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'Avenue Q' on Tour: A Chat with Rob McClure

For a while, it looked like Avenue Q may never come our way.  Shortly after winning the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, it was announced that instead of a national tour, Avenue Q would open up shop in Las Vegas and stay put.  Open it did, but instead of staying there, producers decided the "little show that could" needed a broader audience.  But was middle America ready for puppets talking dirty, having sex, and have very real angst about being a grown up?  So far, that answer has been a resounding"yes", as the show has earned raves nationwide.  That tour stops for two weeks at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. 

Before the show arrived in Baltimore, I had the great fortune to ask Rob McClure, who plays both Princeton and Rod in the show a few questions about being a part of Q.  Here's what he had to say!

James Howard:  Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Rob.  You come to the touring company from the Broadway Company of Avenue Q.  What role(s) did you play there?  Is playing Broadway really a unique experience?

Rob McClure: I played Nicky and Trekkie Monster on Broadway before taking on Princeton/Rod on the 1st National Tour. Broadway is obviously a dream come true, but audiences everywhere continue to make performing a blast. From San Diego, to Des Moines, to Pittsburgh...if the audiences want a Broadway Show...then we'll give them a Broadway show. 

James: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but what was the training like to learn to be a puppeteer AND a role?  Which came first, the puppet skills or the characters Rod/Princeton? 

Rob: The audition process for "Q" is intense. They really put you through the ringer. I had 8 callbacks, and 3 days of "Puppet Camp" before I landed Nicky/Trekkie on Broadway. I was always a big fan of the Muppets, but had no previous puppetry experience. Puppet camp truly redefined my preconceptions of puppetry... I'll never forget learning that before a puppet can speak...he has to inhale. It's those details that make the characters truly come to life. 

James: How much freedom were you and the rest of the cast given to create your own take on the characters?  Have you seen the other actors who have played Rod/Princeton – John Tartaglia, Barrett Foa, Howie Michael Smith?  If so, have they influenced your performance?

Rob: I was a HUGE fan of Avenue Q long before I ever dreamed of being a part of it. I saw it off-Broadway at the Vineyard, and waited at the stage door for autographs! So I have the utmost respect for all the people who have played these roles before me.  Johnny's comic timing...Barrett's expression... Howie's subtlety and masterful puppetry... However, you always have to make roles your own. I'm paid to tell a story...not do an imitation of John Tartaglia.  With that said...Avenue Q is a different beast. When I replaced Rick Lyon as Nicky/Trekkie, I did have freedom to rediscover, but the voices are clear parodies of children's television characters. So I definitely sounded like Rick as Nicky and Trekkie, not because I was imitating him, but because I was imitating the pop culture puppet icons that those characters HAVE to sound like for the audience to get the full effect of the joke. Does that make sense? 

James: Sure it does!  So, how much of Rob McClure is in Rod?  Princeton?

Rob: There is plenty of me in Princeton. I get teased a lot for my optimism. I get asked a lot about playing a gay character (Rod) as a straight guy. I approach him the same way I approach any character. He is someone who is desperately searching for love. Whether it's a Man, a Woman, a Monster? What's the difference? 

James: The Golden Theatre in New York City seems the ideal size for Avenue Q – it feels like the actors and the audiences are really close, and the communal feeling really works for the show.  Then there is the Hippodrome, a theatre that is probably three times the size of the Golden.  How has the show worked in larger venues?  Are the adjustments to your performance significant? 

Rob: Believe it or not, the HUGE houses have made very little difference in our performances. With the exception of some blocking adjustments for new site lines, the performance doesn't change. This script is so smart, and the score is so funny...that we don't feel the need to shove the show down their throats so that the top balcony gets the laughs. This show is at its best when the subtle truths come through as well as the raunchy punch lines. 

James: I've read that there was some concern about how some of the show's themes might play outside New York.  How have folks in more "traditional American" places responded to the rather adult elements in the score and book?  

Rob: Middle America has LOVED the show. The George Bush Line has gotten laughs in every city...even the Heart of Texas.

James: Why do you think Avenue Q resonates so much with audiences?

Rob: The themes of Avenue Q are universal.

James: What is your favorite moment in Avenue Q?

Rob: My favorite moment of Avenue Q....Gosh. That's a hard one. There is one line at the end of "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada" that is truly shocking. It's the most fun because the audience literally gasps...and then laughs uncontrollably. Some times they let out a scream...like the line came out of my mouth and smacked them across the face...WHAT FUN! 

James: Last question!  What are the pros and cons of traveling with a Broadway show?

Rob: I hadn't done ANY travelling before this tour, and to get paid to see the country doing one of the best musicals around is truly a dream.  The downside is missing family and friends. I got really lucky though. My beautiful and talented girlfriend (Maggie Lakis) happened to snag the Female Swing job right before the tour took off.   So we got rid of our house, sold our car, picked up our two cats, and took to the road.  One big happy family.

James: Again, thank you so much for your time, Rob!

Avenue Q opens at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre tonight, December 11, and continues through December 23.  Shows are Tuesday – Saturday at 8PM, Saturday at 2PM, and Sundays at 1:00 PM and 6:30PM.  Go to www.france-merrickpac.com or www.broadwayacrossamerica.com for theatre and ticket information, and visit www.avenueq.com/tour  for much more information on the show!

PHOTOS of the 1st National Tour of Avenue Q by Carol Rosegg.  TOP to BOTTOM: Rob McClure; Princeton, Rob McClure, Kate Monster and Kelli Sawyer; Minglie Chen, Rod, Nicky, Rob McClure.

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