in a chair in the house and tailored his vocal performance to what he was seeing. The trick worked. We opened that way, and audiences didn't seem to balk at what they were seeing.

A few weeks later, we learned that Avenue Q would be transferring to Broadway. We knew we had something special. We'd been hoping and whispering about the possibility of an uptown move, but when the announcement came, I still remember feeling surprised. I couldn't imagine feeling luckier than I did that night. Little did I know what was to come the following spring!

Happily, doing the show on Broadway didn't feel like that much of a change from our Vineyard roots. We were apprehensive about the increased house size: We sat 125 people at the Vineyard, while the Golden Theatre seats 796. But once we stood on the stage and saw how intimate it was, we knew we were in the right place. We opened in the summer without a huge amount of fanfare. But audiences "got" the show's quirky humor and loved us, critics wrote great things about us and we rode the wave of positive buzz for the better part of a year.

Then came the Tony nominations. Our show, which was considered an underdog, was up for six awards. The night of the Tony Awards was the most magical one of my life. In a little over a year and a half, I'd gone from unemployed to performing alongside Hugh Jackman in the evening's opening number. I couldn't believe it! We screamed as Avenue Q won each of our big three: Best Book, Best Score and Best Musical. For the next month, every performance played like a rock concert.

Three years later, I'm the last of the Vineyard performers who is still with Avenue Q. I've watched new faces come and go, and it's this new blood that keeps the show fresh for me. Working with my fourth Nicky/Trekkie Monster dance partner, I start from scratch and discover new things in rehearsal. Each time, I find the process richly rewarding. All in all, Avenue Q has been an incredible gift, and I continue to feel very grateful to be a part of this groundbreaking show.

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