Early on a Monday evening, the principal cast members of the new Broadway musical Beetlejuice — currently up for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical — have gathered at their venue, the Winter Garden Theatre. It’s their last night off before the premiere. But if any of the six actors assembled would rather be enjoying downtime away from the colleagues they see nearly every day, you’d never know it.
“Comedy usually isn’t the best team sport,” quips Alex Brightman, nominated for his portrayal of the title character. “It’s competitive by nature. But this is a really good team.”
The musical, with a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King and music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, was adapted from Tim Burton’s cult film classic. The original starred Michael Keaton as the titular troublemaking ghost and a teenage Winona Ryder as Lydia, the goth girl who finds herself communicating with and reluctantly conspiring with him to prevent her father, Charles, and his second wife, Delia (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’ Hara), from buying a new house — one technically still occupied by a recently deceased couple, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis).
Under the direction of Alex Timbers — whose acclaimed credits on and Off-Broadway include Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Here Lies Love — the team has kept the movie’s irreverent spirit while fleshing out the relationships, and adding a few new twists. Lydia, reinvented onstage by 17-year-old dynamo Sophia Anne Caruso, mourns her late mother. Delia — not yet a stepmother here but rather a life coach, made hilariously mannered by Leslie Kritzer (who also plays the sassy ghost Miss Argentina) — dallies with Adam Dannheisser’s comically preening Charles. Barbara and Adam get new springs in their steps, death notwithstanding, courtesy of beloved stage stars Kerry Butler and Rob McClure.
“Alex Timbers really created a sort of playground feel in rehearsals,” Butler says. She notes that watching Brightman, who has a background in sketch comedy, “was so spectacular. So much of what’s onstage right now, Alex improvised.”
Caruso adds, “Alex taught me how to laugh. I’m usually super-focused; I don’t even want to talk while working. But I watched him being intensely creative while still having fun, and that really inspired me.”
Brightman — whose last Broadway role was another wacky turn originated in a movie, Jack Black’s teacher in the musical School of Rock — admits, “I like to be silly. What I’ve learned from others in this group is that silly is definitely a renewable currency, and I know when to check in and when to cash it. I hadn’t really worked with a true ensemble of principals before, and I’ve learned to be generous, and to receive generosity.”
The performers agree that their camaraderie and character development were greatly nourished by a pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C., last year. “In D.C., we threw everything at the wall,” Dannheisser recalls. “That’s when the writers and director started to focus more on the relationships in the show, because that’s what people were craving, something more grounded in the lives of these people. I think they’ve done a great job of putting us in these places where we’re experiencing emotions.”
“Some people ask me if they should bring their kids, and I say, yeah, bring them — there’s stuff with Lydia that they’ll be able to relate to,” Caruso says, noting she may be the only actual teenager on Broadway to be playing a female teenage lead. As Brightman points out, Caruso “was the same age Lydia is just two years ago. That’s astounding.”
Indeed, Caruso has encountered “a ton of Lydias” at the stage door — “all these girls with black hair and short bangs who are like, ‘I love the movie, and this is my first Broadway show.’” Brightman says the staged Beetlejuice has drawn “a musical-theater crowd, but also punks and goths, and they’re telling all their friends, so the group is growing wider.”
McClure, a huge fan of the film as a kid, notes that the show’s A-list design team — including Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen scenic designer David Korins, legendary costumer William Ivey Long, and puppet master Michael Curry — has remained faithful to the film’s aesthetic while allowing the rest of the creative team and company more freedom to explore.
“I have a photo of Leslie Kritzer’s face the first time she saw one of the puppets,” McClure says, “and it’s like the face we hope every audience member makes. The thing is, the design team didn’t cheat with special effects. They built all this stuff; it is very much like Tim Burton claymation, where you feel like you can reach out and touch it.”
“There are people who are very familiar with the movie coming to see us, and people who are not. But by the end, they’re all on their feet,” says Kritzer. “I was telling Alex the other day that we’ve hit our groove; we’re in the pocket. All of us are settling into the show now, and the audience is eating it up. And we’re loving giving it to them.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy.