MEET Princeton, a bright-eyed graduate who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account.
Soon discovering that the only neighbourhood in his price range is Avenue Q, he finds himself moving in with some truly quirky characters…
There’s Brian the out-of-work comedian and his therapist fiancée Christmas Eve, Nicky the good-hearted slacker and his closet gay Republican roommate Rod, an internet ‘sexpert’ called Trekkie Monster and a very cute kindergarten teacher named Kate Monster.
Together they make up the fuzzy puppet cast of Broadway hit Avenue Q – and, if they look a bit like The Muppets, that’s not too surprising.
Puppet builder Paul Jomain is the man behind the creations and he grew up on the original Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Now in his 24th year as a puppet maestro, he says: “I just couldn’t wait to see what antics they would get up to, especially the great Gonzo – my hero.
“I remember as a child trying to sculpt a Kermit the Frog out of clay at a local pottery class, and trying my hand at making a Gonzo out of a toilet roll.
“I’d always been very creative as a child, making most of my toys from scratch and none from kits. I’d find some pictures of something I wanted to make, like the Titanic or a steam engine, and I’d just get on with it. The artistic talent is in my family: my sister Jacqui is a very talented illustrator and my mother, Janet, an amazing wig-maker, while my father, Philippe, was an engineer.”
Paul originally set out to become an interior designer but skipped university after spotting a small ad vacancy for an apprentice model-maker in Islington.
“I gave them a call and they asked me to bring in a portfolio on the Friday,” he says. “They offered me a job on the spot and I started work on the Monday.”
He started building architectural models before working for the Tussauds Group, building models of rollercoasters for their theme parks, followed by a spell with Cameron Mackintosh, doing a lot of set design assistant work and model boxes for some of the biggest shows in the West End and on Broadway, such as Oliver!, Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera.
He then spent nearly seven years at the Jim Henson Company and says: “Just walking down the corridors at work sent goosebumps down my spine. I had to pinch myself.
“They were lined with several Skeksises from The Dark Crystal, among other Henson movie memorabilia. I learnt everything about puppet building from all the lovely people I worked with over the years and made some very good friends too. Four of the years were in production working on children’s TV programmes The Hoobs and Mopatop’s Shop. It was really the end of an era when Henson’s London Creature Shop closed down.”
His passion for puppet-making has never dimmed and he explains: “One of the things I love about my job is that you never know what famous character you might have in your carrier bag when you leave the fabric shop after hunting for materials. The PG Tips monkey, I am pleased to say, is one of them.”
But it’s Avenue Q that has been Paul’s life for nine years now, and he says: “I started out maintaining the puppets for Cameron Mackintosh’s West End version, and then gradually producing my own puppets to replace the old and worn out ones.
“I’m really pleased to have been asked to work on this new tour because it has allowed me to put my own creative spin on how I feel the characters should look. Everyone has their own interpretation.
“I like to think hardened fans of the show will be pleased with the new look. Puppet characters I create are very much my babies. A lot of hard work goes into them and I only let the public see them once I’m happy with how they look.
“Hearing an audience enjoy a show and appreciate my work, is a great buzz for me. It’s a bit like being a real Geppetto. I bring them into the world and they become stars… how magic is that!”