The musical’s young composers, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, have it all planned out. “On the one hand, the Tonys don’t really matter. Tony or no Tony, the show is doing great,” says Marx. Still, he cracks, “better us than the guys down the street.”
The campaign kicked off at a lunch at John’s Pizza for the road producers, who were in town a few days after the nominees were announced. “We brought them all in and put on a little performance where we gently parodied the other shows of the season,” says Marx. “The whole place was decked out in red-white-and-blue tablecloths, plates, napkins, balloons.”
“Avenue Q sort of ripped the mask off the whole genteel Tony campaign,” says Variety’s Hofler. Which has led to a certain amount of tut-tutting in the theater world. “They invited the press to [the John’s Pizza event] and not just the road managers, which is sort of not done,” says one publicist, who allowed that it was, at least, on-message for the brand: “They want the perception to be that they’re renegade, upstarty.” (And while they’re at it, to remind everyone that renegade and upstarty are winning qualities.)
Whether Avenue Q’s snarky campaign, with its cunning mixture of bratty satire and genuine self-promotion, will pay off—as Miramax’s brazen pursuit of the Academy Awards did when it garnered gold for movies like Shakespeare in Love—remains to be seen. Certainly, the Broadway buzz continues to suggest that this is “the year of Wicked,” as one voter puts it. “Which is really unfortunate for Avenue Q. They put together a good campaign.” In the short run, Avenue Q’s efforts have paid off: The show got six nominations, and a coveted three-minute performance slot.
According to observers, the race could swing a few different ways. There’s the possibility of a befuddling Solomonic split like the one that happened two years ago, when the more-conventional Thoroughly Modern Millie won for Best Musical and the up–from–Off Broadway Gen-X operetta Urinetown was given the consolation prizes of Best Score and Best Book. Alternately, the hipster vote could split between Avenue Q and its smart competition, Caroline, or Change. Moreover, since Avenue Q’s contender for Best Actress in a Musical, puppeteer Stephanie D’Abruzzo, is up against stiff competition—the two Wicked witches, Donna Murphy, and the gloriously solemn Tonya Pinkins of Caroline (who the Times has predicted will win)—the grapevine suggests that Q might get shut out altogether.
“Recognizing excellence has always been the prime rationale for the Tonys,” says Jed Bernstein, a former advertising executive who took over at the League of American Theatres and Producers in 1995 and was given the task of “branding Broadway” to do battle for America’s entertainment dollar against professional sports and the latest Madonna tour. “The TV show has been about that, but also about showing Broadway to a great many people.”
Of course, there’s an upside to all this competition: Isn’t it good to have the race be more competitive, more aboveboard, more fun? In case of emergency, Broadway can always—like Eve Harrington of yore—store that shiny award where its heart ought to be.