A stage musical about the macabre family was meant to move beyond expectations. But pop culture is mighty powerful.
Reporting from Chicago - The Arts Club in Chicago is a tony member's eatery favored by architects and artists, featuring a steel staircase designed by Mies van der Rohe and a permanent collection of works by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso.
It was no coincidence that Stuart Oken, the Chicago-based producer of "The Addams Family: A New Musical," chose it as the locale to reveal his new Broadway show to the world.
On that bright Chicago morning last May, Oken's message was clear. This was not to be another by-the-numbers, screen-to-stage exploitation. This was no "Legally Blonde," no "9 to 5: The Musical."
Oken's "Addams Family" would be an arty, serious, $17-million endeavor put together by an eclectic and unconventional team of artists. It would not be based on the beloved 1960s ABC-TV show or the 1990s movies starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston. Instead, it would be drawn from the pure, sweetly minimalist Charles Addams cartoons, shaped into an original but respectful book wherein Wednesday Addams, now 18, would fall in love and her boyfriend's normal family would come to the topsy-turvy Addams mansion for dinner.
But as things turned out during a tempestuous trial run in Chicago, Oken's desire to develop a progessive and original musical and protect it during its delicate incubation period ran right into the conventional clatter and chatter of modern Broadway. As painful as the process was for Oken -- a passionate, intense and serious-minded producer -- he had to realize that "The Addams Family" came with some built-in traps.
It wasn't possible to persuade audiences, who thought they knew Gomez and Morticia from film and TV, to turn back the clock to the original cartoons. And given the high-profile title, it proved equally unrealistic to expect to be left alone in Chicago to experiment.
As "The Addams Family" prepares to open on Broadway on Thursday after hefty changes in book, score and directorial style, the remaining question is whether the current creative team has found a sweet spot somewhere between the arty complexity that Oken first wanted and, well, "Da-Da-Da-dah -- (Snap! Snap!)"
In Chicago, tumult surrounded the show. New York columnists and reporters jetted into town to report on the show's mixed Chicago reviews and to wonder whether Nathan Lane, the star of the show, was happy with his part as Gomez. What about Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Morticia -- was she dissatisfied? And was it really a good idea to base this show on the cartoons and not the TV show?
Demonstrably, the romantic days of the classic out-of-town tryout -- when out-of-town critics and rival producers stayed home, and artists, suddenly inspired, conjured brilliant new songs overnight in their hotel rooms -- were gone for good.
Eventually, everyone involved stopped talking to the media.
Kevin Miserrocchi runs the estate of the late New Yorker cartoonist Addams and oversees the licensing of his pen-and-ink cartoons, about 150 of which feature a ghoulish family whose love for graveyards and torture racks never gets in the way of its mutual affection. He was front and center at the announcement of the new "Addams Family" Oken staged at the Arts Club. "We are all in agreement that this will be a fresh start with no preconceived notions based on what has been done before," Miserrocchi said.
And yet audiences were already buying tickets for the show precisely because of what had been done before.
"The brand," Oken admitted at the time, "gets people in the door." But once Oken had them, he wanted to take them somewhere new.
He hired Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the "Jersey Boys" script writers, droll comedic characters both, but also Andrew Lippa, widely regarded as a formatively progressive young composer. Lippa ("The Wild Party") was chosen because he could (and did) explore the gothic roots of the Addamses in a variety of musical styles, evoking everything from Mahler to Richard Strauss to an Argentinian tango.
To direct the show, Oken picked Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the unconventional British theatrical hydra who run the proudly alternative ensemble-based Improbable Theatre. They are best known for a cultish, gothic and widely praised piece, "Shockheaded Peter." McDermott and Crouch worked together on direction and design. Neither had worked on Broadway before.
In interviews, both remarked on how tradition-bound the Broadway process seemed. And they were clearly aware of the inherent weirdness of an assignment that asked them to do something new and progressive with a group of Addamses whom the audience knew. Or thought they knew.
"It's like doing a commedia show, where you have a lot of stock characters," Crouch said, referring to the 16th century commedia dell'arte, whose shows used fresh scenarios but stock characters.
But Oken wasn't asking them to work with stock actors. He was asking them to work with big-time Broadway stars in Lane and Neuwirth. Those stars sold tickets, of course, and, in the case of Lane, who was coaxed from a rival project, Oken had snagged the premier musical- comedy performer of his generation.
As Lane acknowledged just before the Chicago opening, he and Neuwirth were old Broadway hands for whom McDermott's process-oriented, trust-building way of working was something of a jolt. But he seemed willing. "We love him," he said at the time. "We want to support him." And so it went.
But after "The Addams Family" had been greeted with mixed Chicago reviews last December, including the complaint (voiced by this writer) that the show ran too fast and too far from the colorful traits of the very family that the audience had come to see, the mood of collaborative experimentation gave way to tough choices.
Oken sent his creative team back to rewrite and asked Lippa to pen new songs.
"We are going to focus on the opening," he said, shortly afterward, explaining that the show needed to better introduce the characters to their fans, who wanted to linger longer on their lovable eccentricities.
Most tellingly of all, Oken hired the veteran Broadway director (and longtime Lane confidant) Jerry Zaks, a director, or fixer, associated with classic Broadway musical comedy.
"Nobody's getting fired," Oken said at the time and, indeed, the names of the original directors remain on the show. But when pressed by a reporter, Oken acknowledged that Zaks had complete creative control. (He is billed as "creative consultant.") McDermott, the member of the duo who did most of the talking with the cast, has not been present at rehearsals and returned to London after the Chicago opening.
How well this has all worked out will be revealed this week. Among five new songs, there is an opening number titled "When You're an Addams" and a retooled number for Morticia and Gomez titled "Where Did We Go Wrong?," along with a big new second-act number for Neuwirth, titled "Just Around the Corner." Therein, Morticia wryly takes solace that death might be a relief. In Chicago, she'd sung about becoming a "Second Banana," leading to howls of protest that the immortal, über-cool Morticia would never have such a feeling. And certainly would not admit to having it in song.
Then again, there's already evidence that the internal angst over the balance between familiarity and innovation might not matter to audiences.
"The Addams Family" did colossal business in Chicago, selling out almost every performance, grossing more than $11 million in eight weeks and leaving town with a hefty profit, rare for an out-of-town tryout. In New York, the show already has a $15-million advance.
In terms of the broader public, at least, just seeing the Addams family onstage may turn out to be more important than which Addams family one gets to see.
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