Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice. Uh, oh. He’s been summoned—to the stage, that is.
The original Tim Burton cult classic has been turned into a fourth-wall-breaking, death-embracing musical phenomenon on the Broadway stage. But that ghostly experience doesn’t start on stage. As soon as musical-goers enter the theater, it’s like they’re transported into the netherworld. Green and purple strobes illuminate those who come dressed in long striped socks or a full Beetlejuice costume.
“It’s my new favorite thing—seeing people in costume and their reaction, it’s so over the top and crazy,” said Kerry Butler (Mean Girls) who plays the role of Barbara Maitland, one half of the ghost couple described as “a little on the Pottery Barn and dry white wine side” in the show. “It’s my favorite thing about the show now.”
The production starts with a ballad, setting it apart from most other musicals on Broadway, in which Betelgeuse—pronounced Beetlejuice and played by Alex Brightman (School of Rock The Musical)—breaks the fourth wall to immediately speak to the audience about. The musical follows the story of the 1988 film, which starred Alec Baldwin as Adam Maitland, Geena Davis as Barbara Maitland, Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz and Michael Keaton as Betelgeuse, with a few tweaks added to make the plot more clear and modernized elements to bring it into the 21st century.
“It’s funny because you know how sometimes you remember something differently, when I watched the movie again, I loved all the things I loved, but I liked the way they changed our show and fleshed things out more and it was a bit more clear,” said Butler. “There’s no need for it to be set in the ’80s because the story is timeless, so it just felt right they made it contemporary and more relatable to the audience now.”
For lead Sophia Anne Caruso (The Sound of Music Live!, Blackbird), who plays Lydia Deetz, she’s always been a fan of Burton and the original, but said she wanted to make the character her own.
“I didn’t want to copy Winona Ryder,” said Caruso, who has been developing the character for three years. “I didn’t really focus on not seeing it—I just didn’t have a desire to rewatch it when I was creating the role.”
The show delves into some heavy themes. At the onset of the musical, Lydia sings about being invisible in the prologue and the loss of her mother in “Dead Mom,” while Adam (Rob McClure, Honeymoon in Vegas) and Barbara Maitland sing “Ready, Set, Not Yet” about not being ready to have a child.
But Caruso is no stranger to this subject matter or ghosts.
“A lot of the shows I’ve been a part of have been about death and dying, really dark subject matter,” said Caruso, who said she has paranormal experiences and even remembers speaking to a man in the basement of her mother’s antique shop when others saw her talking to the air. “In the movie, they sort of romanticize [Lydia’s] Gothicness and sadness and depression. It’s turned into something beautiful and it’s not. In our Beetlejuice on stage I’ve worked really hard over the past three years to make it an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a teenage girl grieving.”
Despite the show’s ominous themes of death, the musical’s jokes—many of which Butler explained were improvised by Brightman during rehearsals—puppets, sets, special effects and projections keep the audience rumbling with laughter from start to finish, masking the themes behind a light and joyful atmosphere—which mirrors the way many humans deal with death, repressing the thoughts and focusing on the everyday, the positives.
“Beetlejuice has a really dark plot, but Beetlejuice’s subplot is full of laughing and joy, so I think that contrasts well with the dark themes and makes them bearable and keeps the audience engaged to stick through it and learn something,” said Caruso.
“I’ve heard people saying that it stayed with them for days after, really thinking about the afterlife because there aren’t many shows talking about death from a thoughtful perspective,” added Butler. “In the moment, you’re laughing so much, so it’s something that hits you later, which is something I think theater does.”
The cast brings the film’s iconic scenes, like the dinner party scene where the cast sings “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and the closing song, “Jump in the Line (Shake Senora),” where levitation comes into play, to life. The set design—from the Maitland/Deetz home to the afterlife—and the puppeteer work really brought the ghoulish, other-worldly feel to the stage. Butler, whose husband, Joey Mazzarino is a puppeteer, explained the puppets, including a gigantic snake and some large Betelgeuse arms, were created to mimic the Burton homemade-feel.
“A lot of the magic is that it’s old-school magic,” Butler said of the effects. “The craziest thing for me during the show has been the special effects because my hand has been on fire and people think it’s not real. I’m like, ‘oh no, it’s hot. My hand is on fire.’ The other night I thought I was going to set my hair on fire. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Is it burning?’”
Because this production compiles an eclectic mix of elements, dark themes and constant comedy, Beetlejuice has been nominated for eight Tony Award nominations, including best musical; Brightman for outstanding actor in a leading role in a musical; Scott Brown and Anthony King for best book of a musical; Eddie Perfect for best new score; David Korins for best scenic design of a musical; William Ivey Long for best costume design of a musical; Peter Hylenski for best sound design of a musical; and Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini for best lighting design of a musical. The Tonys will air on Sunday, June 9, at 8 p.m. on CBS.
Beetlejuice is currently on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. For tickets, visit telecharge.com.