By Linda Buchwald
Avenue Q's final song, "For Now," about the fleeting nature of everything in life, has particular significance for Jennifer Barnhart, who has been with the show since its off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre. She says, "Even if it seems on the outside like it sucks, change is good. For instance, the fact that the show is closing." Though she feels lucky to have had a steady gig for six years, she is looking forward to auditions and new opportunities. "It's actually a good thing because it will allow me to grow and change as a performer."
In June, Avenue Q announced that it would be closing on September 13. "So often, when shows close, people get one week or even one day's notice that the next performance will be their last, so for us to have this kind of advance notice is really quite lovely," Barnhart says. "You can prepare for it or start to figure out what the next thing is or just make your peace with the process of it closing. It's really a much better way for us to get to approach saying goodbye."
Barnhart, the only cast member who has stayed with the show for its entire Broadway run, plays several characters in the show-a Bad Idea Bear, Mrs. T, and others. She also understudies Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut. This Sesame Street for adults was considered a risky venture for Broadway, but it went on to beat front-runner Wicked for the best new musical Tony. ("The most magical night of my life," says Barnhart.) By the time it closes, it will be the 20th longest running show in Broadway history. Countless celebrities have visited, including one of her role models Angela Lansbury and a very excited Tom Hanks. "There have been all kinds of interesting things that happened on and offstage, backstage. We've had lovely celebrities come to see the show, people who have sent letters saying how much the show has meant to them," Barnhart says. "I know that it has been probably the single most life altering experience that I've had professionally in that sense. Maybe not the single most, but definitely one of the most life affecting and life changing experiences that I've had, in addition to being a dream come true."
Prior to Avenue Q, Barnhart was working as a puppeteer in children's television, which she still continues to do, but she dreamed of being on Broadway even as a child. "It's funny because when I was a little kid I always wanted to be an actress and I always wanted to be a puppeteer. They were two different fields, or at least I looked at them in different ways, in terms of what one does with a career," she says. "If anyone had ever said to me that this kind of puppetry, which is so associated with television, would take me to Broadway, I would have laughed in their faces."
Barnhart's first exposure to Avenue Q was at an early reading at the York Theatre and she knew then that she wanted to be a part of it. She auditioned for the Vineyard run, and has been with the show ever since. While it was hard watching cast members leave, working with so many different actors has made it very easy for Barnhart to keep the show fresh, especially because she is the co-puppeteer for Nicky/Trekkie Monster, currently played by Christian Anderson. "I spend most of my time in the show attached to another human being. I've had four different people in that role and countless other understudies and vacation swings and people who have come in to do that part. What I do is meant to match somebody else's performance energy. When I'm assigned a new replacement, I have to take everything that I've done and throw it out and start from scratch... In a sense, I feel like I've done 4 completely different shows."
After Avenue Q closes, she will continue to work in television and also hopes to act in theater as a "human." For Barnhart, the saddest thing about the show closing is that some people will not have the opportunity to see it. "Right now in the current economic climate and how people are feeling scared these days, seeing a show like Avenue Q is a really good thing and I feel bad for the people who haven't seen it who are being denied that," she says. "That moment of going back into that world where we're all safe and special, but being able to laugh about the fact that the real world kind of sucks." But only for now.
(Linda Buchwald blogs for Critic-O-Meter and her own blog, Pataphysical Science, and is a member of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association. Her writing has appeared in various publications including The Sondheim Review, PopMatters, International Musician, and Making Music Magazine.)