NEW YORK — It's pushing midnight at Angus McIndoe, a Broadway watering hole. Marshall Brickman — who co-wrote "Sleeper," "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" with Woody Allen — is sitting at a table in the back. Rick Elice, who penned the book for "Jersey Boys" with Brickman along with writing countless other shows, is there, too, sipping a martini. The mood is intense and emotional.
But the humor is typically caustic. The topic under discussion this December Friday night is what went wrong with a musical called "The Addams Family," which opened in Chicago in 2009 to mixed but constructive reviews, suffered from a plethora of subsequent creative trauma — including the post-Chicago replacement of original director Phelim McDermott with Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks — and, despite the work between Chicago and New York, was met on Broadway by, mostly, critical contempt.
More specifically at this moment, the topic is a giant squid that ate a musical.
First in Chicago and then on Broadway, the climax of “The Addams Family” revolves around a conservative Ohioan named Mal Beineke who, to the delight of Morticia and Gomez Addams, comes around to a live-and-let-live liberality with the help of the sensual ministrations of a puppet version of a giant cephalopod. For many, the notorious squid-sex scene became a symbol of a show that had lost its way, and forgotten whose names were on the marquee.
Brickman and Elice, it becomes clear at the kind of hour when one might as well speak the truth, do not disagree. “That squid,” says Brickman, eyes sparking a little, even as he grits his teeth, “is now working for Disney on Ice.”
This is a very unusual conversation, not least because that show-munching squid still does eight shows a week on Broadway, through Dec. 31. So is the similarly charged conversation the next morning in the cafe of the Hotel Edison — another Broadway canteen, this one of the old school — when director Zaks, seated at his regular table inside the so-called Polish Tearoom, could be heard telling composer Andrew Lippa and the producer, Chicago-based Stuart Oken, about his recent shuffle off to Buffalo to “change a few scenes” and keep working on a show that he was not even originally slated to direct. Lippa is clearly very interested in what Zaks is saying about all those last “D-minus choices crying out for attention” — not least because those audiences in Buffalo were hearing five new songs for “The Addams Family” that the final audiences in New York City this holiday season won't be hearing at all.
The story of “The Addams Family” was supposed to be written already — Act 1 in Chicago in 2009, Act 2 in New York in 2010. There is typically not much appetite for a third act. The Broadway opening is long gone and the disappointing ink long dry — the show is closing after a respectable number of performances, but without having recouped its investment. The national tour, put into motion even before the Broadway opening, has been out since early fall and is unlikely to be seen again by most Broadway taste-makers, new songs or not. In most similar circumstances, an original creative team of the caliber that came together for “The Addams Family” would have left the tour to associates, licked their open wounds with memories of their formidable past hits and moved on to the next high-profile project. But that's not what is happening here.
This whole team — producer Oken, director Zaks, composer Lippa, book writers Brickman and Elice — has shown up in New York not so much to argue that there is a third act, but that they have written a whole new third version: An Addams Family 3.0, with the unofficial opening slated for Chicago on Dec. 27. The show will arrive in the city of its birth belatedly because of a low demand for tickets (cutting a three-week stand at the Cadillac Palace Theatre down to one, a further reminder of the bittersweet nature of this quest), presumably because the bulk of the potential Chicago audience decided it had already seen it the first time and did not need to see it again.
Wrong, say the leading people who made it. Their baby is now quite different. And, they all insist, finally the show they really wanted in the first place. They are so passionately insistent on this point that they're willing to talk with uncommon frankness of the limitations of the show playing on Broadway for the next week or so.
To get to this point, the Addams crew has had to plow over some hurt feelings — their own.
“It was difficult to get past that at the outset,” Elice says, when asked how he felt as the New York reviews came in. “To be told that this was the worst musical of the past 40 years. Really? That vitriol was part of my energy for reinvestigating the show.”
“I felt it personally,” Brickman says. “You're not supposed to, but you do. In the end, we all felt like we had swum across the Atlantic Ocean and drowned in the last 3 feet.”
Even though the writers, composer and new director say they knew what needed to be done after Chicago, there was just no time to reach the shores of success. The old-fashioned, romantic ideal of the out-of-town tryout is of writers and composers taking to their hotel rooms and creating new brilliance in 24 hours. The modern reality is that the costs of changing a massive set, the deadlines for setting elaborate technical effects and the rules restricting the rehearsal time of actors doing shows at night means it takes a lot more time to make real changes, even though Lippa did his best by writing several new songs.
“Jerry Zaks was mostly doing damage control,” Brickman says. “He was restaging so the material was accessible to the audience. In Chicago, people had gone into business for themselves.”
As Brickman and Elice see it, another kind of timing did not serve the show, and on Broadway timing is everything. “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” had been postponed, leaving “The Addams Family” as the big commercial gorilla in its place, a target, demonstrably, for anger at what some saw as the growing obsession of Broadway with brand names from pop culture, even though Oken had, from the start, tried to create a high-end art piece, based explicitly on the original Charles Addams cartoons, not the TV show or the movies. Then there was the narrative — most big musicals come with meta-narratives these days; “Spider-Man,” for example, was a dangerous concoction sending actors to the hospital — of dissent within the ranks, which was indisputably the case, and of a show that had failed to create an arty milieu and thus had sold out to commercialism. Whether the latter was fair wasn't the point. It was the story. Blood in the water had been smelled.
But a few weeks after the Broadway opening, the group had to reconvene to talk about the tour. It was an emotional meeting. “We said we'd like to go back to work,” Elice says, “and create a new show. And the producer agreed to step up and make that possible.”
That new show will now become the basis of all subsequent productions of “The Addams Family,” including a Brazilian production (well under way) and a planned London engagement. It will also become the licensable property — meaning this is the version that will be seen in a few years at suburban dinner theaters.
Why go to all this trouble? “You have a reputation,” Brickman says, taking a sip of his drink at Angus McIndoe, and speaking frankly enough, “you want respect. But it's really about connection with an audience. When we opened the tour in New Orleans, we could finally hear them make that sound.”
“When I go in 25 years to my great-nephew's high school production,” Lippa says the next morning, “he'll be doing the best iteration of the show.”
So what, exactly, has taken place?
“Shall I get into specifics?” says Zaks to his colleagues, wondering whether to spill the beans about the big new idea. When told that Elice spilled them the night before, Zaks goes ahead, grinning like a kid. “It's really very simple,” he says. “We have now created an actual conflict between Gomez and Morticia.”
Although Addams created distinct personalities for the matriarch and patriarch of his kooky world, he did not show them at odds with each other. “They were really,” Brickman says, “the same character broken in two.” Thus in both 1.0 (directed by McDermott) and 2.0 (doctored by Zaks), Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth played characters whose point of view was singular, even if their relationship was not as close, or as relaxed, as was desirable. “Those characters always told each other everything,” Zaks says. Initially, the show respected that.
Not anymore. It has apparently been realized that what works in an Addams cartoon — which sets up a situation but never reveals consequences — does not work in a show, which demands a full arc. “Now,” Elice says, “Wednesday comes up to her father and says, ‘I'm gonna tell you a secret but please don't tell Mama.' So he has to choose between betraying his daughter or betraying his wife.”
Wednesday's secret is that she is getting married to a young Beineke, who she fears will be appallingly normal for her mother, Morticia. Her confidence puts Gomez in a tough pickle which, the writers say, now drives the entire show and necessitated several new songs, including a number wherein Gomez sings of divided loyalties. “It is now a much more engaging story,” Brickman says, noting that the writers finally have the focus on the Addamses. “It resonates much more clearly with the audience, and the way it is mounted and presented is consistent with the original intent of the writers and the composer.”
That last sentence is clearly the rub for Brickman — sometimes that ideally happens by the Broadway opening, but, in this case, not. As Stephen Sondheim is fond of noting, artists can't control external reaction. All they can ask from a show is that it eventually arrives where they wanted it to arrive, and that it finally represents the artist's own sense of his or her best work. That, all these men say, is what will finally happen with “The Addams Family” in Chicago, when the work on the tour will be done.
In an ideal world, these changes would also have been made on Broadway this fall (“Spider-Man” pulled that off), but Oken says that was not financially doable, given that the show was closing anyway. The only way to make this level of change, he said, was to make it the plan for the tour, and for all productions going forward.
The writers say they understand that. “As an artist, I'd like to have seen it,” Elice says. “And the Broadway cast was champing for the opportunity.” But the Broadway story of “The Addams Family” is already written.
All everyone involved can do is keep working and move on.At least they get a chance to whip things into shape in Chicago, and the Addams family likes torture devices.
“The Addams Family” opens Dec. 27 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., and plays one week only. For tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit broadwayinchicago.com