AVENUE Q 'Exit Interview' with Ann Harada: We Ruv You, Christmas Eve!
Last in a four-part series
“Everything in life is only for now.” Those words will ring extra bittersweet when the cast of Avenue Q sings them on September 13, the day of the show’s final performance on Broadway. By mid-August, Ann Harada had already found that “getting through ‘For Now’ is very difficult for me at this point, because every line is so true.”
Harada has one of the longest histories with Avenue Q. Back when songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx were just sketching out the score “and they needed an Asian actress to come in and sing Christmas Eve, I was that girl,” says Harada, who met Lopez and Marx through her college pal Amanda Green, who’d been in the BMI workshop with them. Harada played Christmas Eve when the show was developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, and when it got an off-Broadway production at the Vineyard Theatre in early 2003. And she was there when it bowed on Broadway in the summer of ’03—and when it pulled off one of the all-time biggest upsets, topping Wicked for Best Musical at the 2004 Tonys.
As Christmas Eve, the highly educated, heavily accented Japanese-born social worker married to slacker wannabe comedian Brian, Harada earned herself a signature song, “The More You Ruv Someone,” and became a favorite of musical theater buffs. Her delivery in “It Sucks to Be Me” is now near-iconic. She has gone on to play Madame Thénardier in the Broadway revival of Les Misérables and originate the role of Kathy in both the Broadway and L.A. productions of 9 to 5: The Musical.
There have also been several return engagements as Christmas Eve. Harada departed Avenue Q for a few months in late 2004 for the birth of her son, Elvis, who will be 5 in November. About a year after returning from maternity leave, she again left the show in early 2006...only to reunite with Christmas Eve for the West End opening that June. She performed in the London production—which is still running—until November 2006. Then, this summer, just a couple of months after 9 to 5 opened on Broadway, Harada left that show to go back into Avenue Q. (Soon after, 9 to 5 announced its closing, which occurred on September 6.)
With a few weeks left on the Avenue, Harada chatted with BroadwayWorld about her Q alter ego, the challenges and rewards of costarring with puppets and what it was like to help create a mega-hit.
How have you changed during the run of Avenue Q?
I feel like during Avenue Q I grew up. I had a child, and because of Avenue Q I got to go abroad and live in London for six months. Since Avenue Q, I’ve been in two other Broadway shows. It’s just been like a big, big chunk of my life—a big time of my life. To me, it’s the perfect show to have grown up with because every line means so much to me now, has so much significance, it’s like a bible for how to live your life. It’s almost like “The World According to Peanuts”; my world is “The World According to Avenue Q.”
Has Christmas Eve also changed?
At each point, I was happy to have the break because it enabled me to rethink her a little bit. I would say the Christmas Eve of right now is different from the Christmas Eve of the first pass—which is good. It’s sort of my way of trying to keep her fresh. It’s always a weird experience to start over with new people. You’re doing the same show, but it’s all coming out differently. When I came back this time, I’m not just doing this show with the people [in the current cast]; I’m, like, doing it with the ghosts of everybody else I’ve ever done it with. God knows, there are people who have been in shows a heck of a lot longer than I have—the people over at Phantom, or those kids from Cats. I’m sure they’ve seen a million people come and go, and it must be very odd.
I feel like she’s a little gentler now than she was then. Not in any way that affects the laughs or the intent of the scene work, but just because I’m gentler now [laughs]. I feel like I personally have more of a depth of understanding for the human condition than I did then [laughs]. A lot of it is from having a child, and a lot of it is, I’ve been through different kinds of experiences now and I feel like I’m more humbled, I have more compassion or understanding, or something… I would say I’m more mature now, and so she is too.
Did you ever hear from people who objected to the portrayal of Christmas Eve?
There are always going to be people who are offended by that. And to those people, I just say: “I’m sorry you were offended, but you’ve completely missed the point of the entire show.” I’ve never had a problem with her, because to me she is not a stereotypical character. To me, a stereotypical character is someone whose entire reason to be there is to provide some sort of comic relief because they speak funny. Whereas Christmas Eve’s humor comes out of the situation. To say that you can’t present an Asian person on stage with an accent is wrong, because it’s not like there aren’t Asian people in the world who have accents. To me, it’s not that I’m making fun of her; it’s that she is a very real, funny, flawed person who happens to have an accent. Maybe people might start out thinking of her as a stereotypical character, but I would hope by the end of the show they would see she is not. She’s bright and accomplished and frustrated—she’s a fully fleshed character, and that’s why I love her and would never be insulted or offended by her. So what, she happens to have an accent. She needs to have an accent, because that’s the way the show is structured. If people are offended by that, I just have to throw my hands up and go, “Well, you don’t get it!”
What will be Avenue Q’s place in musical theater history?
I think it will always be the little engine that could. It came out of nowhere, it was purely original, it was a whole bunch of unknowns—the writers, the director, the actors. We won the Tony against Wicked, which nobody thought we would and we never thought that we would. They’re such a huge juggernaut, they’re never going to stop. They certainly have a great chance to be the longest-running show in Broadway history, and why not? It was like: “Wow, we started this. This just makes us laugh so much. I wonder if anybody else will get it?” Even to be able to do it off-Broadway at the Vineyard was like, “This is it. This is the top accomplishment.” And then for that show to go to Broadway and find a wider audience and now know that it’s a thing all over the world and people all over this country have seen it… I truly believe that it was born out of such goodwill and original humor and such a fresh take and a distinctive voice. That’s what’s thrilling about it, not that we might end up in the top 25 shows in Broadway history. That’s amazing, but the great thing is it was this thing that made us laugh and we found so funny, and to find that so many people agree with us is really the joy of it.
Has this show spoiled you for the future?
Let’s put it like this: I don’t expect to ever have another Avenue Q in my career, and I’m thrilled that I had one. For every actor, that’s the kind of work that you ultimately want: You want to be in on something from the beginning, and you want to create a unique and special character, and you want people to go “Oh, you were the original…” And then it’s a big hit. That’s like your dream trajectory. If you get one of those things in your career, that’s a blessing. I’d like to have lots more of those, but if it doesn’t happen, that’s okay too. It’s the luck of the draw in so many ways. So, “Yeah for me!” that I had one. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future? To have a part of all of that is so rewarding, so you just keep going and hope that someday another show makes you feel sort of like that.
Tell us about working on 9 to 5.
This is how I feel about 9 to 5: I never worked with a cast that got along as well. I love that cast so much, I can’t even tell you. We went through so many changes and technical difficulties and whatever in California that we really bonded. When we came to New York, we made a ton of changes—every day. We were really, really thrilled with what we put up. And for whatever reason, the critics didn’t like it, but the audiences always did. It was a great shock to everybody when the closing was announced, and I feel almost more devastated about that than I do about the closing of Avenue Q. It’s really a shame ’cause people who come to it absolutely love it.
I feel like a part of that 9 to 5 cast even though I left. When I finally got to see the show from the front—when you’re in it, you never get to see the show—I was like, “Oh, my God, this show looks amazing!” I’m just super-proud of 9 to 5 and I’m super-proud of what we managed to do with it. I feel badly that it didn’t work out the way we all hoped it would. The reason I left was because I got the chance to go back to Avenue Q, and that was my original show. Not everyone gets a chance to start a run and finish a run, and I just had to with Avenue Q.
Was it your idea or the producers’ for you to return for the final months?
They asked me if I would come back. In my mind I’d always hoped that I would be able to close it, but I don’t think that I ever really was thinking “It would be at this time…” If I’m still of an age where it makes sense to be that characters—I mean, I had no idea it would run a year, 20 more years… I was thrilled to be able to come back and close it.
Were you shocked when the Avenue Q closing was announced shortly after your return was?
Not very surprised. I guess I’m never surprised by that sort of thing anymore. I was definitely a little sad ’cause it was the end of an era, but I understand.
When you first started doing Avenue Q, what kind of adjustments did it take interacting on stage with puppets and not just other actors?
Jordan Gelber, the first Brian, and I would talk about this all the time. We were so trained to look into the eyes of the actor you’re playing with, and all of a sudden you can’t look at them—you have to look into the eyes of the puppet you’re playing with. It took us forever to figure out how to give the puppet the full focus that we were so used to giving the actor. Even now, sometimes, I’ll catch my eye sort of wandering off. It’s really hard not to, because the puppeteer is right next to the puppet, and all the puppeteers move their faces as if they were the puppet, so if you catch their expression, it’s exactly what Lucy would be saying, or Kate or Nicky or whoever. Because of that, it’s sometimes really compelling to want to look at the actor and you can’t. That’s always been a difficult thing to get used to, but now it’s kind of second nature.
Has your son ever seen Avenue Q?
He’s very fond of the puppets. He goes backstage and he sees the puppets, and some of the cast members are sweet enough to put them on and play with him. His favorite puppets are the Bad Idea Bears—which pretty much sums up his personality too. But I would not let him see Avenue Q. That’s a lot of discussions that I don’t really want to have right now.
Has he seen you perform in any show?
He never really has. He had no interest in seeing 9 to 5—he told me very firmly. I don’t think he’s old enough to sit through a big, long show without making some sort of disruption. And I don’t want to be one of those parents.
Is he displaying any signs of becoming a performer?
No! I don’t think that’s where his talents lie, and that makes me very happy. He is taking piano, and he’s just terrible.
What was it like taking the show to London?
We were very nervous because we weren’t sure they were going to understand all of the American jokes, especially the character of Gary Coleman. That character went through the most changes in London. In the beginning, he wasn’t even called Gary; he was called Job, and he was sort of an all-purpose child-actor down-on-his-luck character. Apparently, Cameron Mackintosh—who produced it in London—felt very strongly that the character had to be played by a man, as opposed to New York, where the character had always been played by a woman. So we had an actor named Giles Terera play Gary in London. And then, before we even started previews, we were like, “You know, this is dumb. Let’s just call him Gary.” And then, two days later: “Let’s just call him Gary Coleman.” It turned out everybody knew who Gary Coleman was—they have American TV. So absolutely nothing was lost in the translation there. Other things: We had to change “Long Island iced teas” to “absinthe daiquiris”—not that “absinthe daiquiris” wouldn’t work perfectly well in America! We had to change that “those stupid Polacks” line [in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”]; they don’t have Polish jokes in England. It was changed to “French people are such assholes.”
I would say the laughs were pretty much the same, except that “George Bush!” [in “For Now”] always brought the house down. That was huge. Funny is funny, you know, and I think the reason Avenue Q has sustained is the jokes really are situational, they’re not just jokes to be jokes. You fall in love with the puppets and care about them, and there’s a heart to that story; we’re not just making puppet-sex jokes.
Were London audiences different from New York’s?
I don’t know if it was so much the audiences, but I know how it felt for me to go over as the only American. That cast treated me like I was…Elaine Stritch. For the first time, I realized, “Oh, my gosh, I am so much older than these kids.” That was one. And two, because I had been part of the original Broadway cast, everybody treated me like, “Oh, Miss Harada, I’m so thrilled to meet you!” Which is really not my usual first-day-in-rehearsal thing. As if I was some sort of great American diva of the stage, which of course I am not. They have such reverence for Broadway, and original cast members on Broadway, and the fans in London are so passionate about collecting the original cast recordings and following all the news. You just don’t get it when you’re here how what we do has such an impact on theater fans all over the world. I never got that until I went to London and people would say, “I came all the way from Denmark to see this!”
Where can your fans see you after September 13?
I’m going to be doing a NYMF show, Judas & Me. It’s about Judas Iscariot and his mother—his kind of overbearing stage mother. I play his sister. [It’s written by] Matt Sklar and Chad Beguelin; they wrote The Wedding Singer. Jeremy Dobrish is directing.
[On September 14, Ann will be reading the stage directions in a special benefit presentation of Love! Valour! Compassion! by the National Asian American Theatre Company; go to www.naatco.org for details.]
And what’s going to happen to Christmas Eve?
Oh, well, you know, she becomes a very successful therapist [laughs]. Sure, she and Brian move to the Lower East Side, and that’s a step up from Avenue Q, but I’m sure within 10 years she’s on Park Avenue. I don’t know what happens to Brian, God love him, in this economy.
Photos of Ann, from top: a merry Christmas Eve; with Nick Kohn, her current and final onstage hubby; far right, with the original cast of Avenue Q in 2003; center, in 9 to 5, starring (foreground, from left) Megan Hilty, Allison Janney and Stephanie J. Block; (left) with Jordan Gelber, Q’s original Brian; (right) with Kate Monster and Anika Larsen from the final cast; in the original London company of Avenue Q in 2006. [Avenue Q photos by Carol Rosegg; 9 to 5 photo by Joan Marcus; London photo by Nigel Norrington/Camera Press/Retna]
This concludes our series of interviews with members of the final Broadway cast of Avenue Q. Click here to read about Rob McClure (Princeton/Rod); here for Jennifer Barnhart, the only person to perform in the show for its entire run; and here for Anika Larsen, the last Kate Monster/Lucy T. Slut.