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.