It was easy to spot the dash of Hollywood glam at the Broadway opening night party of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” There were the chocolate fountains and the all-you-can-eat candy kiosk and the giant, solid chocolate sculpture of Willy Wonka that helped make the shindig a lot more lavish than your typical Broadway opening night. There were also some bold-faced executive names in the rooms including Warner Bros. chair and CEO Kevin Tsujihara and the WB’s president and chief content officer Toby Emmerich, there to celebrate the splashy bow of the latest show from the studio’s live stage arm, Warner Bros. Theater Ventures.
Audiences who saw the musical in London, where “Charlie” ran for three and a half years, will notice that the Stateside version is a remarkably different show, with a faster pace, more clearly defined character relationships and several new songs — not to mention a couple of newly-added, vintage tunes from the 1971 film that starred Gene Wilder.
That retooling was led by director Jack O’Brien, re-teaming with his “Hairspray” collaborators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman after Sam Mendes directed the show on the West End. (Mendes and his company Neal Street Productions remains on board as a producer, as does Langley Park Productions.)
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“We’re different here,” O’Brien said of the American crowds who have been helping power “Charlie” at the box office. “In London, they grew up with the book. We didn’t. We grew up with Gene Wilder in the movie. Sam was much more attracted to the Victorian Dickensian quality of the book, I think. I was attracted to Gene f–kin’ Wilder. That was one of the most mystifying performances of its kind.”
O’Brien tapped Christian Borle (“Falsettos,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”) to fill Wilder’s big shoes. The actor had to throw out everything he remembered from the 1971 film — plus shave his head — to put his own spin on the character. “We all had a Looney Tunes sensibility about it,” he said.
Emmerich, for one, raved about the actor’s take on the iconic role. “Borle’s performance was deliciously inspired,” he said. “And wonderfully different than any Wonka we’ve seen before.”
Borle had recorded some demos of the “Charlie” songs over the years for Shaiman and Wittman. Going back farther than that, Jackie Hoffman, a “Hairspray” alum, was involved in workshops of “Charlie” for eight years. She didn’t do the show in London, but she’s co-starring in the Broadway staging as Mrs. Teavee, the booze-loving, pill-popping mother of screen-obsessed kid Mike Teavee.
“We go so far back and we all know each other so well. It’s like we’ve been married,” Hoffman said of her relationship with Shaiman, Wittman and O’Brien. “They create with me in mind. For this, Marc looked in my medicine cabinet and wrote about pills!”