AVENUE Q 'Exit Interview' with Jennifer Barnhart, Its Longest-Running Star
Second in a series
Avenue Q, the neighborhood, is supposed to be a place you stay only temporarily—until you move up and on to better things. Jennifer Barnhart’s had no desire to get out, though. “I decided a while ago that what I have is such a good deal,” she says. “I’m a principal on Broadway, doing all of the things that I love to do. I think I’m gonna do this for as long as I can.”
Thus, Barnhart became the only original cast member of Avenue Q, the show, to stay for its entire Broadway run. By the time its final curtain falls next weekend, she will have logged six and a half years with the musical, from off-Broadway to its Best Musical triumph at the Tonys to its Broadway finale on September 13.
Barnhart is Avenue Q’s Jen of all trades. She has her own (puppet) roles: cranky schoolmarm Mrs. T and the female member of the Bad Idea Bears who keep leading Princeton astray. She helps operate—“second handing,” in puppeteer lingo—both Trekkie Monster and Nicky. She manipulates Lucy T. Slut in scenes where she’s on stage with Kate Monster (or vice versa), while another actress voices both Kate and Lucy. Barnhart is also the understudy for Kate/Lucy. And she fills in with a hand, voice or whole body wherever else the script dictates.
As part of Avenue Q’s TV blitz during its final months on Broadway, Barnhart has been seen performing various Q duties on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Good Day New York. Barnhart has plenty of previous television experience—but not usually with her face visible on screen. She’s behind or beneath puppets on a whole bunch of kids’ shows, including Sesame Street.
As she prepared to conclude this long chapter in her life, Barnhart spoke recently with BWW about Avenue Q, Sesame Street and assorted other topics puppet- and actor-related.
When were you first brought together with Avenue Q?
I had seen it in readings because the puppeteers who were in it at the time were friends of mine, and I thought: I don’t know where this is headed, but this is brilliant and I hope I get to play with these people someday. That was back when they were pitching it to be a prime-time TV series for adults. That was the original idea. After, it went to the O’Neill musical theater conference—I was not part of it at that time, but I became part of the company when it was off-Broadway at the Vineyard.
Does the show feel different than it did six years ago?
In some ways very much so, and in some ways not at all. The basic themes are the same and are universal, which is why the show works so well and why the show has lasted this long. But it’s been delightful to watch these characters grow and change with the different people who’ve played them over the years. They end up taking on all of the layers of anyone who’s ever played them. That’s what’s helped to keep it fresh for me. So much of what I do is directly tied to another person—in some cases, literally. Especially when I do lip-synching for Lucy when the [person playing] Kate Monster is doing the voices: The interpretations can be vastly different and I have to work with whatever comes. It’s been great to see [them] and think, Hey, I may not have thought of that choice, but it totally works. It’s been really incredible in that sense, to watch it become something so much larger, in a way, than what we created.
Were you surprised by Avenue Q’s success?
I knew that I loved the show, and I knew the Vineyard audiences loved the show. It was all built up on word-of-mouth and became the show to see when it was off-Broadway. When we moved up to Broadway, we were a little concerned that we were going to price out our demographic, that the 30-year-olds that we thought the show was geared towards weren’t going to want to pay Broadway prices. Then we found out this show has a much broader appeal. My generation grew up watching Sesame Street and they get this is what we’re doing a love letter to, this is what we’re doing a spoof of. But the parents of our generation also love it. Teenagers and college kids love it. Very early on in the run on Broadway, a colleague of mine who was in her mid-40s at the time came up to me and said: “That’s my life up on stage there, again.”
There’s something sort of universal about puppets. In this country, the culture around puppetry is very different from anywhere else in the world. In America, we primarily associate it with children’s television. So the second you see a puppet that is well-manipulated and the character is cute and endearing, you go to this place that’s suspending suspicions and skepticism and cynicism.
In terms of how well it did and the fact that we won the Tony, that was a delightful surprise. There were a handful of us who felt sure we were going to win, but for the most part we didn’t think it was going to happen, we were just happy to make it as far as we did. And it’s made all the difference, I think. Let’s face it: Wicked will run for the next 10 years easily. Winning the Tony would not have made the difference in extending its run. Winning the Tony absolutely made the difference in extending our run.
What was it like when novice puppeteers started joining the cast?
Once the musical theater performers came in and had to learn this puppetry thing, it was really interesting to watch. And it was very gratifying to have pretty much everybody—from the creative team on—go, “Holy crap, this is so much harder than any of us ever dreamed.” It was sweet: Michael Croiter, our percussionist, said, “It is such a testament to how good you guys are that you make it look easy and it seems like anyone can do it.” It was gratifying in another way to watch these actors go from being terrified at having to perform with this thing on their arm to starting to embrace it and become comfortable with it and learn to express the emotions through it. There’s always sort of this magical moment that happens where it becomes this unconscious thing, because everything is so plotted and structured and almost choreographed when you’re learning the puppetry. And then—I would say about six weeks into performing it eight times a week—something would happen on stage and the actors would react naturally as they would as an actor, and the puppet would mirror them. It was becoming an instinctive thing. It was becoming fluent, basically. Whenever I describe performing in Avenue Q, I say: “We’re performing in a foreign language—the language of puppet, the language of gesture.” I am a native speaker; the original puppeteers were native speakers. All of the actors who come through are people who take immersion classes and become conversationally fluent.
Where can we see your puppetry on TV?
My big break was not Sesame Street—that came a little later for me. My big break was on the best children’s television show that no one’s heard of: Between the Lions. It’s a literacy show, it teaches kids how to read. The people who know about it love it. Between the Lions has been on the air for 10 years; many parents know about it, educators adore our show. We did a study to prove the curriculum works—kids reading scores improved by 33 percent—but unfortunately the ratings aren’t so great, our time schedule flops around depending on the market. We are still trying to shoot new stuff: I took off two, three weeks from Avenue Q in February to shoot two seasons worth of stuff. Once I started working on that show, it opened the doors for work on other children’s television, so I worked on Bear in the Big Blue House; Oobi, which was on Noggin; The Book of Pooh, on Disney Channel. At that point, I finally started getting calls from Sesame Street.
[Click here to watch a musical number from Between the Lions performed by Cleo, played by Jennifer.]
Which Sesame Street characters do you play?
Mama Bear, of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fame. I think I’m like the fifth woman to play her. I also inherited an old character of Richard Hunt’s that they bring out every now and then and give a song or scene: Gladys the Cow.
When you get Sesame Street, you think: If I’m lucky, I’m right-handing, or second handing, one of the principal characters, or I’m a background character with no lines. My very first episode on Sesame Street, I was Grandma Snuffleupagus. She only had the one episode, to my knowledge. I was in that big bear of a costume puppet—that big old walkaround—with somebody on my back end. And she’s about 70 pounds worth of puppet, let me tell ya.
Are the Muppets still considered the pinnacle in the puppeteer community?
Certainly, for this form of puppetry, yes. They’re the ones who established the form; everyone else has been doing work that is somehow derivative from it. Any show on television that has puppets on it today in that style owes a deep debt to the Hensons and all the great work that they’ve done. I was so proud of all the work I’d done on these other shows as well, but it’s Sesame Street for God’s sake. So, yes, it was definitely, “I’ve arrived, it’s a dream come true. Woo, I made it!”
Have you ever felt guilty about Avenue Q’s bawdy spoofing of Sesame Street?
Not for a split second! When you work in children’s television, you have to be so careful all the time about the material that you’re presenting. But there’s got to be a pressure release. There’s got to be a valve when the cameras stop rolling where the characters get to vent some very not-so-child-friendly feelings. There’s always been that sense of humor that’s part and parcel with doing this kind of thing—anyone who works with kids. There’s got to be some way to let it out, you know? So it made perfect sense from that standpoint, and it felt very liberating to get to do that. It was also very liberating to get to combine all of the different things that I love to do: singing and acting and puppeteering. It was the perfect show for me.
Which came first for you: acting or puppeteering?
When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the Muppets. I loved the Muppets. But I didn’t know how someone became a puppeteer. I knew to become a dancer, you take ballet classes; to become a painter, you go to art school. Well, how does somebody become a puppeteer? I did a little bit of stuff when I was a kid: I gutted my stuffed animals and gave puppet shows for the neighborhood kids. But once I was in junior high and high school, I started just doing theater. I would be in all the plays that I could. I didn’t get to be in that many musicals because I was pretty much the entire lower-brass section in my high school—I played the trombone. I’d always said, “I’d love to be in the musicals!” And they’d said, “Yeah, we need you in the pit.” But in college I did more musicals. I graduated with a BFA in acting and took a concentration in puppetry. I went to my “safety school,” my home-state school, University of Connecticut. And it wasn’t until after I got there that I found out it had an almost 30-year-old puppetry program—one of the few in the country, and I think still the only one that offers accredited degree programs both undergraduate and graduate-level. I hadn’t heard anything about it because the year I was applying, they had just about decided to terminate the program, because there was a low enrollment. The combined student body of undergraduate and graduate members was 8 students when I got there. Now they have a combined student body between 40 and 45, and they’re turning students away, and people are coming from all over the world to go to this program.
To what do you attribute the increased interest?
I’d have to say, for puppeteers of my generation, the death of Jim Henson was very influential, and inspired a lot of people to want to carry on and do things in that vein. Also, the work of artists like Julie Taymor—and puppetry just becoming more mainstream. Lion King did a lot for having people see puppets in a brand-new way, in theatrical terms. Julie Taymor did a lot for bridging that gap. So I think it just became more prevalent. Which is lovely, because when I was at university, Jurassic Park came out and we all watched it and we said, “That’s it, that’s the death of the puppeteer right there. CGI...who needs puppeteers anymore?” But the fact is, you still do. Even in the Harry Potter movies, Dumbledore, the headmaster, has a pet phoenix bird who lives in his office. And when the phoenix is flying, it’s CGI. But whenever Dumbledore has to touch him, it’s a puppet. Because there’s just a tactile sensibility that they can imitate really well with CGI—the technology’s come a long way—but even with CGI they will have a puppeteer laying down the basic movements.
What’s the longest break you’ve taken during Avenue Q’s run?
Two months, when I went off to shoot a brand-new series for PBS called Lomax: The Hound of Music. And the only reason that I took time off for that was they were shooting it in Mississippi. The character is named after Alan Lomax, who traveled around the country in the 1930s and collected folk music. He was the first person, basically, to record American folk music. The show is a music curriculum; it teaches kids about melody and rhythm, all done through the canon of the American folk song. It just started this year, so we’re still trying to get a following.
After the first two years I was in Q, Johnny and the Sprites came along—a Disney TV series, starring John Tartaglia. I was puppeteering on that during the day and doing Avenue Q at night, so for three months I didn’t have a day off. And I loved every second of it—when I wasn’t too exhausted.
[Watch Jennifer as Delta in a musical scene from Lomax here.]
What’s your favorite part in Avenue Q?
I love the song “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” The harmonies are beautiful, the sentiments in it are so universal. My only sadness is in my [regular] role, I don’t get to sing it. But I’m out there for it.
You don’t even have to have gone to college for it to be something you can relate to. There was a 10-year-old girl at the stage door one day who, when I asked her what her favorite song was, said “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” And I said, “Why?” She said, “Because I wish I could go back to kindergarten. You got to play all the time, you didn’t have homework...” She totally made it relevant to her context.
Was it hard to get used to doing puppetry on stage where you’re visible to the audience?
For me the most challenging part was—this will sound completely ridiculous—coordinating my feet. When we would do a dance number, when we would do “Life Outside Your Apartment,” our feet would be moving to a different rhythm than our hands would be moving, and you’re lip-synching to the rhythm of the song, not to the rhythm of your steps. Anytime they would introduce new choreography or change the choreography, I’d be: “Uh, wait, wait, wait...baby steps!” ’Cause it’s very sort of contrapuntal.
Avenue Q exposed some “secrets” of puppetry, like a puppet being voiced by someone who’s not operating it...
Part of the reason we chose to put that convention in Avenue Q is that it happens in children’s television. You will have one puppeteer who’s been cast in more than one role, and both of those characters are in the same scene. For instance, [on Sesame Street] Carroll Spinney plays both Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. If Oscar and Big Bird are in the same scene, Carroll will do whichever of the two has more lines, and while the cameras are rolling—so they don’t have to loop it or cut it or edit it—he will do the [other’s] lines live.
…and two people manipulating the same puppet…
That happens all the time on Sesame Street, or any children’s television show where you have a character who has “live hands,” or glove hands. Ernie is a perfect example. Bert has rod hands; Ernie has live hands, which means you slip a glove on and manipulate the hand live. The principal puppeteer, the person who does the voice, his right hand is in Ernie’s head and his left hand is in Ernie’s left hand. Well, where does the other hand come from? It’s such a complete illusion, you never really think about it. So when we did this, people were going: Oh, my gosh! I guess it does take two people to do that kind of puppet.
What’s in store for you post-Q?
The Sesame Street season starts September 20, I believe. I’m a day player on that, not a contract player, so if they call my characters in or they need an extra character or some right-hand assisting, I might get called in to do that.
I’ll be Madame Squirrel in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas up at Goodspeed as well. In the show, there are roles where they are wearing costumes with tails and different things like that and they’re also doing some puppeteering.
I would love to do some “human” stuff. It’s one of those things where you worry about whether or not there’s a stigma, like musical performers wanting to work in nonmusicals.
Are you going to get to keep one of your Avenue Q puppets?
I wish! I’d love to think I could that I could sneak my little Bad Idea Bear into my bag on my way out... She’s got this whole other life backstage: She has a torrid affair with the reed player. It will be very hard to let her go. Maybe she’ll get worn out, like the Velveteen Rabbit, and she won’t be of any use to anybody and they’ll let me have one of the retired ones someday. But unfortunately for me, they’re darn well made! And that is a testament to Rick Lyon and his team of builders.
Photos of Jennifer, from top: as Avenue Q’s Lucy; with Nicky (center) and Christian Anderson, a current castmate in Q; beside her Between the Lions character, Cleo; far left, working on a Sesame Street parody of High School Musical called “Pre-School Musical” with fellow Muppeteers Joey Mazzarino, center, and John Tartaglia (an original star of Avenue Q); alongside her Sesame Street alter ego, Mama Bear; on the set of Lomax: The Hound of Music, with Lomax, Peter Linz (also an original Avenue Q cast member) and her puppet, Delta; second handing Trekkie Monster with Rick Lyon, Trekkie’s original portrayer, in Avenue Q. [Avenue Q photos by Carol Rosegg; Sesame Street photos by Paul McGinnis; Lomax photo by Thomas Beck]