Only for... Uh... Well... Sometime... by Matthew Murray

    AvenueQGWB.jpgNo one who saw Avenue Q at its newest and freshest in 2003, whether at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre or on Broadway at the John Golden (where it continues to run), will ever forget it. At least as memorable was that late spring night the following year when, against all odds (and, eventually, no small amount of controversy), it beat out the megamusical juggernaut Wicked not only for the Best Musical Tony Award, but also for Best Book (Jeff Whitty) and Best Score (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx). This Little Show That Could made instant mini-stars of Marx and Lopez—at the time it seemed there was no musical-comedy road they couldn't hack.

    Now, it seems they're not even trying.

    The final song in Avenue Q, "For Now," imparted the true (if sometimes difficult-to-hear) advice that both the worst and the best things in life are only temporary. At the peak of the song, the characters progressed from "Sex is only for now" to "Your hair is only for now" to (here it comes) "George Bush is only for now." Especially in those earliest days, with the Iraq War still fresh in everyone's minds and on everyone's TV screens, it seemed there could hardly be a more appropriate choice. The audience reaction was, shall we say, enthusiastic. But everyone wondered: What would happen to the song and that line once Bush left office?

    Lopez, Marx, and Whitty have decided that the best answer to that question is no answer. The trio went through a very nice show of holding a contest to suggest a replacement for the final line, but have instead forsaken its four previously selected winners to instead make the worst possible choice, as was announced in a press release and reported on Playbill yesterday:

    "Though no longer Commander-in-Chief, George Bush's tenure on Broadway as a lyric in the musical Avenue Q will continue, it has been announced by the Tony Award–winning musical's creators and producers. A nationwide contest held late last year to find a lyric to replace "George Bush is only for now" in the show's finale—upon the Inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009—has led the show's creative team back to where they started, with a twist: after performing and considering four previously chosen lyrics from the "For Now" contest, Avenue Q writers Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty have settled on a fifth choice, "George Bush WAS only for now."

    According to Avenue Q's Tony Award–winning librettist Jeff Whitty, "During the trial period when we tried out all the winning lyrics from the contest, we discovered there is nothing like the strong response the Bush line gets from the audience." And Tony Award–winning composer/lyricist Robert Lopez adds, "We now know that although George Bush's presidency was only for now, the comic potential of 'George Bush' seems like it may last forever."

    Well, okay. Unfortunately, the choice makes utter dramatic mincemeat of the show's overarching theme statement. Puppets Princeton, Kate Monster, Rod, and Nicky were facing the typical turmoils of everyone's post-graduation 20s: lack of purpose, lack of job, lack of love and/or sex (and the lack of always understanding the difference between the two). They needed to come to understand that they could always grow, always improve, and always change, and that "except for death and paying taxes," their worst times would always be transitory. The George Bush line, if potentially off-putting for Republicans, at least was honest, current, and played to the fears and hopes of many in the audience, thus uniting them with the characters onstage. Changing the lyric to the past tense means it's one thing that's already been survived—and thus completely out of place in a song about learning to overcome the things we hate and cherish the things we love while we can.

    While "George Bush is only for now" might have been a cheap shot, "George Bush WAS only for now" is so expensive, it comes at the cost of the song and thus the show. Worse, it makes it seem even more that Lopez, Marx, and Whitty weren't really interested in anything but a obvious political statement in a show that otherwise dealt with rather loftier topics. No one necessarily expected them to change the lyric to "Barack Obama is only for now," for example, but one assumed they would be able to devise something that would be just as good.

    Resorting to a contest to decide the new line was problem one. Yes, it was undoubtedly a publicity ploy, but didn't the creators realize it would make it look like they couldn't think of anything? The contest's winning entries, which for a few weeks alternated as the climactic line, were problem two. Aside from not being particularly engaging, "Recession is only for now" and "Your mother-in-law is only for now" spoiled the meter of the song established by the original quick and firmly percussive words; "Prop 8 is only for now" had the right sound, but also had the stress on the wrong syllable (it would have sounded like "propate" in the house), was extremely California-centric, and old news by the time it was ever heard; and despite its appropriateness and metrical acuity, "this show" was just flat-out boring.

    Leaving in this ancient and now-ineffective line—even with, or perhaps especially with, its change of tense—is still a cop-out this famously edgy show should never have to have resorted to. It really now seems that the show once famed for puppet swearing and puppet sex no longer needs to be fresh, defiant, and even a little dangerous: Stale and safe is good enough. If Lopez, Marx, and Whitty can do no better, perhaps what they demonstrated in 2003 as show smarts were really only for then?

    Top photo: Princeton, Kate Monster, Howie Michael Smith, and Carey Anderson of Avenue Q, photo by Carol Rosegg; Bottom photo: The once and future subject of Avenue Q's crown-jewel "For Now" lyric, former president George Walker Bush

    Thursday, March 05, 2009 at 12:01 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    03/07/2009: The (Almost) Glamorous Life

    03/05/2009: Only for... Uh... Well... Sometime...

    02/13/2009: Not Quite Back to Before

    12/30/2008: The Line of the Year

    12/29/2008: All Good Gifts, if Only for Yourself

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.