They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky. But get that song outta your head.
The creatives behind the $16.5 million tuner adaptation of “The Addams Family,” playing an out-of-town tryout in Chicago ahead of a Broadway run that opens April 8, have set aside the property’s familiar TV and movie incarnations to base the show on the series of single-panel Charles Addams cartoons in which the macabre clan originated.
In doing so, they have given themselves the formidable challenge of fulfilling an aud’s expectations for an iconic title while at the same time working to create a story with a sense of discovery.
“There’s a great identification, but also a great opportunity for surprise,” says producer Stuart Oken. “Sometimes a brand has a story you have to work from. In this you have characters, but no necessary story.”
The snappy Vic Mizzy ditty that was the theme song for the ’60s TV show is heard for a few bars in the tuner’s score as a winking nod to past “Addams” incarnations. But otherwise Oken, head of Chi-based Elephant Eye Theatrical and a former exec at Disney Theatrical, aims to forge a new sound and identity for the family.
The show’s seemingly offbeat creative team includes composer Andrew Lippa (“A Little Princess”), book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) and director-designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (“Shockheaded Peter”).
Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Jackie Hoffman and Kevin Chamberlin are among the thesps playing characters created in the New Yorker cartoons that ran from 1938 until Addams’ death in 1988.
None of the dramatis personae had names until the development of the 1964-66 TV show prompted Addams to christen the family members, including father Gomez, mother Morticia and daughter Wednesday.
The TV skein reps a major factor in the property’s high profile, although it was further boosted by two movies in the early 1990s helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christina Ricci. “Addams” also has been adapted into a couple of animated series, several vidgames and a short-lived Fox Family channel redux of the TV show.
It’s not surprising, then, that other Broadway producers besides Oken had come calling for rights to “Addams.” After years of being divided among the cartoonist’s three wives, the rights were consolidated in 2006 under the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation. Kevin Miserocchi, exec director of the foundation, says he spent a year interviewing potential producers.
“We wanted it done straight from the source material, and that was something Stuart was very keen on,” he says. “The interest was sincere in sticking to Charlie’s work and bringing it back to life in a different way.”
Oken was the matchmaker for his creatives, tapping team members from varying legit backgrounds, with Brit director-designers McDermott and Crouch — also known for their work on the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha” at the Met — on board to stage the musical from Lippa, Brickman and Elice. Basil Twist provides the show’s flourishes of puppetry.
Although they are Broadway tyros, McDermott and Crouch seemed natural candidates for the gig based on the gleefully ghoulish tone of “Shockheaded Peter.”
The musical’s take on the Addams characters — “The focus is the third word of the title,” Elice notes — was hammered out first by all the creatives together, before the writers and composer began their individual work.
“It was a helluva challenge,” admits Brickman. “All you have is a bunch of cartoons. We had to start from scratch and evolve these full lives.”
The plot centers on the familial repercussions when Wednesday, usually portrayed as a child but here a teenager (played by Krysta Rodriguez), falls in love with a “normal” young man. Uncle Fester (Chamberlin) serves as a sort of emcee.
“What kind of musical would Uncle Fester put on if Uncle Fester put on a musical?” he asks. (An old-fashioned, vaudeville affair, it turns out.) “Gomez, having Spanish origins, lives in a flamenco-inspired world. Wednesday’s music has electric guitar and Morticia’s has a leitmotif with a gypsy fiddle.”
In Chicago, where “Addams Family” officially opens Dec. 10 and playsthrough Jan. 10, previews have gone as smoothly as can be expected; the work that remains will focus on trimming the running time.
Although Windy City critics don’t weigh in for a couple of weeks, interest has been high from the start. Oken says he had managed to raise most of the show’s capitalization costs before investors were able to see any of the creative product, and now sales in Chicago are said to be very strong.
Gothamites are looking forward to the show too. “Addams” is, at least for now, the closest thing to the new-tuner headliner of the season, since “Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark” has been delayed.
For it to remain the season’s hot ticket, the group knows it has to deliver on aud expectations while providing elements that feel both unexpected and fitting for the property.
“You have to create surprises without breaking it,” Crouch says.