Second thoughts on 'The Addams Family'

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"The Addams Family" seemed to have everything going for it when the musical opened on Broadway two years ago: a book by the creators of the mega-hit "Jersey Boys"; two exceedingly popular stars, Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth; and a title known to trigger fond memories and finger-snaps from any number of people who recall the 1960s sitcom of the same name.

Then the reviews hit. They were about as cheery as the facial expression on Lurch, butler in the deliciously abnormal Addams household.

Although the show ran until last New Year's Eve, chalking up a respectable 735 performances, the perception of a flawed musical stuck. It just may get unstuck now, thanks to a major makeover for the touring production of "The Addams Family" that hits the Hippodrome this week.

It turns out that the creative team behind the original version was not entirely pleased with it when the musical opened on Broadway.

"I remember Des McAnuff [director of 'Jersey Boys'] saying that a show is never done; the people who make them just run out of time," said Rick Elice, who wrote "The Addams Family" with Marshall Brickman.

Time started running out before the show reached the Great White Way.

"We all knew it was drifting during the Chicago tryout," Brickman said. "At one point, it became obvious that, despite the best of intentions, we didn't really have people who were in control. The decision was made to replace the captain of the ship."

That captain, Phelim McDermott, was eased out of the director slot as Jerry Zaks, a four-time Tony Award-winning director, arrived to provide creative oversight. Known in the industry as a "theater doctor," Zaks went into full rescue mode.

He got the disparate backstage figures onto the same page and then tackled the situation onstage.

"What I saw in Chicago was very unfocused," Zaks said from Brazil, where a Portuguese-language production of "The Addams Family" opened this month. "At one performance, I sat behind a young couple. When the show was working, they were rapt. When it was not, they went back to making out in front of me. That was very helpful, dramaturgically speaking."

Zaks oversaw several revisions to "The Addams Family," which arrived on the Great White Way in 2010 with a healthy $14 million in advance sales.

"Notwithstanding the notices, which were dripping with contempt, it represented an improvement over what happened in Chicago," Zaks said.

Given the box-office success of the Broadway "Addams Family," a touring production of that version would have been plausible. But last year, when plans were laid for a national tour, the producers agreed to underwrite a rewrite. Zaks put on his theater doctor coat again and had the creators taking a second look at everything, starting with the plot.

When Brickman and Elice had first set out, they did not attempt a musical version of the TV series (a few nods to it are included) or the subsequent "Addams Family" movies. They focused on the famous cartoons by Charles Addams that started appearing in the New Yorker magazine in the late 1930s, depicting a decidedly dark family.

"The real challenge was to create a dramatic/comic work that paid respect to Charles Addams' original ethos, the 'Addams inversion' — ugly is beautiful, sad is happy, dark is light," said Brickman. "But you can't follow that slavishly. You can't create characters who are just creepy people who don't have normal responses."

What the writers devised was what Brickman describes as "a very classic, fish-out-of-water clash," where the "normal" family of Wednesday's boyfriend interacts with the ever-so abnormal Addams clan.

In the Broadway version, those outside characters took up a lot of stage time.

"The audience found them less interesting than we did," Elice said.

There was also a problem with Morticia and Gomez.

"One of the major things missing was a clear story line for them, a conflict," Zaks said.

In the new version, Wednesday confides only in Gomez about wanting to marry her boyfriend and asks him not to tell her mother. The age-old situation of a secret shared by a child and only one parent still has legs, as the TV sitcom "Modern Family" continues to prove weekly.

"Originally, the most pressing thing on Morticia's mind was getting older. This is a much more significant issue," Zaks said. "It's something every parent recognizes and every child understands. It makes the show more compelling and, ironically, makes the [Addamses] more human and less strange."

Several other changes were made. Composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa agreed to cut a handful of songs and write new ones.

And one of the most in-your-face ideas of the original, a giant squid that had a strangely sensual encounter with Wednesday's prospective father-in-law, was retired. "I guess I'll have to live that one down for the rest of my life," said Brickman. "I imagine the squid is now working with 'Disney on Ice.'"

Broadway shows don't typically get redone before touring. This revision took time, money and compromise.

"It was not a placid environment," Elice said, "but a placid environment doesn't generate great theater. We were united by the fact that we weren't as successful as we wanted to be in New York. I don't think audiences were cheated by that version. I'm just glad we got a chance to make the show better."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Addams Family" opens Tuesday and runs through March 18 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $24.60 to $91.20. Call 410-547-7328 or go to tickemaster.com.

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