Jerry Zaks hangs out with ‘The Addams Family’

Few properties have been mined as often as the world of Gomez and Morticia Addams, their children Wednesday and Pugsley, strange Uncle Fester and the rest of the macabre clan. Introduced in 1938 through Charles Addams’ cartoons in the New Yorker, the ghoulish Addams family went on to star in a sitcom, movies and animated TV before inhabiting a Broadway musical in April 2010.

Written by “Jersey Boys” librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with a score by “The Wild Party’s” Andrew Lippa, “The Addams Family” musical arrived on Broadway with Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, a $14-million advance and a critical thud. Never mind that theatergoers ignored the reviews and the Tony-nominated show stayed on Broadway for 22 months. The show’s producers and creative team weren’t happy with it.

So for the touring production, which comes to the Pantages on Tuesday starring Douglas Sills and Sara Gettelfinger, the show’s creators took another look. “After Broadway, I went back to everyone and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m done — are you done?’” recalls producer Stuart Oken. “They said ‘no,’ and it started a massive rethink.”

The person thinking the hardest was the tour’s production supervisor, four-time Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks. Originally hired in December 2009 to rethink the show’s pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, Zaks has now overseen another, complete with new story lines, songs and dances.

Zaks talks about rethinking the same musical twice:

Let’s go back to the beginning, when you were first called in as “creative consultant” to help co-directors/designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch get the show ready for Broadway.

Zaks: My first viewing, which was late in its pre-Broadway run, told me a lot. I see myself as a storyteller, and I wasn’t quite sure what the story was. It didn’t seem clearly focused.

What were some of the problems?

One scene didn’t lead into another in a satisfactory way. I felt a lot of work needed to be done on who these people were, their relationships and their problems. We redid the opening number, which I thought was exciting and well staged but didn’t tell the audience what the show was about.

Why didn’t you do everything else before Broadway, rather than after?

Between Chicago and New York, the clock was ticking. The theaters and stars were locked in. We had to prepare for rehearsals. I’m very proud of where we got the show, but there wasn’t enough time and inspiration to jettison the stuff that wasn’t working. You work and you work until the bell rings, and then you stop.

What sorts of things did the tour allow you to reconsider?

I wanted the show to be more of a funny, joyous comedy true to the spirit of the Addams Family cartoons. We also hadn’t made the story quite universal enough. The family had to be in some way more recognizably human to be compelling for the audience.

Does everything still pivot around what happens when a now-grown-up Wednesday Addams decides to take on a “normal” husband and in-laws, and the two families meet?

That’s correct, but the story in the touring production is more focused on Morticia and Gomez. In the Broadway version, they were basically observing what was happening to their family with Wednesday’s engagement. Morticia was panicked to an unreasonable degree about getting older, and Gomez was reduced to basically reassuring her. That’s not enough of a conflict between the two central characters.

We came up with the idea of making full disclosure key to their relationship; they never kept secrets or lied to each other. So at the beginning of the show, we now have Wednesday tell her father — and no longer both her parents — about her boyfriend, and she asks him not to tell her mother. So right from the start, Gomez has a big problem — a secret from Morticia. By creating conflict, we tried to give the story more of a spine that it had before.

You also scrapped the Broadway show’s extremely large squid?

A lot of time and energy was spent earlier on effects that were “Addamsy.” The squid and its tentacles seemed to appear when you least expected them, and it made the squid too important a character in the show.

I assume plot changes meant new songs and dances?

Yes. We took out three songs, added three new ones and restructured two others.

The creative team was in agreement on all this?

The writers, who have been with the show far longer than I, were just as enthusiastic about continuing the work as I was. I made sure they kept working, that’s what I did. There were any number of times they probably thought they were done, and I pointed out to them, very gently and with great affection, that they were not.

You obviously didn’t change everything. What are some of the things you kept?

There was some brilliant stage magic created by [the original directors/designers] Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch that I didn’t touch. Their set was spectacular, and I did very little to mess with it. There’s a number where Fester sings to the moon, and it appears as though he’s levitating. That’s the kind of illusion that was very successful, and I didn’t tamper with that.

Why go to such bother with a show that ran nearly two years on Broadway?

Pride. I knew we hadn’t finished. We worked on it until the tour’s opening night in New Orleans last fall, and I was still making changes when it was on the road.

Are you going to make more changes after Los Angeles?

Probably not. I think we’ve gotten it right.