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An Advance Look Into Broadway's The Addams Family

Also see John's reviews of Rock 'n' Roll and Lieutenant of Inishmore

In describing his character Morticia for the producers of The Addams Family TV series, cartoonist Charles Addams called her a "thoughtful hostess, in her way. If a guest needs anything he is advised to scream for it." Screams were unnecessary at the afternoon tea hosted by the producers of the upcoming Broadway musical The Addams Family, which will try-out in Chicago November through January of this year. Apart from the fact that the refreshments included no braised rat, there was no cyanide to spice up the coffee and the room at the Arts Club of Chicago was probably a bit too bright for her taste, the May 11th event offering a presentation by members of the musical's creative team would certainly have met Morticia's standards.

As has been previously reported, Jersey Boys bookwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party) are basing their musical on the cartoons Addams created for The New Yorker between 1938 and 1988, rather than on either the TV series or the two feature films the cartoons inspired. Knowing that the later incarnations would likely be fresher in the memories of the Chicago critics assembled for the event, our hosts provided a gallery of original artwork by Addams to remind us of his uniquely macabre sensibility.

How does a theatre writer take a creation like a cartoon—which presents just a snapshot, a moment in time—and give it dimensionality for the stage? While the Addams cartoons created a set of developed characters and a milieu, they did not establish any larger narrative. Elice told moderator (and co-producer) Stuart Oken that he and Brickman found inspiration in many of the cartoons, but he cited one in particular. In it, daughter Wednesday has apparently just complained to her mother that brother Pugsley has threatened to poison her. "Well don't come whining to me," Morticia tells Wednesday as Pugsley—sheepishly holding a suspicious looking goblet—peers from a doorway down the hall. "Go tell him you'll poison him right back."

Elice says of that cartoon, "Nothing happens before it and there are no ramifications after it. It's a simple normal scene of sibling rivalry being mediated by a parent. But, you wonder is she poisoned ... does she die, does she gets sick? We thought as dramatists it was our job to take a two-dimensional idea like that and blow in a third dimension somehow so that the actors would have something that they would enjoy doing and the audiences might have something they would enjoy watching ... We thought a lot about, under what circumstances would it be interesting for a brother to decide to poison his sister, and that became the little kernel of our story. We worked backward from that point and forward from that point as we concocted a scenario."

That scenario concerns a change in the family that threatens their sad routine (which in the Addams Family's world is a happy routine). Elice explains, "When we meet Morticia and Gomez they are as profoundly and romantically and sensually besotted with each other as we depend upon them to be ... Grandmama still moves around her garden collecting herbs, and Gomez shorted the dollar against the Euro about a year ago so everything's okay in the that department. Fester is constructing a strap-on rocket in the backyard for some as yet unknown purpose, Pugsley's best friend is still his sister, Lurch has got his hands on a tasty new recipe for braised rat. Life is good. Only one thing has changed. Wednesday is now 18 years old. We all know what that's like. We turn around and the little kid isn't a little kid any more. She's a young woman in love. With a guy named Lucas."

Elice explains how that affects her in strange new ways, though in this family, "'strange' takes on a whole new twist."

He sets up the song that will establish the transformation Wednesday's interest in Lucas has wrought. "Pugsley and Wednesday are engaged in their traditional habitual afternoon play time, which is to say that Wednesday has strapped her brother to a rack and she is stretching him with a ratchet wheel to superhuman proportions. As she's doing this, Pugsley notices that her heart isn't in it. That's because that night Lucas and his parents are coming to the house for dinner and she's a little tense about this." Singing as Wednesday, Lippa performs "Pulled in a New Direction," describing how, suddenly, bunnies look cute to her. The number begins with a spooky minor-key motif before morphing into an up-tempo number with a rock beat.

Lippa talks about the challenges in writing songs for the family. "We all are familiar with the characters. The one thing they've never done is sing. It felt like this fantastic opportunity to define them in a certain way they've hadn't been defined before. Since this is a musical comedy that has a gigantic heart, the goal was to write something that was both funny and beautiful ... that engages you in your heart and your head at the same time." He performs a charming ballad in three-quarter time in which Gomez laments his mixed emotions over Wednesday's impending adulthood. Gomez sounds much like any other dad until he reminisces, "So many memories ... Wednesday eating her first worm ... sealing her baby brother into the wall ... I think, where did the years go?"

Julian Crouch, who will direct and design the musical together with Phelim McDermott—his partner from London's Improbable Theatre—tells the audience how he'll treat one of the other icons in this shows—the Addams Family mansion. "The house has to be treated like a character. It is much copied by other people ... it's been incredibly influential, really." He's even asked the writers to hold down the number of scene changes so that the house can be as substantial as possible. "I want the house to feel solid ... tumbled down, broken, cracked, dark and atmospheric."

Co-producers Michael Leavitt and Roy Furman get the honors of announcing the cast. Most leads are the same as those who participated in the January reading—most significantly Nathan Lane as Gomez and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia. Also from the reading, Kevin Chamberlin will play Uncle Fester, and Terrence Mann will be the father of Wednesday's boyfriend Lucas. New since the reading are Carolee Carmello as Mann's wife and Jackie Hoffman as Grandmama. Leavitt and Furman also announce Zachary James (of South Pacific) as Lurch, Krista Rodriguez (In the Heights, Spring Awakening) as Wednesday, Adam Riegler (Shrek the Musical) as Pugsley and Wesley Taylor (Rock of Ages) as Lucas.

The program closes with Lippa performing a song written for Uncle Fester, a vaudeville pastiche called "Let's Not Talk about Anything Else but Love." Crouch tells us "We thought that Fester would like girls. Dancing girls."

So do Broadway audiences, which is a good thing, because this musical—reportedly capitalized at $10,000,000—is certainly going to have a hefty weekly nut to make, based on the pedigreed cast the producers have assembled and elaborate production Crouch describes. It's impossible to tell how strong the material will be based on just the three songs previewed here, but it seems the producers and creative team are all on the same page with regard to concept and tone. The chemistry between Lippa and Elice—working for the first time on a musical with an original score—seems to be good. The producers seem confident enough to have given the media this extensive peek behind the curtain, and to schedule their first preview at the Oriental Theatre for Friday, the 13th. Then again, to the Addams Family, that would be considered a lucky day.

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-- John Olson

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