[Ed. Note: The internet really is all about porn. That may not sound like a huge revelation, but for Jeff Marx, the lawyer-turned-composer behind the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q, it was an epiphany that changed his life. Marx was a practicing attorney who traded in his bar card for a Tony Award—and he gave Bitter Lawyer the inside story on how a writing sample from Cardozo’s Law Revue and getting fired from Sesame Street put him on his path to success.]
Where did you go to law school?
Cardozo (Yeshiva University), class of 1996.
Their name kept coming up as a great place for entertainment Law, [and] I desperately wanted to be in NYC. Of the three law schools that accepted me (out of the 22 I applied to!), Cardozo offered me the most generous scholarship.
Did you ever practice law?
I did. I worked for a couple entertainment lawyers during and after law school (Barry Manilow’s lawyer and then Kurt Vonnegut’s lawyer), and I had jobs and internships in the legal departments of Radio City Music Hall and Children’s Television Workshop. All of those were pretty short-lived experiences.
I hated having a boss (and I wasn’t very good at it). Eventually I just hung up a shingle, and took on as many private clients as I could find, and worked out of my apartment. It wasn’t very fun because I was learning as I went along. Everything I did seemed to take forever. I found I was spending so much time learning how to do everything as I went along that I was spending 10-times longer on each job than I could actually reasonably charge for… So when I rounded the bills down to a level the clients wouldn’t balk at, instead of earning the $150 per hour I was charging, I was actually earning more like $15 per hour.
More importantly, I always felt like I was tying up other people’s loose ends and cleaning up other people’s dirty laundry. I envied the clients and had this deep feeling I really wanted to be the client, not the lawyer.
Why did you go to law school?
As a Musical Theater Performance major in college, I was planning on having a career singing, acting, and dancing in Broadway musicals. Problem was that I wasn’t very good at it though. One of my teachers actually sat down and told me I had no talent and would never make it as an actor.
Who knows if she was right or not, but she totally took the wind out of my sails, I got depressed, and I just gave up on it. From that moment on, I never auditioned for anything ever again. So I just changed directions and decided I’d go work behind the scenes as a theatrical lawyer and eventually as a theatrical producer. My first business card said, “Jeff Marx, Entertainment Lawyer and Big Broadway Producer.”
As it turned out, the law led me into writing musicals, and I’ve never been sorry about any of it.
What was the best moment in your legal career?
Browsing through the old files, reading all the contracts and correspondence related to my favorite Barry Manilow album, “Even Now.” Seriously.
What was the worst moment in your legal career?
Getting fired from Sesame Street. Seriously.
I was an intern in the production offices, hoping to make friends with the right people to eventually forge my way into writing songs for the show. I thought that would have been so amazingly cool. I didn’t tell them I was a law school grad who already passed the NY Bar. I just said I was interested in TV, so I worked there as an intern, spending my days Xeroxing and distributing scripts, getting coffee, clearing off tables before and after meetings, running errands, and answering the phones when the receptionist went on her lunch break.
After doing this fulltime for a few weeks, I heard a part-time job was opening up in the Business Affairs department, so I went in and met with them secretly, I came out of the closet as a lawyer, and they hired me to help prepare contracts two days a week. So I started splitting my time between the studio and the legal department.
Eventually, on the studio side, I pissed off the music director by pushing him too much to give me a chance at writing something for the show, he complained about me and got me fired, just to get me off his back. (What the hell kind of heartless person—at Sesame Street, no less!—fires an intern?!)
Anyway, the next day, the head of the legal department called me in and said since I was fired from the studio, they couldn’t keep me on in any capacity, and so they had to fire me too. Ouch. They actually took away my ID card and had security escort me out of the building.
But, I did keep in touch with some of the people I met there, and when my collaborator and I started writing a Muppet Movie, which eventually led to Avenue Q, I asked one of my friends from Sesame Street for help finding a puppeteer to perform a demo of one of our songs in our workshop class with a puppet, and she introduced me to Rick Lyon (a Sesame Street muppeteer). Rick is a total genius, and he ended up designing and building all the puppets for Avenue Q and starring in it on Broadway.
Of course I could have never predicted any of this, but in retrospect, it all seems so obviously necessary and inevitable…
What was the moment when you said, “I’ve got to get the f*** out of law?”
While I was out on my own looking for clients, I realized that pretty much anyone with a career in theater already must have a lawyer, so I decided I’d better go where the young, talented people are—the people who don’t have lawyers yet… I auditioned for the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, a well-respected writing class for songwriters who want to learn to write Broadway musicals. It’s a fantastic workshop, and shows like Little Shop of Horrors, A Chorus Line, Forbidden Broadway, and Once on This Island have come out of there. It was amazing that they accepted me based on my audition of parody lyrics I had written for the Cardozo Law Revue, but they did, and I entered the class as a songwriter.
I really didn’t consider myself a songwriter—the only songs I had ever written were jokey lyrics for the Law Revue shows!—but I figured that even if I was the worst writer in the class, it didn’t matter because I was just there to meet clients.
It turned out, though, that I learned fast, and I got pretty good at it. Eventually, I started working with a guy I met in the class, and our first project was writing a spec, Muppet Movie, and it tied for first place and a big $150,000 award! We tried to sell our script and songs to the Jim Henson company, but they didn’t buy it, and that led us to say, “To hell with the Muppets—let’s create our own Muppets!” So, we started creating a show with original characters based on ourselves and our friends…
That became Avenue Q, and it went from the BMI Workshop all the way to Broadway.
Somewhere along the line, I realized writing (and work-shopping and rewriting) funny songs was way more fun than doing people’s contracts, and I stopped taking on clients. And that was it; I just sort of stopped doing it. Eventually, when clients accidentally fell into my lap, I started telling them I don’t practice law anymore, and I referred them to friends.
Do you use anything you learned from your law school days as a composer, or are the two fields distinct in every possible way?
Oh, God, yes. Law school taught me discipline, precision, hair-splitting—all of which is incredibly important to lyric writing… Saying exactly what you mean and only what you mean… Choosing your words very carefully… Reworking and rewriting until something says exactly what you want it to without any fat…
Plus, I had a little working knowledge of copyright law, parody, free use, right to privacy, etc., which, of course, came in handy when we were writing a show that was essentially a takeoff on The Muppets and Sesame Street, and portrayed Gary Coleman as one of the characters…
I always say I learned enough in law school that when my collaborators would say things like, “But of course we can’t really do that!” I’d think a little and say, “Actually, umm, yes we can…”
Law school also taught me that even if what you’re doing is defensible, you can still be sued, and you DON’T want to get caught up in a long, drawn-out, expensive lawsuit… Even if you eventually would win.
When we first put Avenue Q on its feet, I figured we’d of course hear from the Henson family and CTW sooner or later, who would likely threaten us and want to shut us down. So I invited them—Jim Henson’s daughter and widow and their lawyers—to come to our very first reading to see what we were doing and start a discussion about it.
Thankfully, they came and loved the show, and told us Jim would have loved it! They saw it as an homage and love-letter to Jim Henson’s legacy, and so they left us alone (as long as we included disclaimers, warning people that even though it used puppets, the show was not for kids and that it wasn’t theirs). It was good that we invited them early on because they got to see our good intentions and got on our side immediately, so there was never a threat or fight. Having gone through law school absolutely taught me to make friendly, smart, preemptive moves to avoid a legal battle!
How did you become a professional composer? What was the process for breaking in? Was it difficult?
It’s the old thing about doing what you love. I was having a great time writing songs in the BMI Workshop. Maybe because I didn’t have the pressure of having dreamt of writing musicals since I was a child, or maybe because I thought of myself as a lawyer just looking for clients and dabbling in songwriting as a know-nothing amateur, it freed me up to just have fun.
So we were writing foul-mouthed songs for adult puppets, songs about racism, porn, coming out of the closet and hogging up the bathroom while other people are waiting to use it—stuff we would never have written if we were seriously trying to write a Broadway musical as a career. But we were having a blast, and people liked what we were writing.
So we crafted this fun, dirty little show and put together a prototype of the show (which we thought we were going to pitch to TV networks as a late-night series) in a borrowed theater in the basement of a church one Monday night. We invited everyone we knew, posted it on the internet and invited the general public, for free, to come see what we were doing, hoping to generate some buzz.
The producers of Rent came to see it, and sonofabitch, they got right on board and took over the business end of producing it, and shepherded it all the way to f*cking Broadway and the Tony Awards. And there it’s been for six years.
It’s also spawned a National Tour with productions in Las Vegas, London, Sweden, Finland, the Philippines, Mexico, Israel, Brazil, Buenos Aires, Italy, and now Australia. Apparently they’re also planning productions in Singapore, Paris, and South Africa. Honestly, we couldn’t have planned this if we had tried. We just worked on something we thought was fun and funny, and people liked it and it caught on.
What’s a typical day like for you? Admit it, being a composer is way better than being a lawyer, right?
There’s a wonderful Tony Robbins quote that says, “A happy person is not someone with a certain set of circumstances, but someone with a certain set of attitudes.” It’s amazing that it’s taken all this good fortune to teach me that success and money truly don’t bring you happiness. I’m busy working on that—learning to be happy—and, honestly, right now I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. That has everything to do with my boyfriend, my dogs and my appreciation for the world around me.
And, of course, it sure helps to not have to get up early, work long hours, wear a tie, and have a boss… I basically make a nice living having written a bunch of dirty songs for puppets, and I’m busy trying to figure out what to do next. There are worse ways to spend the day.
You wrote the book, How To Win a High School Election: Advice and Ideas from Over 1,000 High School Seniors, while waiting for your New York Bar results. Didn’t you want to take a vacation or are you a masochist? Seriously, though, what inspired you to write the book?
One of the most stressful times in my life was after taking the bar exam, waiting for the results, not knowing if I could celebrate or if I was going to have to start studying again—having to try to outdo the preparation I had done last time. I was climbing the walls with anxiety. Thank God I had this idea for a book because it gave me something to focus all my nervous energy into.
I interviewed almost 15,000 kids about the best campaign strategies they had seen in their schools and compiled the best ideas into this resource book. I’m really proud of having written a book that has helped so many kids accomplish something they have their heart set on. I remember how much it changed my life when I was elected student council VP. It did wonders for my self-esteem and made me feel anything was possible.
You co-wrote the lyrics and music for the songs in Avenue Q, which includes the song The Internet Is For Porn. How did you come up with that?
I realized I was completely addicted to internet porn, and I suspected I wasn’t the only one. So we created an adult version of Cookie Monster, who, instead of being addicted to cookies, is addicted to porn. We called him Trekkie Monster. He has red eyes with big bags under them, horns, and furry palms. Generally, all these songs started with a sad kernel of truth about our own lives and our friends’ lives, and we just kept kicking sand over them until they were more lighthearted and funny than preachy.
You’ve won a Tony and have been nominated for a Grammy and an Emmy. Do awards matter, or are they just a bunch of fluff?
It’s lovely to be validated and appreciated for what you do. Although, on one hand, I think winning awards probably means more to the people who don’t win than it means to those who do. I mean, it’s just a trophy gathering dust. It’s not like I sleep with it.
On the other hand, it’s a nice stamp of approval and endorsement. I’m certain Avenue Q ran as long as it did because it won the Tony. It was an outside source of experts editorializing and telling people, “This is worth seeing.” It landed us on the front page of every newspaper and magazine Arts section in the country, basically saying, “This is a great show, you should go see it.” I’m sure it sold a zillion tickets for us.
We couldn’t have had the same credibility just trying to convince people it’s a great show through advertising. It was disappointing when we lost the Grammy to Wicked and the Emmy to SNL‘s “Dick in a Box”… But hey, life goes on. You win some, you lose some.
Last Christmas you performed your song White Kwanzaa on D.L. Hughley’s short-lived CNN show. Can you get away with edgier material if it’s packaged in a funny song? Have you ever gotten backlash from people who didn’t get the joke?
Ho, yeah. You can say so much through humor that you’d get slapped down hard for just coming out and saying. And still, you can’t please everyone. Look at the reader’s reviews for our [ Avenue Q (2003 Original Broadway Cast)] CD on Amazon. 170 people gave it 5 stars and thought it was the most hilarious thing ever, and 17 people gave it 1 star, absolutely hated it, thought it was ridiculously stupid, and wished they could have given it negative stars. Nobody has a 100 percent approval rating. People said the same thing about the White Kwanzaa song—some loved it, some hated it.
Although, I must say, the amazing thing about puppets is that it sort of smoothes over a lot of ruffled feathers. You can get away with an awful lot because the puppets are so friendly and cute. It’s hard to be really offended by them. Avenue Q makes fun of Blacks, Asians, Jews, Scientologists, frat guys, gays, Indian cab drivers, Republicans… The only people we’ve ever had complaints from, really, were the Republicans. Go figure.
Have you ever considered writing a musical about your law school experiences? What would you call it? Would any famous cases or lawyers make the cut?
I had a lot of fun doing the Law Revue shows at Cardozo. My show, Law Miserables, was really the first time I had written songs, and it started everything for me. I don’t know, maybe there’s something there. Hmmm.
Did you ever consider yourself a Bitter Lawyer?
Actually, no. I loved law school, and even though I didn’t like practicing law, I’ve always been glad to have the education. I’ve always felt it helped me. So I’m sorry to not join the chorus, but having studied law has served me very well, and I’m very happy with where it led me. I’ve always believed things tend to work out for the best when you make the best out of how things work out.
What’s a blog that you just can’t resist?
I find myself reading Twitter many times a day. You get basic headlines and links from the people you like and choose to follow. So you’re basically following people whose interests align with yours. It gets addictive. I think Twitter is the new porn. (Not that I’ve lost interest in porn, though…!)
To find out more about Jeff Marx and his writing partner, Robert Lopez, check out their official site. Also, go see Avenue Q, which has its final Broadway performance on September 13, 2009.