From cartoon frame to 5th Avenue Stage: 'The Addams Family' (snap, snap!)
A peek into the mind of Rick Elice, in-demand Broadway writer and co-author of the ooky-spooky-spoofy "The Addams Family" musical, now touring to the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.
Seattle Times theater critic
'The Addams Family'By Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, score by Andrew Lippa. Previews Wednesday, runs Thursday-Nov. 11 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$109 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).
In 1938, a dapper, cultured New York artist with a deeply irreverent sense of humor sketched a cartoon that featured three characters new to his repertoire.
One was a rail-thin, raven-haired vamp in a racy black dress, who looked like she'd slunk out of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." Also depicted: her bug-eyed, bon vivant husband, sporting a thick mustache, and the couple's butler, a ghoulish giant.
The three weirdly captivating figures conjured by Charles Addams became the nucleus of the fabled, fictional Addams family. And that clan's sinister yet lusty lifestyle and deadpan morbidity delighted readers of The New Yorker, which carried Addams' work for five decades.
The sly appeal of Morticia and Gomez Addams, their butler Lurch, and their kids Pugsley and Wednesday, went global, via anthologies of the cartoons, an offbeat 1960s TV sitcom and several 1990s movies.
What next? Yes, a Broadway treatment, in a 2010 musical that arrives at the 5th Avenue Theatre this week on its first national tour — a version 2.0 revamp of the original.
The writers responsible for translating the elegantly demented Addams characters and sensibility to the stage were Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman — a team flushed with success after co-authoring the Tony Award-showered "Jersey Boys," a top-of-the-heap "jukebox" hit show bearing the golden oldies of the Four Seasons pop group.
But as Elice tells it, the two assignments were wildly different from each other — not just in content and feeling, but in the reactions from Broadway critics.
"For 'Jersey Boys' we took a journalistic approach," said Elice, a chatty raconteur, impassioned theater partisan and Tony-winning author of a new Broadway hit, "Peter and the Starcatcher" (an enchanting "Peter Pan" prequel based on a Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson adventure novel).
Surviving Four Seasons members Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio "would have been happy if we'd done a 'Mamma Mia' thing with the songs and a new story. But the stories they told us from their own lives were so interesting and dramatic and funny, and had never been publicly told. So we pitched it as a warts-and-all show about the Four Seasons. And they rather courageously said yes!"
With "The Addams Family" project, "Marshall and I had an enormous challenge. From the Addams cartoons we had an attitude, a mood, characteristics. But we had to breathe a third dimension into [the characters]."
Elice had never seen the films, but recalled, as a child, "watching the TV show, and the catchy theme song, and the mother's tight dress and the Frankenstein-y butler. That was about it."
Instead of basing the musical on the jokey-thin film and sitcom scripts for previous Addams attractions, he pondered how to erect a strong plot out of a great cartoonist's pithy punch lines and visual gags.
"The largest problem was that a cartoon frames one moment, but what comes before or after that? One of my favorite cartoons has Morticia with her daughter Wednesday, and her son Pugsley in the background holding a bottle with a skull and crossbones on it. Morticia tells Wednesday, 'Well don't come whining to me. Go tell him you'll poison him right back.'
"So what happens now? Does Pugsley die? Does the family think death is funny? Does the mother love her kids? However you try to play out that story, your brain starts to implode like an old grapefruit."
The writers decided to focus on the Addams as an oddball but close-knit family, and went through several ideas — including doing "the Woody Allen version." (Note: Brickman co-wrote with Allen such classic film comedies as "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan").
They settled on a story about the unlikely engagement of the now-teenage Wednesday to a shockingly normal guy, and the appalled reaction of her fiance's square parents to the creepy Addams milieu.
Also part of the top-notch artistic team: composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa ("John & Jen," "The Wild Party"), and veteran Broadway director Jerry Zaks. And the costumes and elaborate sets of the echt-Gothic Addams mansion (along with the original direction) were the parvenu of the inventively hip duo of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, whose credits include an even grislier avant-garde puppet spectacle, "Shockheaded Peter."
Broadway stars Nathan Lane as Gomez Addams and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia led the original cast.
But when the (reportedly) $16.5 million show opened on Broadway in April 2010, after an upbeat Chicago tryout, the reviews were crushing.
Elice still winces at the memory of New York Times critic Ben Brantley describing "Addams Family" as "a collapsing tomb" and "like going to a Halloween party in a straitjacket or a suit of armor." (That wasn't even the worst of it.)
Not every review was a trounce: hard-nosed Bloomberg News critic John Simon termed the show "a menage-a-trois of the ghastly, the ghostly and the sidesplitting." Many in the audience (including this writer) found it enjoyably warped and funny, and the musical had a solid 725-performance run. (After Lane moved on, Elice's life partner of 30 years, actor Roger Rees, assumed the role of Gomez.)
Elice blames the pummeling reviews, in part, on "The Addams Family" getting lumped together with an onslaught of other pop-culture-knock-off musicals at the time — most of them duds. But with humility, he acknowledges, "Though we all had an absolutely noble goal in mind, to create something dark and beautiful and macabre ... we weren't always all working on the same show."
Elice welcomed the chance to revise the script with Brickman, for the 30-city national touring version that opened in fall 2011 and comes to Seattle with charismatic Broadway leading man Douglas Sills as Gomez. And critical reaction to the tour has been much more favorable.
Songs have been switched around, characters rejiggered and some numbers (like an epic battle with a giant squid) cut. But Elice says the most significant tweaks are in the storyline.
"It was a real rewrite, not a cosmetic one. We took the focus off the daughter, and focused on the Addams marriage in a more relatable way. In the original version, Gomez and Morticia both knew about Wednesday's engagement, and reacted as a unit. Now only Gomez knows, and that creates more tension and conflict."
Though Elice won't give any specifics on the (six) stage projects he's now developing, this former actor and advertising executive-turned-writer is clearly in high demand.
"If you were looking for a common thread in everything I do," he reflected, "it's family. That's what's most threatened now, and what we need to reconnect with. That's what gives us culture and wisdom and shared experience."
Even a deliciously gruesome family called Addams.
Misha Berson: email@example.com