There’s something beguiling about “Beetlejuice.”
Just ask most anyone who’s seen Tim Burton’s 1988 movie starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton in the ghoulish title role. That fan base is considerable, and includes Rob McClure, one of the stars of the new musical version of “Beetlejuice,” which opens at the Winter Garden Theatre on April 25. McClure was about 8 when he saw the film for the first time, and fell under its spell.
“I have a VHS [tape] of me doing the entire ‘Day-O’ dance around my kitchen table,” he says.
“We’ve seen it!” co-star Kerry Butler jumps in, laughing.
McClure smiles sheepishly. “Truly,” he says, “you will not find a bigger fan of the movie than me.”
Actually, he’s got some competition. A surprising number of audience members stand outside the stage door each night in their Beetlejuice striped suits. “We could easily turn into the next ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ ” says Butler.
That wouldn’t be hard to imagine. But if you give the musical a closer look, you’ll see that director Alex Timbers, composer Eddie Perfect and book writers Scott Brown and Anthony King are hoping to accomplish something more than just a tongue-in-cheek take on the macabre. Along with the dizzying special effects, Burton-esque set and all those fave film moments — sandworms, dead football players and, yes, the Harry Belafonte hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” — this musical sneaks in a stealth discussion of grief, loss and loneliness, which ripples just underneath the surface.
It’s a risk to offer something poignant amid the lovably peculiar. But it’s those moments that may provide pleasant surprises for fans, and distinguish this show from similar, simpler precursors like “Rocky Horror,” “The Addams Family” and even “Beetlejuice” the movie.
TWEAKING THE TALE
Sitting on a couch in a publicity office near their theater, McClure and Butler laugh and poke fun at each other like a real married couple. They play Adam and Barbara Maitland, a vanilla-bland pair who wind up unexpectedly dead, and whose home is invaded by both the living — the annoying Charles Deetz (Adam Dannheisser), his kooky girlfriend (Leslie Kritzer) and goth daughter (Sophia Anne Caruso) — and that crude and creepy demon with the strange name (Alex Brightman).
The Maitlands (played by Baldwin and Davis in the film) had been at the center of this story onscreen. Well, sort of. As beloved and visually ground-breaking as Burton’s film is — it won an Oscar for makeup and spawned an animated series and video games — it’s also … um … a tad hard to follow story-wise. (Of course, in a Burton film, who cares about internal logic when such a dazzling off-the-wall world is coming to life?)
“That’s why the movie’s a landmark — you’re going, ‘Whooooose brain are we in?’ ” says McClure. “We’d never seen that before.”
For the stage version, book writers Brown and King focus on goth-gal Lydia. We follow her journey as she struggles to deal with the death of her mother, turning first to her tight-lipped dad, then the ghostly Maitlands and devilish Beetlejuice, hoping they can lead her to her mom in the afterlife.
“They included all our favorite things from the movie, so fans won’t be disappointed, but then went on a whole new journey,” says Butler.
A BALANCING ACT
Timbers is determined to get the show's balance right, with equal doses humor and heart. Sprinkled throughout are musical numbers like “The Whole Being Dead Thing” (which warns, “God I hope you’re ready for a show about death”), and Lydia’s “Dead Mom” ballad, which probes how tough it is to deal with death as a kid when adults don’t deal with it well.
The show is recommended for ages 10 and up, given the subject matter and occasional use of strong language. Butler did let both her 7- and 13-year-old daughters see the show, and “Dead Mom” was a hit with her youngest.
“Her teacher sent me an email, and I’m like, ‘Oh God,’ ” Butler recalls. The message? “Just so you know, [your daughter] came in and sang ‘Dead Mom’ for the class today.”
Butler just shakes her head as McClure cracks up. He became a dad for the first time over the winter, and it’s changed his take on the show.
Lydia’s loss “rings in a different way in me, now that I have a daughter and watch her interact with my wife,” he says. To him, it's rich territory to explore.
A SKINNIER ALEC BALDWIN
Despite these script changes, the film’s outrageous spirit remains intact.
Watching the movie today is like opening a time capsule. Alec Baldwin, then a young, little-known actor from Massapequa, looks more like his Alfred G. Berner High School graduation photo than the hulkier “Saturday Night Live” fixture we know today.
“I’d never describe him as lanky, but in the movie, it’s like, wow, he’s this funny, gangly guy,” says McClure. “What a transformation he’s made.”
How such an offbeat film became a blockbuster is a testament to the quirky appeal of performers like Baldwin and Keaton. And director Burton, who’d go on to helm other beloved films, including “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Batman."
“[Burton] sort of unapologetically runs at the macabre in a way that makes it fun,” says McClure.
Butler agrees: “People can embrace the darkness instead of hiding it inside themselves."
The actors hope that the strange sensibility established by Burton onscreen will translate onstage. “There’s something about the melancholy humor,” says McClure, “that has a larger appeal than we realize.”
BEETLEJUICE, THE HOME-GROWN EDITION
Alan Stentiford would love to know just how Alex Brightman, who plays the title role in Broadway’s new “Beetlejuice” musical, manages to do “that voice” eight shows a week.
The musical theater actor and Hofstra grad from Huntington Station knows how tough it is, having played his own version of the character at Beetle House, a cozy Tim Burton-themed bar and restaurant in Manhattan's East Village.
“I tried my best to sound like Michael Keaton in the film,” says Stentiford, 26, launching into the familiar gravelly tone. “It’s kinda deep, kinda hurts the throat a little bit … y’know what I’m sayin’?” Then he’s back to his normal tenor. “You drink a lot of hot water with lemon and honey.”
Applying the makeup (a 90-minute process) was almost as challenging as interacting with patrons for hours.
“He’s so in your face, and unfiltered,” says Stentiford. “But that’s what people love about him.”
Stentiford transformed into Beetlejuice (also Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, from other Burton films) for more than a year, leaving last summer. He has since played Dr. Frankenstein in the Off-Broadway musical “Frankenstein,” and teaches voice in Manhattan and Long Island.
He’s hoping to see Broadway’s “Beetlejuice” soon, intrigued by the production’s grappling with some of the darker themes of the tale. He’s grappling, too: His mother, Eleanor, died earlier this month after a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer.
“I’m hoping she’s having a blast, like in ‘Beetlejuice,’ on the other side,” he says, chuckling softly. He appreciates the offbeat, gallows humor of the film and musical, noting that there are things you can laugh at even in the most somber of circumstances.
“I think that’s what makes [this story so] popular,” he says. “You can find comfort in those things.”
— Joseph V. Amodio