With a new director and a new star, the Broadway transfer of the West End musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was always going to be a different show from the London original. Just how different will be apparent from the moment the curtain goes up at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
The New York production will open with “The Candy Man,” the Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley pop hit from the 1971 movie, which wasn’t in the London version at all.
“Whereas London opens with a song called ‘Almost Nearly Perfect’ on a garbage dump, New York will open in a candy store with the song from the movie that everybody really wants,” says Mark Kaufman, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, which is producing “Charlie” alongside Langley Park Productions and Neal Street Productions. “Right there you have the difference between the two versions.”
Other changes are coming into focus as “Charlie” wraps its 3½-year run on the West End, and gears up to begin Broadway rehearsals in February, prior to starting performances March 28. “The Candy Man” is one of a few songs from the 1971 movie being added to the stage version of “Charlie” since the London staging, which featured only one film tune, “Pure Imagination.”
The writers of the musical’s original songs, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”), have penned a handful of new songs as well, including “The View From Here,” about which Kaufman is notably enthusiastic.
The Broadway version has the same set and costume designer as London, Mark Thompson, but it’ll nonetheless have a new look. “The London version, which I’m very proud of, has a darker tone to it, even in the set,” says Kaufman. “The U.S. version will be more colorful, more vibrant. ‘Whimsical’ comes to mind.”
The new vision for Broadway is spearheaded by Jack O’Brien, the “Hairspray” director who enlisted two-time Tony-winner Christian Borle to tackle the role of Willy Wonka. O’Brien fills the director’s chair after Sam Mendes, who directed the show in London, stepped away due to film commitments. (Mendes’ Neal Street Productions remains aboard as a lead producer.)
It’s rare for a show that has played a relatively lengthy run in London to undergo the kind of creative tinkering being done to “Charlie” — a strategy that highlights the stakes of this big Broadway bet for Warner Bros., which has struggled to match the success Disney has had in the theatrical realm.
“Charlie” is part of an ambitious theater slate at WB, which includes a brewing musical version of “Beetlejuice” — recently seen in New York in a reading directed by Alex Timbers and starring Chris Fitzgerald (“Waitress”) — as well as a “Night Shift” musical and a play adaptation of “Dog Day Afternoon” penned by Pulitzer-winner Stephen Adly Guirgis.
As head of WB Theatre Ventures, Kaufman reports to new WB chief content officer Toby Emmerich. The two have worked together since Emmerich hired Kaufman at New Line in 1993.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do all the work we’ve done on the Broadway version of ‘Charlie’ without Toby’s support,” Kaufman notes. “We’re treating the theater stuff almost like a slate of films.”