Sitting alone at the rear of the house at New World Stages on Friday night, Jeff Whitty wept after that evening’s performance of “Avenue Q.”
Mr. Whitty, the book writer for that Tony-winning puppet musical, was not crying at his own handiwork. He shed his tears in mourning for Gary Coleman, the “Diff’rent Strokes” actor who died that day, and in relief that the musical, which includes a satirical character based on Mr. Coleman, had been well received by Friday’s audience after some surgical changes to the show.
Despite some very serious consideration that “Avenue Q” would require significant revision or have to drop the role altogether, Mr. Whitty said that Gary Coleman, the character, would live on in the musical.
“After watching it tonight, I would miss him too much,” Mr. Whitty said. “Personally, I would miss him terribly.”
From its debut, “Avenue Q,” which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2004, as well as Tonys for Mr. Whitty and for its composers, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, has included a character called Gary Coleman. Introduced in the show’s opening number, “It Sucks to Be Me,” the character (who is played by a woman) clearly identifies himself as the former child star who “made a lot of money that got stolen by my folks.”
Now he works as the superintendent in the tenement where the show’s puppet and human characters live, and often reminds them that, as bad as their lives may seem, his is much worse. (“Try having people stopping you to ask you, ‘What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?’” he sings. “It gets old.”)
The real-life health problems of Mr. Coleman, who had a history of seizures and congenital kidney disease, had been an ongoing concern to the cast and crew of “Avenue Q,” though never fully dealt with.
“I would joke and say, ‘Oh my God, I’ll be unemployed, I won’t have a job,’” said Danielle K. Thomas, who has played the Coleman character for nearly three years on Broadway, Off-Broadway and on tour.
“But then when it really happened,” Ms. Thomas continued, “it was like, wow, this is something really serious. And you really had to think about how to approach this.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Coleman was hospitalized for a head injury caused by a fall. He suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on Friday after he was taken off life support.
During this time, Mr. Whitty said, the creative team of “Avenue Q” was in increased contact with one another. Acknowledging that he, Mr. Marx and Mr. Lopez do not speak as much as they did in the show’s earlier days, Mr. Whitty described their first conference call after Mr. Coleman’s death as “a ‘Big Chill’ moment.”
Mr. Whitty said he was fearful that the jokes in “Avenue Q” about the career and financial troubles that Mr. Coleman faced in adulthood would now seem off-putting or offensive. “The question came up for me,” he said, “so do we bring in a new character?”
Instead the decision was made for the show to go forward with small changes throughout, some of them made backstage in mid-performance. (A line in which the Coleman character refers to himself as a “former child star” became simply “child star.”)
“We probably cut 20 words out of 1 million from the show tonight,” Mr. Whitty said.
Ms. Thomas said she was still frightened to make her first entrance on Friday, when Coleman is introduced with a musical cue meant to evoke the “Diff’rent Strokes” theme song.
“I was terrified,” she said. “It was the worst. I had a knot in my throat, I was so nervous.”
But Friday’s audience clapped and cheered enthusiastically for her, and laughed through numbers like “Schadenfreude” (in which Coleman sings that the world needs people like himself “Who’ve been knocked around by fate / ‘Cause when people see us, they don’t want to be us”) and “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (in which he admits he enjoys jokes about Polish people).
“That is the style of ‘Avenue Q,’” Ms. Thomas said, “to slap you in the face, to the point where nothing offends you and everything becomes O.K.”
At the show’s curtain call on Friday, Ms. Thomas took center stage and gave a tearful speech in honor of the real-life Mr. Coleman. Referencing the show’s opening number, she said, “I just want to say that for me, it has never sucked to be Gary Coleman.”
She added, “We will continue to light up the stage and audiences, doing what we love to do every single night.” With a reference to another “Avenue Q” song, “For Now,” Ms. Thomas concluded, “So thank you, Gary Coleman, and goodbye, but only for now.”
After the show, Mr. Whitty said that it had always been an odd choice to have a character based on Gary Coleman in the musical, but that oddness gave its creators license to retain the character after Mr. Coleman’s death.
“From the very beginning,” Mr. Whitty said, “when we wrote the show, he represented a certain spunkiness and attempting to overcome life’s disappointments.”
He added: “It’s a show of very heightened circumstances. In that world, I think Gary Coleman can actually live on in some degree of comfort.”