A Whitty Native Son

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Whitty Native Son


Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Jeff Whitty already knew that it's a long, long way from Coos Bay, Ore., to the bright lights of Broadway.

He's only just discovered that it's even farther, theatrically speaking, to Las Vegas.

Whitty, a Coos Bay native now living in New York, wrote the Tony Award-winning book for the hit 2004 Broadway musical ``Avenue Q.'' Based on its New York success, ``Avenue Q'' opened to great fanfare at Steve Wynn's hotel in Las Vegas in a theater built especially for the show.

`Avenue Q' uses large puppets for its adult-themed plot. It's been called an X-rated Muppets show and drew rave reviews, along with three Tony Awards: Best Book, Best Score and Best Musical.

``The most fun onstage this year,'' said the New Yorker magazine. ``Disgustingly irresistible,'' The New York Times said.

The 34-year-old playwright was vacationing in the Virgin Islands this winter when he got the news that Wynn would close the show down this spring and substitute a new musical, ``Spamalot.''

The irony, Whitty said in a recent interview, is that "Avenue Q" was selling enough tickets in Vegas to make it very successful, in Broadway terms.

Trouble is, they weren't playing by Broadway rules anymore. Vegas producers expect to get more money from a play.

"We were selling an equal amount in Vegas as we do on Broadway," he said. "And we're doing great on Broadway. But Steve Wynn also bought `Spamalot,' and - how do I put this? - there weren't resources to build another theater for `Spamalot.' We got squeezed out.''

The Vegas closing was a good-news, bad-news situation for him, Whitty said.

"I feel bad for the cast, obviously, and the crew, and everyone who worked on the show," he said. "But there is a little bit of artistic relief about it. We had to cut the play down to 90 minutes, which was very difficult.

``The Vegas audience is very different. In New York, you make an evening of theater. In Vegas, you don't go to see a show as the only thing you do. So it had to be shorter."

Another difference is that in New York there's a theater-going audience that can be relied on to see shows in their early weeks. Tourists only start going to New York shows later in the game.

"In Vegas, it's a tourist audience right off the bat," Whitty said.

"I think my next play is going to be about Las Vegas," he said. "It would have to be a comedy. I have a little kernel of an idea of a play about what happens when art and commerce collide, and the hijinks that ensue."

Whitty insists he isn't bitter about the closing.

"I have no regrets," he said. "I invited everyone I knew to come to the opening, and everybody came. Even if the show ends up closing, I want the opening to be fabulous. I have this blue rabbit coat I wore and a white linen suit with a rhinestone belt. It was my one chance to be Liberace!"

In any case, ``Avenue Q'' is set to open this June in a Cameron Mackintosh production in London. And the Broadway production, running now for more than 2 1/2 years, recently topped 1,000 performances.

Meanwhile, Whitty's newest play had a brief world premiere in January at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif. …

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