A Washington Post critic sprayed a can of Raid on the out-of-town tryout of “Beetlejuice” last fall. Peter Marks called the $20 million musical “overcaffeinated, overstuffed and virtually charmless.”
“Beetlejuice,” named for the bawdy ghost of Tim Burton’s 1988 hit movie, was bound to have tasteless jokes, but Marks thought the musical tipped over into “foul directions.”
The show, he concluded, needed “a trip back to the lab where they fix musicals.”
And that’s exactly where it went.
A source tells me that director Alex Timbers sat down with the creative team and went through the show “beat by beat,” expunging all that was tasteless, lewd and inappropriate in the post #MeToo era. He also demanded better jokes and songs.
“He realized the show as written can’t be done in the cultural landscape we’re living in,” another source says. “He wanted to get rid of what was gross and cheap, and find another way of telling the story.”
The extent of the revamping surprised many theater insiders at a run-through this week. Expectations remain low, frankly, but there’s considerable buzz that “Beetlejuice,” which begins previews March 28 at the Winter Garden, is no longer dead on arrival.
Scott Brown and Anthony King adapted Burton’s screenplay for the stage. King is a comedian who once ran the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy club in New York. Brown is the former drama critic for New York magazine. Their previous collaboration, “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” was tedious for adults, hilarious for teenagers.
They brought that sensibility to “Beetlejuice,” but then the Harvey Weinstein scandals came along, and what may have been funny a few years ago is uncomfortable now. One scene featured a Girl Scout selling cookies door-to-door while being chased by male ghosts with their tongues hanging out.
That scene was the first to go.
The female characters in the first draft were “a bit ditzy,” a production source says. Ditzy is gone now as well.
Eddie Perfect, an Australian songwriter, wrote the score. He also wrote the songs for “King Kong,” which isn’t going to win any Tony Awards. Marks called his music “predictably peppy,” with “serviceable power ballads.”
Insiders complained that the score lacked a coherent sound, coming across like a hodgepodge of styles. The show has since been re-orchestrated to meld its calypso, rock and pop styles.
Gone is a boy-band parody that fell flat. In its place is a new number for Miss Argentina, who, after slitting her wrists, was sent to the netherworld to become a bureaucrat.
“If I knew then what I know now,” she says in the show, as she did in the film, “I wouldn’t have had my ‘little accident.’ ”
A source who’s not involved in the show saw the run-through and says, “It’s been revamped for the better,” but added the end is still a little weak.
Not weak are the sets, by David Korins (“Hamilton”), and the puppets, by Michael Curry, who worked with Julie Taymor to create Broadway’s blockbuster “The Lion King.”
Korins’ macabre sets dazzle the eyes, while Curry has taken puppetry to a whole new level with a creature called a sandworm that overwhelms the stage.
But you can’t count on sets and puppets to recoup $20 million: It’s the script and score that make a hit.
I’m happy to announce the debut of a new TV show dedicated to theater. It’s called “Theater: All the Moving Parts,” and it premieres Friday night at 9:30 on CUNY-TV. My friend Patrick Pacheco, the veteran theater reporter, is the host.
“All the Moving Parts” will feature in-depth interviews with theater people who don’t often stand in the spotlight: designers, producers, writers, directors, publicists and maybe even an usher or two (they have the best stories). Theresa Rebeck, who created the TV show “Smash,” is Pacheco’s first guest. She has a great line: “Write something big. Make it epic. Leave blood on the floor.”
You can hear Michael Riedel weekdays on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on WOR radio 710.