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Avenue Q

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

Howie Michael Smith

Age: 28

Hometown: Connellsville, PA

Currently: Getting in touch with his fuzzy side in Avenue Q, in which he manipulates and voices the puppets of Princeton, leading guy and new kid in town, and Rod, a reserved Republican who's very into show tunes.

Breakout Role: Long before Smith could stand onstage, he got a brief peek at celebrity when he won a national baby contest for Diaperene ointment. "There was a photo of me climbing a rock in overalls with this giant curly hair," he remembers sheepishly. "I won one of the first Super-8 video cameras, but there was a grand prize overall that some little girl won." Smith gives a mock sneer. "She got a car and her photo on something." No one in his family realized it at the time, but a star was most certainly born.

Aw, Shucks: As the saying goes, it's the quiet ones you have to look out for, and Smith is no exception. The boyishly charming performer eased into musical theater one toe at a time, admitting, "At first I didn't want to be in front of anybody when I was singing. I was a shy only child, so I was kind of like, 'OK, just leave me alone. Don't look at me when I'm doing this.' [laughs] I got over that really fast." The initial theater spark caught fire on a family trip to New York to see the original production of Into the Woods. Remembers Howie, "I kinda freaked out. I didn't know that it was live, that it wasn't TV. Sitting in this room with all these people watching other people on stage was like a huge fairy tale coming to life. I was in awe and I thought, 'That looks really fun!'" After playing Moonface Martin in a student production of Anything Goes, Smith says he realized, "So, an audience will pay attention to me. All right…let's start doing this all the time!"

Lucky Froggy's Foot: Raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Smith can hardly believe his luck in landing a Broadway debut that combines his love for singing and acting with his childhood addiction to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. "It was always a fascination of mine," he says of puppetry. "To have Broadway and Sesame Street come together is kind of overwhelming." When asked about his favorite character in the land of Jim Henson, Smith doesn't skip a beat before putting his chips on the leading man: "Kermit the frog, of course. Actually, I still have a stuffed Kermit that I got, like, in 1980. I have him in my closet here in New York."

Juggling Act: Though Smith's voice and fancy footwork and handwork make his characters go, there's no mistaking that the puppets are the main event in Avenue Q. Smith describes sharing the limelight with inanimate objects as "acting for two," adding that it's sometimes a lonely job. "The actors are always looking at the puppets, so you never really make eye contact with anybody," he muses. "It's a completely different way of acting." Smith, who's been understudying various roles in the musical for about a year, remembers well the bloopers that beset him his first few times around. "Thank God there's a puppet wrangler backstage to give you the right puppet," he says with a laugh. "Especially at first, it's hard to remember who you are. My first or second show, all the voices just started to blend together." Staying afloat can be a handful: "OK," Smith recalls thinking, "I've got to keep the puppet's mouth going. I have to be on this spot. Where's the light? Which puppet am I? Is a song coming up? Which way is the puppet looking? Where am I looking?" Thankfully, after a while, "It all comes together, and you don't really think about that anymore."

Rated PG-13: Avenue Q takes an unflinching stab at controversial material from racism to sexuality, and Smith thanks the puppets for the show's success with this. "You've gotta respect them," he avows. "I know it's kind of weird to say that; they're not even alive. But they soften some of the more intense issues we talk about. If we threw the puppets away and did the show, it would not be the same." Unsurprisingly, Smith also buys into this function of his work on a personal level: "I think you should always keep a childlike enthusiasm about everything. Playfulness! At what point in your life do you forget that? I don't understand why you have to."

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