New 'Addams Family' Adds Some Heart (And Some Snap, Snap)

It's been a long and hard — not to mention spooky and ooky — road to get "The Addams Family"musical first to Broadway and then on tour. The national road company opens its one-week run Tuesday at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

But it didn't start out that way.

When the Broadway-bound musical "The Addams Family" premiered in Chicago in late 2009, it was greeted with big box office numbers, good reviews and the kind of brand-name identity producers only dream about.

Based on the cartoon panels by Charles Addams, which were also the basis of a popular '60s TV series and two early '90s movies, the new musical, which starred Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, looked at first glance — at least to outside eyes — to be destined to become a smash.

The show's characters were instantly beloved: Gomez and Morticia Addams, the head of the decidedly macabre family that also includes uber-goth daughter Wednesday and son Pugsley, mad Grandma, the looming butler Lurch and bald and batty Uncle Fester. Even "Thing" single-handedly makes a appearance.

Producer Stuart Oken, who had worked for Disney Theatrical Productions during the creation of"The Lion King,"wanted to create his own creative and commercial stage blockbuster. "I saw what happened when you marry a more-or-less avant garde artist with what could be considered a commercial property," says Oken.

So he hired Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, best known for the inventive and dark off-Broadway entertainment "Shockheaded Peter," to design and direct the show. But creating a large-scale musical was too much a task for them, says Oken, who knew in Chicago that the production, despite ticket sales and kind critics, was uneven and unfocused. Bloggers and theater gossips were already beating the Internet tom-toms signaling a possible disaster.

Enter veteran director Jerry Zaks whose mission was to fix the show. Quick.

"When I came into Chicago," says Zaks," 'it was total chaos. The show was a critical patient on the table but we only had so much time." The upgraded musial, says Zaks, ended up being "a good evening's entertainment" — but not enough to avoid the mixed-to-withering reviews when the new version opened on Broadway in the spring of 2010.

On the strength of the stars and the Addams brand name, the musical managed a robust box office shortly after it opened. But Tony Award nomination snubs didn't help the growing perception that this was at best a maybe-marginal as opposed to a must-see show.

Starting Over

When Lane and Neuwirth contracts' expired and the stars left the show last year — succeeded by Roger Rees and Brooke Shields — the box office declined. Though the musical was still making a profit, Oken felt it could not weather the slow winter season and the musical closed Dec. 31, having run 722 performances and failing to recoup its $16 million costs.

But when Zaks, composer Andrew Lippa and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys") and the show's producers gathered a little over a year ago they decided the tour would give them a chance to finish the job they set out to do after Chicago.

"How many shows that get reviewed like ours did have the chance to have a future life?" says Oken.

"You could feel the relief in the room," says Zaks of the meeting about the tour and what do with the show. "There wasn't that awful tension. But for me it was how willing were the writers willing and eager re-attack the project that they've been with such a long time? But there was a common desire to make it better.

"But first we all had to identify what the common problem was. We knew in a general way that there wasn't sufficient conflict with the lead characters." (The earlier version's conflict centered on Morticia's fear of aging, which was "slight," says Zaks.)

In the revised version, the foundation of trust of the marriage of Gomez and Morticia is shaken when Gomez lies to his wife about their daughter's engagement. "What father can say no to a cute daughter,' says Zaks.

In changing the focus it made the leading characters the heart of the show and they became "identifiable human beings with just a different sensibility. It became clear what the show was all about. Once we had the basic premise right it was just the usual process of hacking away, saying, 'This isn't good enough, this isn't done yet, this can be better.' The writers were tireless and refused to be satisfied."

Three new songs were added, others scratched as was a much-disliked second act scene involving a supporting character's romantic relationship with a giant squid.

The tour, starring Douglas Sills and Sara Gettelfinger, opened in New Orleans last fall and has received positive national and local reviews. The North American tour continues through the end of the year and other productions are planned for Australia and Brazil.