How the Beetlejuice musical conjured Burton and beyond to haunt Broadway
For a story about dead people, Beetlejuice has never felt so lively. Tim Burton’s 1988 supernatural comedy has been reincarnated as a new Broadway musical (opening April 25) with Tony nominee Alex Brightman (School of Rock) taking on the role of the Ghost with the Most. Under direction from Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), the stage adaptation gives its source material — which follows two very different families, the newly deceased Maitlands and very-much-living Deetzes, and the stripes-loving demon who wreaks havoc on both of them — some clever new twists, while still staying true to what fans love about the original film’s spirit (or spirits).
“You want to see the ‘Banana Boat’ number, you want to see the shrunken-head person, but can you do it in a way that’s surprising? Because the delight of that will be twofold,” says Timbers, whose vision for the Broadway adaptation involves a more “youthful, rock & roll” Beetlejuice and a refocus of the story around self-described “strange and unusual,” death-obsessed teen Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso). “When you’re making a musical — which I think by its very nature wants to be as emotional as possible — Lydia felt [like] the way that you could really go much further with that.”
Much of the show takes place in the Maitland-Deetz home, which transforms as each family, and then Beetlejuice, rules the roost. “We really thought about how [to] characterize them as much as possible,” Timbers explains. “The Maitlands, they’re craftsy people, they have a real warmth to them, whereas the Deetzes have a much more stylish, urban edge that almost veers on the grotesque. Then Beetlejuice… it wants to be as demon hellscape-like as possible.” (You can probably guess what his home-decor mood board looks like.) “We wanted a real hand-drawn quality for everything, so [set designer David Korins and costume designer William Ivey Long] really studied the [work] of Burton and that extended beyond the movie. We went back to all his art work and his sketch work and his stuff at MOMA, and just said, ‘Okay, the movie’s one little piece of it. How do we look at his whole oeuvre?'”
Stripes, obviously, had to be part of the show’s visual framework, but Timbers and the creative team spent a lot of time thinking over what kinds of stripes, drawing inspiration from Burton and beyond. “It’s like, ‘What are stripes?'” Timbers recalls. “What is 75-percent black versus 25-percent white?… How do you make something that feels hand-made, home-made, hand-stitched, hand-drawn? William Ivey Long has this huge studio. Basically, there [were] stripes all around the studio, different studies on the properties of stripes. We went into Vogue and different things and looked at how optical art is being used in clothes these days. There was sort of a riff on Burton that involved black, white, and this sort of fire-orange. We started to look at all that and said, ‘How does couture treat the Burtonian world, and how do we use high fashion in the show in a way that still feels fun and whimsical and relatable?'”
That led to a Beetlejuice suit that celebrated Brightman’s interpretation of the character. “Alex is such a physical comedian. The Michael Keaton suit [in the original Beetlejuice] is really tight, so we wanted to give the ability to flow and to move,” says Timbers. For Lydia, the team “looked at things that were retro-goth,” scouring Instagram and seeking additional input from Caruso. “A lot of it was Sophia going online and being like, ‘This is what my friends are wearing. Can we get these accessories? Could I get this thing? Could I put a safety pin on this? Could I get this kind of earring?’ One of the coolest things was watching William Ivey Long collaborate with 17-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso.”
Audiences who come to the Winter Garden Theater can expect a stylish visit to the Netherworld, an eclectic score from composer Eddie Perfect, an ensemble cast that includes Kerry Butler and Rob McClure (as the Maitlands) and Adam Dannheisser and Leslie Kritzer (as Charles and Delia Deetz) — and, of course, a musical that embraces that signature Burtonesque celebration of outsiders. “It’s very funny [and] very irreverent,” teases Timbers. “It’s really visual and transporting. I’m hoping that it’s surprisingly emotional for an audience.” So much so, they may even go back three times.