'The Addams Family' Musical Was Panned. Then It Became a Hit.

NEW YORK — The Broadway reviews for “The Addams Family” were gruesome — the kind of notices that, in theory, could kill a show.

'The Addams Family' Musical Was Panned. Then It Became a Hit.

Panning it in The New York Times, Ben Brantley described it as a “tepid goulash of vaudeville song-and-dance routines, Borscht Belt jokes, stingless sitcom zingers and homey romantic plotlines that were mossy in the age of ‘Father Knows Best.’” The musical, he persevered, was “most distinctive for its wholesale inability to hold on to a consistent tone or an internal logic.”

Yet “The Addams Family,” which opened on Broadway 10 years ago this month with Nathan Lane as Gomez Addams and Bebe Neuwirth as his beloved Morticia, refused to succumb. Cushioned by a bountiful box-office advance, it ran for 20 months — shorter than hoped for a starry show based on beloved characters, but hardly a flameout.

Then things got interesting. Becoming one of the rare shows that retool and flourish after their New York debut, the musical has proved an enduring hit in youth and community theater productions and has played in more than three dozen countries.

“It’s our bestseller by volume of production,” said Steve Spiegel, the president and CEO of Theatrical Rights Worldwide, which licenses the show in several formats, including a 30-minute version for elementary school performers, and is eyeing the possibility of a sequel by the same authors. “In the last five years, ‘Addams Family’ was the No. 1-produced high school show four of those years, and the other year it was No. 2.”

What “The Addams Family” became isn’t what producer Stuart Oken had in mind when he tapped Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the British creators of the artfully macabre “Shockheaded Peter,” to direct and design, teaming them with Broadway veterans Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) and composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (“Big Fish”).

Oken, who called the project “the biggest missed opportunity of my professional life,” blames himself for that ill-advised creative marriage and the rocky path that followed.

A former executive vice president at Disney Theatrical, Oken said he had hoped that a “nonprofit artist attack on a piece of mainstream, well-known material” would ignite “The Addams Family” the way that Julie Taymor did “The Lion King.” Instead, he found himself calling for emergency show-doctoring by director Jerry Zaks — a four-time Tony Award winner and longtime Lane collaborator — to get the production to New York.

Signs of trouble emerged at the musical’s out-of-town tryout in Chicago. When it opened there, to great anticipation in December 2009, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones judged it “overly weighty,” lacking humor, spontaneity and narrative focus. To fix it, the creative team had only four months — not enough time.

Two years later, though, Jones proclaimed the much-revised touring production “infinitely better than the Broadway version” — “enjoyable if visually simplified,” “less ambitious” yet charming, built for old-fashioned fun.

Oken, who lead-produced “The Addams Family” with Roy Furman, said he is proud of the shape that the musical — based on the drolly dark single-panel cartoons of Charles Addams rather than on their campily mainstream TV and film spinoffs — eventually found.

“But it’s a different show than what we set out to do,” Oken said. “A very different show.”

Oken, the writers and two others from that original production — Jackie Hoffman, who played Grandma, and producer Eva Price (“Tina”; “Jagged Little Pill”), who a decade ago was a novice co-producer — spoke in separate phone interviews about their experiences of the show. These excerpts have been edited and condensed.

THE FIRST TRY

STUART OKEN (lead producer): I thought we were going to do something dangerous.

ANDREW LIPPA (composer and lyricist): We were given access to all of the original drawings, and that’s where we drew all our inspiration from.

OKEN: I thought this was the kind of property where I should take a risk, and that the property was muscular enough to stand up to it.

EVA PRICE (co-producer): It felt like it was stacked with that wonderful combination of broad commercial appeal and creative artfulness. It smelled right in all of its ways.

MARSHALL BRICKMAN (book writer): We had to have the song with the clicks in it, the snaps. There was a lot of metaphysical discussion of whether that should come at the beginning of the show or whether it should be saved for the end. You don’t want to violate too much audience expectation with a brand name.

RICK ELICE (book writer): What we discovered, rather too late (laughs), was that even by 2010, the idea of going out of town so that you could be under the radar was impossible. Anything with Nathan Lane in it is going to be high-profile. Anything with Bebe Neuwirth. Everybody was there at the first preview. I think before the overture was over, there were already chat rooms. Everybody’s thumbs were exhausted by the intermission.

PRICE: It got pretty tough reviews in Chicago and really disappointed industry people, so that was very worrisome.

OKEN: There were problems in the company, there were relationship issues that we were struggling with and the material needed a lot more work. I didn’t think we could achieve it without making a change. By making a change, I was basically giving up the thing that I kind of thought I was trying to do. I put it in the hands of an experienced showman who could help get me out of trouble. And that’s when Jerry came in. Julian Crouch, the designer, stayed with the production. Phelim departed.

JACKIE HOFFMAN (actress): It’s a shame, because if we kept that director, what would the vision have been? It was great that I got to meet and have a relationship with Jerry. But it certainly was emotionally difficult, and it was very awkward. But, you know, it’s show business, not “show love.”

OKEN: I thought the joy of it would be in the cleverness of the way it was done. But it turned out it wasn’t enough. It became a star-driven vehicle. It just morphed differently.

THE BROADWAY RUN

ELICE: It was the spring that “Spider-Man” was supposed to open, which was the great big event of the season. Then we were going to come in after that and just be a musical comedy. “Spider-Man” postponed, and so there we were. Because it was a big show, and it was the only one suddenly, it received a certain kind of attention that it was never meant to shoulder.

LIPPA: It’s a very public forum, writing a Broadway musical. If you’re going to play in the big leagues, as it were, you have to learn how to tune out the voices that you don’t necessarily want to listen to.

HOFFMAN: Nothing really prepared us for the unleashing of absolute cruelty and vitriol when the New York press got wind of it.

PRICE: One of the most enlightening moments of my producing career was the day after opening night in New York, where Stuart Oken and Roy Furman laid out the disastrous New York Times review that we all read the night before. That team started that ad meeting reading the terrible first paragraph, and then the terrible first paragraph of the “Mamma Mia!” review and of the “Les Miz” review and of the “Wicked” review and of the “Cats” review — all these hit shows. It was very encouraging, because we were like, “You’re right, it’s not over.”

HOFFMAN: It only really affects you as a performer if the audiences are affected. There were a couple of nights where you felt from the audience, “Well, I kind of like it, but I’m not supposed to.” I mean, people are very, very affected by reviews. They shouldn’t be, but unfortunately they are.

ELICE: I was in the elevator in my building with some neighbors who live on a lower floor. The woman said, “Well, we just came from ‘The Addams Family.’ What a disaster.” Fortunately for me, the elevator opened and they got out. The next morning, under my door was a note: “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed. When we got out of the elevator, my husband said, ‘You idiot. He wrote it.’ So I just want you to know I’m really sorry for being so rude. But we would like our money back.” My husband, who was a wonderful actor and a great human being, said, “I want you to write her a check right now.”

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

OKEN: Even though the show ran 20 months and recouped a big chunk of its money on Broadway, it was hard. It was a hard experience.

HOFFMAN: It gave me a lot of material for a Joe’s Pub show. I just stood there and read excerpts from reviews, especially the one that called me hunched over, shrill and irritating.

BRICKMAN: We did like 700 performances, which is not chopped liver. It wasn’t a total embarrassment. I think that’s a triumph in this business.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

THE AFTERLIFE

BRICKMAN: We learned a lot on Broadway. A piece, in a sense, tells you what it wants to be. And the audience tells you what it would be willing to accept.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

LIPPA: By 2011, we were still running on Broadway and planning our national tour, and Stuart said, “We have the resources to help if you guys want to make changes. What would you like to do?”

ELICE: This never happens.

OKEN: I said I didn’t want to do the tour if we were just going to leave it incomplete.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

LIPPA: We ripped apart our show. We looked at the central conflict, and we looked at the score, and where we could make improvements.

ELICE: We rewrote it to make the show more about the characters, not just the family characters but the new characters that we introduced to make it less bizarre and more human. Broadly, that was the trick.

OKEN: We made three song changes, I think, between Chicago and New York, and then made four more between New York and the tour.

ELICE: In the summer of ’11, we all moved down to New Orleans and spent five weeks down there, as though it were a brand-new show. By the time we started playing in New Orleans, we felt like we had finally something akin to what we had originally started thinking about way back in 2007, 2008.

OKEN: The DNA was still the DNA that was captured at the very beginning, and that made the first tryout and made the New York production. We had the hindsight of a deep breath and the ability to kind of be ruthless with our own work.

LIPPA: The version of the show that is seen all over the world and has played to millions of people is the version that we made for the national tour.

OKEN: We were so comfortable together as a creative team doing the last version of the show. Maybe it’s because Broadway had passed, a little of the craving had passed, the hurt had passed. I thought the Australian production was unbelievable. Then we did the same thing in Buenos Aires. It was just a wonderful feeling to know that could happen.

LIPPA: I only hoped that I would make something I was proud of. And ultimately I did.

BRICKMAN: I have no regrets about it. The thing is still alive. That’s ridiculous.

LIPPA: The singular joy of “The Addams Family” is that in the 10 years since we’ve made it, the world has echoed back that they like what we’ve done.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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