Larry Gelbart once famously said, “If Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”
The late screenwriter and playwright was referring to that special hell visited on a creative team of a Broadway-bound musical whose tryout run receives reviews that cast a pall over its prospects. Such was the case for “Beetlejuice” last November in Washington, D.C., when the Washington Post headlined a review stating that the musical was “overcaffeinated, overstuffed and virtually charmless.”
If there was any comfort to be had, musicals such as “Hello, Dolly!”, “Funny Girl” and “Fiddler on the Roof” had triumphed over even more deleterious receptions pre-Broadway. More recently, the smash hit “Aladdin” had endured a similar response in Toronto prior to New York. But haunting this production, based on the 1988 Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton as a pesky, hyperkinetic poltergeist, was the reality that many more Broadway musicals had foundered in trying to meet a challenge often compared to turning a battleship around in a bathtub.
Complicating the problems were the many moving parts to the subversive black comedy about a young woman, Lydia, mourning the recent death of her mother while her newly widowed father takes up with Delia, her ditsy life coach. The house into which they are moving is haunted by a recently deceased couple, Barbara and Adam Maitland, who get an assist from the nefarious Beetlejuice in reclaiming it. Throw in a veritable funhouse of special effects, a manic visit to the underworld and gigantic sandworms, and you get an idea of what the creative team, led by director Alex Timbers, was trying to wrestle into a viable Broadway success.
The following is an oral history of the journey from D.C. to Broadway — where the show has just been nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical — as told by lead producer Mark Kaufman; Eddie Perfect, who wrote the songs; and Scott Brown and Anthony King, who wrote the book.
The Morning After
Eddie Perfect: Before we went to D.C., we thought we had a pretty loopy, wild show. We thought we’d get pretty good reviews and that there’d be little places we could improve. Then I made the mistake of reading the review. I’m an outsider [Australian]. So this was a really interesting glimpse into how theater is made, how audiences react, how criticism affects a show and the innate cruelty and the sadistic world, this theater game is. So we had 24 hours to lick our wounds and then it was, “What do we do next?”
Anthony King: I remember when the Washington Post review came out, one of the things Scott and I said to each other was, “If we do this right, then we will look back and this review was the thing that actually made the show better.” Because it was such a wakeup call. Before that, audiences had been having a really a raucous time, so we were taken a little aback. But it made us think about how some people were receiving the show and not having a great time. So it was a filter shift of how all of us were talking and thinking about the show.
Scott Brown: There was a consensus among the entire creative team that made it easy to make pretty radical changes without those changes feeling radical. The conclusion we came to was that a lot of what we thought was explicit in the emotional aspect of the show, the heart and sensitivity, was not actually visible and what was left was a lot of energy, a lot of jokes, and jumping from one thing to another that frustrated the audience. We realized we’d gotten ahead of ourselves.
Eddie Perfect: We knew the story we wanted to tell and we didn’t want superfluous things to get in the way: What happens when you lose a parent and when the other parent can’t step up to help you deal with that grief? You’re going to get dark and this girl’s journey is about how she finds the way back to the light through the help of other people. Coming out of D.C., everyone had faith in the show but there was this impression out there that this show was too rude, wasn’t working. And that created a lot of pressure. We were determined to right ourselves off the ropes. We literally went through every song, every line, turned everything over.
Mark Kaufman: Everybody was champing at the bit to get to work. There was no blame, there were no arguments. As producer, I wanted to create a supportive environment for the authors to do whatever they felt they needed to move the show forward. Everything was considered. I wanted them to feel comfortable enough to bring any idea to me, big or small. Alex [Timbers, the director] had a very clear vision for evolving the show from D.C. to Broadway and I wanted to give him the opportunity to do that.
Alex Timbers Leads the Way
Eddie Perfect: Alex is a very level-headed, congenial and collaborative guy. He has a really rigorous but soft and generous approach to work, always thinking, always plotting, and he’s an incredible communicator — not just to the creative team but to the actors. What really helped is that the actors really loved the show. And so there was no stress about the cast.
Anthony King: Alex was very communicative about what he thought the direction should be and he let us go into a hole and do our work. He ran interference with the producers who were supportive but also scared to death because they didn’t know what we were doing in the hole! [laughter] He gave us the room to do what we needed to do and then helped us put it all together when we emerged.
Scott Brown: Alex is good about reacting to things in stages. He may have one or two things to say at first, and then he lets something develop — allows it to get into the mouths, minds and bodies of the actors in the rehearsal room. Then he has 19 things to say about it.
Mark Kaufman: At the end of the D.C. run, Alex assembled all the designers and the entire creative team into a large meeting, all these brilliant and A-list artists. He literally took everybody’s notes, sorted them out, organized them and shared them in a way that served the vision best. And everybody was very happy because they felt they’d been heard.
Changing the Character of Beetlejuice
Anthony King: The character of Beetlejuice was not clear in D.C. because he wasn’t expressing a yearning and a want so you felt he was just a kind of bawdy emcee. He does play that role in the show but he’s also the dual protagonist with Lydia, so he had to have as much of an emotional journey to get out of his predicament of being invisible and of wanting connection. Our intentions were not coming across the footlights. We were telling the audience, “Just have fun, sit back and let this bombard you,” and then there were times when we said, “OK. You should care.” As writers, we wanted them to care the whole time.
Scott Brown: There was a mismatch between what Beetlejuice was putting out there and how he was being perceived so that there were moments when the audience just didn’t know what to do with him. He was just a relentless assault of a character who seemed to attack everybody. We had to make more clear what his intentions and desires were, a yearning to connect, to lose his isolation.
A Question of Taste
Eddie Perfect: The question was how we were going to seduce an audience into seeing the show from Beetlejuice’s perspective, acclimatizing them into this very kind of dark, wild and dangerous atmosphere without alienating people straight away. The creative arguments then became how dark can we get here, what joke can we say here. Hard to say because some audiences were like sponges wanting to soak up the darker, edgier material in this danger-zone, comedy-pushing show. The data [audience surveys] showed that they were loving it. And in the cards, you’d see, “But it’s not really about anything.” “There’s no heart.” And that was shitty. We didn’t want that.
Anthony King: We came to think of the D.C. show as the “late night blues” version of “Beetlejuice” that we made a little more mainstream. I think Beetlejuice was a little more crass [in D.C.] but a lot of the content didn’t change. What did change was the frame around it so the audience understood the point of view more.
Scott Brown: Much of the journey was about the small choices made along the way that added up to an audience seeing it from a different perspective. It was a question of making Beetlejuice more vulnerable and making more room for Lydia’s agency to show through. When we got to the wedding between Beetlejuice and Lydia and “the creepy old guy” song, it was a lot easier to see Lydia taking control and being satirical. By that time, the audience felt a safe hand on potentially dangerous material.
Mark Kaufman: There’s a fine line between raunchy and irreverent. By cutting a lot of the repetition, it actually made the show funnier. Some of the things that in D.C. might have felt gratuitous became more rooted in characters and more organic. The tone shifted. But that’s why you go out of town in the first place.
Eddie Perfect: I felt as if by the time we reached New York we had to stage a funeral for all the battleground jokes that had gotten huge laughs and the [expletives] that were killed. But the story we wanted to tell was now front and center. And the actors slowly made the ground up with their endlessly inventive comic choices. Once we got into previews in New York, apart from it being a terrifying experience, the great thing was getting back those huge laughs.
The Tony Award Nominations Are Announced
Mark Kaufman: The Tony Award nominations were a tip of the hat and a nice validation for all the hard work that had been done. And the nominations for the show itself, for Alex [Brightman, as Beetlejuice], the book, the songs, and for the designers showed that it was both sides of the coin that were being recognized. When you work this hard, put so much time and effort into it, it’s great to be acknowledged because it doesn’t always work out that way.
Scott Brown: The Tony nominations were very gratifying. Maybe there were some people who like the other version of the show better, who may have thought the show was gelded. On the contrary, we felt we had the chance to find the show we wanted to make.
Top Image: From left: Alex Brighman, Rob McClure, Kerry Butler, Sophia Anne Caruso, Leslie Kritzer and Adam Dannheisser in "Beetlejuice." Photo by Matthew Murphy.