After earning degrees in both English and music from Yale University in 1997, Robert Lopez felt he had wasted his time.
“There was nothing I was really qualified to do, except temp,” Lopez, 33, said. “I felt like the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate. It was disheartening.”
At 22, Lopez was going through what authors Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins would shortly label the “quarter-life crisis” — an identity breakdown 20-somethings experience when they leave the relative cocoon of college for work and the trappings and responsibilities of adulthood.
“This experience is difficult partly because a person has to go through it alone, and during a time when many aspects of life are already in pandemonium,” the authors write in their 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis. Lopez, however, found company for his misery, and turned angst into art. Two years after finishing up at Yale, he partnered with another aspiring songwriter, Jeff Marx, and began writing the musical Avenue Q.
“When we started writing `Avenue Q` 10 years ago, I was in my early 20s, feeling like I was on shaky ground and not sure how to accomplish what I wanted,” Lopez said. “I was lucky because during my quarter-life crisis I got to write about it and that’s what got me out of it.”
Set on a fictional street “in an outer borough of New York City,” Avenue Q, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004, is an adult-orientated parody of Sesame Street starring its own set of diverse puppets. Just as Sesame Street provides different stages of development for its range of characters (Elmo says he is 3-and-a-half years old and Big Bird, according to the show’s writers, is a feathered 6 year old), Avenue Q’s puppets are sort-of-typical 20-30-year-olds, complete with hard-ons, foul mouths, and navel-gazing. Sesame Street’s 4-year-old Grover might explain to preschoolers the difference between the antonyms “near” and “far.” Avenue Q characters such as Princeton, a recent college graduate searching for life’s meaning, sing “What Do you Do with a B.A. in English?” and “It Sucks to Be Me.”
“Often you reach the age where the road map ends,” says Robert McClure, 26, an Avenue Q puppeteer who animates Princeton and Rod, a gay Republican investment banker. “You’ve gone to high school because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and you’ve gone to college because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and then you graduate from college and no one tells you what you’re supposed to do anymore. Now, it’s up to you, and that’s terrifying for people who aren’t quite sure what they want.”
But the show’s appeal jumps identity self-help brackets.
“We’ve had a 75-year-old woman come to us after the show and say, ‘My god, I was laughing so hard. It was like looking at myself up there on stage,’” he said. “I think it has more to do with figuring out where you fit into the world, which is a more universal theme, than specifically your age.”
Smack in the middle of the quarter-life age range, McClure says he is lucky to have a career and fiancée that he loves. Although he considers himself happy at the moment, the industry he has chosen to work in is always unpredictable.
“It seems like I know where I fit in right now, but being an actor, you’re never sure what your purpose is because your contract ends … and then you’re unemployed again,” McClure said. “I think actors are in a permanent state of quarter-life crisis.” •
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