Take a beloved children’s book, add a Tony Award–winning creative team, season with elements from a classic film, and the “satisfying and delicious” result is the highly anticipated Broadway premiere of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
This extraordinary new show brings together the title character, a poor boy who dreams of a better life for himself and his family, and Willy Wonka, a world-famous chocolatier who hides “golden tickets” to his magical chocolate factory in five very lucky candy bars. Inspired both by Dahl’s timeless story and the 1971 film adaptation starring the late Gene Wilder, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reunites the Tony- and Grammy-winning composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman with director Jack O’Brien, their collaborator on the 2002 megahit Hairspray.
It’s a busy time for the trio: O’Brien is helming a Broadway revival of The Front Page before directing two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as Willy Wonka; Shaiman and Wittman are in the final stages of composing songs for the starry film sequel Mary Poppins Returns and prepping for NBC’s Hairspray Live! telecast on December 7. In the midst of all this activity, they’re rethinking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Broadway as the hit London production of the show prepares to close in January. “We’ve come up with some gorgeous stuff,” the ebullient O’Brien tells Broadway Direct, “and I’m wildly excited to share it with audiences.”
What makes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory great source material for a Broadway musical?
Marc Shaiman: It’s a story about magic — and magic and music always go well together. Charlie and his family give us a great emotional place to start, balanced with the insanity of Willy Wonka and his factory. It’s got kids, it’s got parents, and the personalities of the five golden ticket winners offer a wonderful palette for different types of music.
Scott Wittman: I love Roald Dahl’s vocabulary, and there’s a dark undertone that’s great fun to dig into. It’s about imagination and it’s about parenting, two of my favorite topics.
Jack O’Brien: A classic like this already resonates in the hearts and minds of people who know and love it, but there is plenty of room to interpret the story in ways that are theatrically engaging and moving. In this case, there’s a book, two films, and a London production, all of them different, but they have in common this remarkable moral fable about children and goodness and magical people. It’s the stuff of legend.
Without giving away too many surprises, give us a preview of the Broadway production.
O’Brien: It’s going to be more childlike in its enthusiasm and innocence and delight than previous incarnations might have been. We’re big-time into wonder. And we’re blessed and haunted by the late, great Gene Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka. That’s the lodestar for me. He’s sweet and hilarious and complicated and curiously dark, but not malevolent. When he says, “Follow me,” you want to follow him! And that, to me, is the meat and potatoes of Broadway musicals.
Shaiman: Charlie is such a pure character, and we’ve found new ways to underline that pureness. Scott and I have written a new song for the [climactic] 11 o’clock spot that speaks to the emotional connection between Willy and Charlie. Bless all the people who have enjoyed the show in London for almost four years, but this is our chance to do some things we weren’t able to do there.
Wittman: It’s nice to come back to it with fresh eyes. And we have [puppet designer] Basil Twist, who is literally a genius, since he’s won a MacArthur grant! We’re interpolating a couple more songs from the  movie because American audiences anticipate that.
What’s the key to combining new songs with well-known ones such as “Pure Imagination” and “Candy Man”?
O’Brien: The generosity of Marc and Scott’s writing and the sophistication of their talent make it possible for their songs to blend seamlessly with the film score, like flowers in a garden. They’ve written some wonderful new songs that are beautifully matched with the work of [film composers] Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.
Shaiman: The movie and those songs really mean something to people. Gene Wilder’s passing underscored that, and we’re embracing it. In the movie, Charlie’s grandfather sings “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” but we’re introducing that song earlier and [combining it] with a leitmotif we wrote for Charlie and Grandpa Joe. It’s a nice tapestry, with a couple of lyric rewrites that make the whole thing fit together. It feels good.
Jack has said that Christian Borle was his only choice to star as Willy Wonka. Marc and Scott, what excites you about this casting?
Wittman: Christian sang the original demos of most of the songs when we wrote them …
Shaiman: … while we were working on [the NBC series] Smash. And so when his name came up for the Broadway production, we said, “Uh, yeah!” He is his own version of Gene Wilder — a little bit devilish, but sweet and sexy.
Wittman: He’s a truly original theater star, with the chops to do this role.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is your third Broadway collaboration. What do the three of you enjoy most about working together?
Wittman: Well, Jack is kind of Willy Wonka, isn’t he?
Shaiman: He’s one of the all-time magical people, and anyone who works with him is lucky. He came in rather late in the development of Hairspray, like a white knight, and knew exactly what to do.
Wittman: He has bits of Charlie in him too, so he’s perfect for this. The chocolate factory is like a big theatre, and for Jack, that’s what the whole process is about — the magic of theater.
O’Brien: We’re family now. Starting with Hairspray and then Catch Me If You Can, the three of us got to know each other extremely well and we’re very comfortable working together. Marc and Scott please me enormously, and they know it. They make me happy. They make me cry. They’ve written a song for the end of this show that is so beautiful, I can’t hear it without crying. It’s one of the greatest things they’ve ever written, and that’s saying something! I think this show is going to bring everyone closer to what they love about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and add to our belief in the legend.
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