It isn’t until the delightfully weird cult classic you can quote in your sleep makes its pre-Broadway debut in your city and the buzz rises to a deafening level that you realize there are thousands, maybe millions, of strange and unusual superfans out there. It’s no surprise that Tim Burton’s iconic, stop-motion aesthetic and penchant for rooting for the underdog resonates with so many of us, but bringing his first successful feature film to the stage as an original musical is indicative of the freelance bio-exorcist’s reach in today’s pop culture landscape.
Beetlejuice: The Musical arrives in the District on October 14 at National Theatre, the second world-premiere production to land at the historic spot in the past year following 2017’s Mean Girls debut. As my fellow Burton nerds and I prep for this epic production, we picked the brain of two-time Tony Award-nominated Alex Timbers (Rocky, Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) about taking the 1988 film to Broadway. Like so many of us, the 40-year-old director grew up watching Beetlejuice and was immediately drawn into Burton’s highly stylized world.
“[Beetlejuice] was the first time we were seeing Tim Burton unleashed, in a way,” Timbers tells me on a recent call. “And like a lot of people, I really connected with this story about a group of outsiders.”
A brief synopsis for those unfamiliar with the film (and if so, please go watch it immediately): a young, very vanilla couple, Barbara and Adam Maitland, are killed tragically in a car accident and get stuck haunting their idyllic Connecticut home and navigating the afterlife, complete with a handbook for the recently deceased that reads like stereo instructions. When my all-time favorite dysfunctional family, the Deetzes, move in (Charles is looking for a respite from NYC living, his wife Delia is repelled by the “giant ant farm” they’ve moved into and their teenage daughter Lydia is the brooding goth kid in all of us), the Maitlands panic and hire the ghost with the most, Betelgeuse (known to clients as Beetlejuice) to scare the disruptive trio all the way back to the big city.
While the Maitlands are the protagonists of the film, Timbers says the musical is centered more on the emotional life of Beetlejuice and Lydia.
“I love that Beetlejuice is cynicism through and through and Lydia is innocence masked in cynicism and sardonic wit. The two of them as foils for each other, I just always responded to that in a big way.”
Tony Award nominee Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice) and Lortel Award nominee Sophia Anne Caruso (Lydia) have been workshopping their starring roles with Timbers for over a year now.
“It’s been amazing to watch their relationship and rapport build throughout the rehearsal process,” the director says of Brightman (School of Rock) and Caruso (Lazarus). “They have a real friendship, but they also are great at teasing each other and getting under each other’s skin, [just like] Beetlejuice and Lydia.”
Timbers is particularly thrilled to have Caruso on the bill. The 17-year-old actress brings an authenticity to the role of Lydia given her age, plus an impressive resume that includes working with Michelle Williams in Blackbird.
The director describes Brightman as legitimately funny, citing his writing credits and improv background among his full range of talents, and feels the pair’s chemistry is exactly what’s needed for Beetlejuice to succeed onstage.
“Musical theatre has a long history of featuring characters that are great conmen or hucksters. Lydia and Beetlejuice are conning each other. The one-upmanship between the two of them is so smart and bold. They’re great musical theatre protagonists.”
The director also points out that because Beetlejuice is such a trickster, it’s a natural fit for him to break the fourth wall and interact with us.
“[Beetlejuice] can talk directly to the audience. We wanted to embrace that. How many films, in their DNA, have a character that is custom-built to lead you through a musical?”
Beyond the production’s expanded focus on Lydia and Beetlejuice, I have all sorts of geeky questions for Timbers about how true to the film the musical will stay – from brilliant one-liners to arguably the most memorable onscreen use of Harry Belafonte songs in film history. He tells me that he has high expectations for maintaining the wit and edge of Burton’s flick; he’s acutely aware that more outré films adapted for the stage can sometimes soften up, and he assures me that isn’t going to happen.
“The script obviously lines up with a lot of the story from the movie, but it also takes its own turns and surprises. We haven’t felt beholden to delivering the dialogue from the film. The writers have smartly paid homage to the things that hopefully you’ll want [to see], but they’ve definitely created their own piece of art.”
This sentiment expands beyond the script to the original score by Eddie Perfect (King Kong). Burton is famous for collaborating with composer Danny Elfman on almost all of his films, and Timbers says there are little nods to his signature sound throughout the musical.
“Eddie’s been really smart in paying tribute to the Elfman-esque sounds from the movie that you expect, love and associate with Beetlejuice, and also a little bit of the Caribbean nods that you hear in [Belafonte’s] ‘Banana Boat Song (Day O)’ and ‘Jump in the Line.’ It’s got the things you’ll expect, and then keeps carrying it forward to another level.”
Because he mentions “Day O,” I of course have to ask if the famous dinner scene will be included (for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, all you need to know is that it involves a hilariously choreographed calypso dance and surprise shrimp hands). He says it will, and we move on after (a few) exclamations of happiness from my end of the line. Perfect’s score allows the audience to go into the interior life of the characters, Timbers says, giving them new depth.
“We often say in theatre that a song functions in the same way as a closeup in a movie. [Eddie’s] done a great job of balancing the expectations one has for the sonic world of that [with] those elements people are going to love and expect, and then tearing off and creating a larger sonic world as well to voice these characters.”
Another driving force behind Burton’s work is the visual world he’s created. The musical’s creative team is working to draw from the director’s aesthetic rather than emulate it, giving the production an expanded palette and originality. Timbers says the team has been trying to push into “what the theatrical equivalent of the DIY, handmade Burton style that was so surprising and became so quickly iconic” is without saying, “We need to absolutely recreate this dress or that piece of wallpaper.”
“We’re definitely trying to think of what serves the theatre piece, but we’re embracing [Burton’s] oeuvre because we love it as much as the audience does.”
One optic element Timbers gives me a sneak peek of is the puppets created by designer Michael Curry (The Lion King).
“He’s created puppets that exist in the netherworld and in the real world that are really striking and surprising, and really have that Burtonian quality. Obviously, we can’t do stop-motion animation, so [we had to think through] the theatrical vocabulary equivalent. To be in the same room as those puppets in this highly visual, imaginative world is going to be one of the most exciting things about the theatre piece at the National.”
Not to mention that Timbers is psyched to house the musical in such a storied theater in the nation’s capital.
“You’re smack dab in the middle of the nation’s history, so to be a part of musical theatre history but also at the heartbeat of the country is really cool.”
Beetlejuice: The Musical runs at National Theatre from October 14 to November 18. Tickets start at $54 and can be purchased at www.thenationaldc.org. Learn more about the Broadway musical at www.beetlejuicebroadway.com and follow National Theatre on Twitter at @NatTheatreDC for updates.
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