'Avenue Q' celebrates 10 years of offbeat puppetry.

Byline: Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK -- Theater producer Robyn Goodman walked into the popular Broadway restaurant Angus McIndoe in mid-2003 and bumped into Nathan Lane, sipping wine.

He told her that he'd just seen her raunchy new downtown musical.

"You're not moving that to Broadway, are you?'' he asked her in disbelief.

"Actually we are, Nathan,'' she told him.

Fast forward to the Tony Awards.

"Who hands me my Tony for the show?'' asks Goodman, with a smile. "Nathan Lane.''

The musical was "Avenue Q,'' the groundbreaking show that combined Muppet-style creatures with human actors to create something funny and dangerous, paving the way for "The Book of Mormon.''

With its puppet-on-puppet sex, off-kilter songs such as "It Sucks to Be Me'' and general naughtiness, "Avenue Q'' was a blast of tequila at a time when Broadway was safely drinking vino.

"Everyone in the business thought we were crazy,'' says Goodman, who would go on to produce hits such as "In the Heights'' and "Rogers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.''

This summer, "Avenue Q,'' which began life in an off-Broadway theater downtown, had a six-year Broadway run and is now chugging along nicely off-Broadway again, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

"It's just the little train that could,'' says Goodman.

It began with just three songs -- sung by a puppet.

Goodman and one of her producing partners, Kevin McCollum, recall hearing three songs from the nascent show at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. They were delivered by a happy-go-lucky green puppet called Nicky, controlled by designer Rick Lyon.

Two tunes have endured -- "If You Were Gay'' and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist'' -- and one fell along the way for not advancing the plot. ("Tear It Up and Throw It Away,'' a tune about what you get when you get a jury summons.)

What the producers loved was that the music and lyrics of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez -- both inspired by "South Park'' -- had fused the chirpy world of musical theater with the jaded view of those weaned on "Sesame Street,'' reruns of '80s sitcoms such as "Diff'rent Strokes'' and the Internet.

"I thought it was the most original thing I'd ever seen,'' says Goodman.

Marx and Lopez had been toying with making it into an episodic TV show about young temps in New York. Goodman thought it might fit better on the stage, as long as there was a love story.

For his part McCollum, whose Broadway credits include producing "The Drowsy Chaperone'' and "Rent,'' was amazed...

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