Director Alex Timbers tells EW about the new musical based on the beloved Tim Burton film, with Alex Brightman in the title role
The Ghost with the Most is taking the stage — and he’s ready to make a killing.
Tim Burton’s 1988 classic Beetlejuice is the latest film to get the stage musical treatment, beginning performances Sunday night in Washington, D.C., ahead of a transfer to Broadway next spring. And EW and PEOPLE have the first look at everyone’s favorite freelance bio-exorcist in the show, played by Tony nominee Alex Brightman (School of Rock).
Director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) tells EW the team went through multiple wig, makeup, and costume tests — including ones close to Michael Keaton’s version of the character from the film and others “in the complete opposite direction” — before landing on Brightman’s “younger, punkier” version of the devious demon who knows his way around a striped suit.
“One of the things I love about Alex is, not only is he a great theater performer, but he’s also a writer, so he brings a sensibility that can stand outside the performance,” the two-time Tony nominee says of his star. “[His Beetlejuice] is definitely not a Michael Keaton impression. It’s his own. It’s filtered through the sensibility of Alex Brightman.”
Like the film it’s based on, Beetlejuice tells the story of a home inhabited (er, haunted?) by two very different families, the recently deceased Maitlands and the very much living Deetzes, and the titular ghost who happily wreaks havoc on all of them. But the stage version, Timbers says, brings the character of Lydia Deetz — the macabre-obsessed teen played by Winona Ryder in the film, and on stage by 17-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso — to the center of the story.
“Refocusing the story on Lydia’s emotional journey, Lydia’s relationship to Beetlejuice — who were [both] more like secondary characters in the film — felt like a great way in,” explains Timbers. “Beetlejuice and Lydia are both trickster figures, in a way. Certainly Beetlejuice is, but musical theater has a great history of con men as characters when you think about Bialystock and Bloom or Harold Hill in The Music Man, so it felt to me that the DNA of those two characters felt like great musical theater protagonists in the way they work off each other.”
And Beetlejuice himself, Timbers adds, is the kind of character who could come alive (despite, you know, being dead) on stage. “He’s one of those characters in film that that you can imagine breaking the fourth wall, and I think in theater, you want these characters that vibrate with life and can kick over the footlights and land in your lap. That’s Beetlejuice. He can directly address the audience. He can be an unreliable narrator. He can be a Loki figure, you know? He can be a god of chaos, and that’s really exciting.”
The musical, which boasts an original score by Eddie Perfect (King Kong) and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, fully embraces its Burton roots — the filmmaker’s original artwork and sketches were a source of inspiration for Timbers and the creative team throughout the design process — but will also put its own spin on the movie, one the director is a longtime fan of.
“The dinner party scene is in the show, but where it exists and how it functions and how the music functions is surprising,” he says. (Another film-to-stage tease: The musical will make a visit the Netherworld.) “So there are Easter eggs from the film, and what I want to do is pass the sniff test for fans, but I want it to feel like its own surprising, exciting piece of theater.”
Despite the show’s fantastical, supernatural elements, it’s one Timbers sees as a family story. “We’re embracing the spirit of dark whimsy,” he says, “but at the center of it, it’s a family drama, right?” Indeed, so much of the story is set within the Maitland/Deetz home — the design team referenced other single-set stories, like August: Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — but it’s a home that transforms as the show goes on, from when it belongs to the Maitlands to when the Deetzes move in and Beetlejuice gets conjured and causes chaos.
And while Beetlejuice has a “macabre wit,” it also engages with serious themes about life and death. As Timbers puts it, “The show deals with loss and grief and what it means to be dead and what it means to be alive, and what makes life worth living — the big, important questions.”
Beetlejuice is now in previews at Washington’s National Theatre ahead of a Nov. 4 opening. It then moves to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre in March before officially opening on April 25.