BWW Exclusive: Ben Durocher Recalls How AVENUE Q Helped Him Find His Purpose Back in 2004
AVENUE Q became an overnight sensation on Broadway in July 2003 following a sold-out engagement and was extended four times after being presented Off-Broadway by Vineyard Theatre and The New Group. Since it roared into the spotlight - with its singular cast of people and puppets including Princeton, Kate Monster, Rod, Nicky, Trekkie, Christmas Eve, Gary Coleman and Lucy T. Slut - opening on Broadway on July 31, 2003, Avenue Q has given over 6,000 performances, running seven years on Broadway before transferring to New World Stages in 2009, where it continues to play to large and happy houses.
The show marks its 15th anniversary this month with two weeks of special unique performances at New World Stages, with special guests including original cast members Jordan Gelber, Ann Harada, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jennifer Barnhart & Rick Lyon and John Tartaglia.
The return of the show's alumni feels a little bit like deja vu to current Princeton/Rod, Ben Durocher, who not only saw the musical back in 2004, but met the entire cast at the stage door afterwards. He's looking back at the experience below!
What are your memories of your first time seeing Avenue Q?
After much begging, my parents took me to see Avenue Q in August 2004, the summer after the show swept at the Tonys. I was 14, obsessed with puppetry and musical theatre, and knew that this show was tailor made for me.
What did you think of the show itself?
I had been listening to the cast album for months leading up to seeing the show, so I was quite familiar with the music, but had very little idea about the story of the show. As funny as Avenue Q is, the heartfelt and emotional moments are just as impactful. I remember being so moved watching Rod come out as the entire audience erupted in applause - I had never seen a gay character be cheered on like that. As a closeted 14 year-old, that was very meaningful to experience.
What are your memories of meeting the cast back in 2004?
I was in complete awe of the cast. I remember thinking: "These guys have the best job in the whole world, I want to do that too." I of course waited at the stage door and got the whole original cast to sign my Playbill and poster. Everyone was so sweet and I was proud to tell them that I too was a puppeteer too. Bobby Lopez happened to be at the show that night, and I recognized him from the Tony awards, so I got a photo with him too. Though the real highlight was meeting John Tartaglia, who I admired so much. In the years after the show I wrote fan letters to John, and he was always so generous with his time and advice. He gave me my first professional gig out of college: puppeteering in the national tour of his blacklight show ImaginOcean.
Did seeing the show play any role in shaping the course of your career as a puppeteer?
I had actually been studying puppetry from a very early age, making my own puppets and being mentored by a television puppeteer in my hometown. But after seeing Avenue Q, performing in the show became a huge goal. I went home and made my own versions of the Avenue Q characters and would perform songs from the show. I even remember mentioning that Princeton/Rod was my dream role when I auditioned for CCM, where I went to college for Musical Theatre.
Even as the show continued to run off-Broadway I had kind of written it off as something that would never happen for me. I got to play Princeton/Rod at a regional theatre in 2012, and had accepted that this production might be my only opportunity to live my Avenue Q dreams. You can imagine the elation I felt when in 2015 I got the call that my hero John Tartaglia, who was the resident director for Q at the time, wanted to hire me to play Princeton/Rod off-Broadway. I've now performed the role more times than anyone else in New York (more than 1,160 performances.) Dreams do come true, kids!
What do you think keeps audiences coming back to Avenue Q fifteen years later?
It's remarkable how well this show holds up fifteen years later. The humor and the heart still continue to resonate, and that is a testament to the genius writing of Jeff Marx, Bobby Lopez and Jeff Whitty. We have audience members that come to see the show again and again, and bring their teenaged children with them. It's a thrill to introduce this show to a new generation of theatre-goers. I can only hope that audiences will continue to discover and revisit this remarkable musical I feel so fortunate to be part of. Here's to 15 more years!
Ben with Jennifer Barnhart
Ben with Stephanie D'Abruzzo
Ben with Jordan Gelber
Ben with John Tartaglia
Ben with Ann Harada
Ben with Robert Lopez
Ben with Rick Lyon