The Tony-nominated Creative Team from Beetlejuice on Broadway Share Their Stories
In This Episode
ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host Elysa Gardner and today we’re speaking with you from the Tony Award Nominees Press Reception, where some of those brightest and most noteworthy artists have gathered on a two-show day—no doubt running on sheer adrenaline here—to talk about their work, the season, and being tapped by Tony, as the big night approaches. In this unique episode, we have some members of the A-list creative and design team from the Tony-nominated show, Beetlejuice. They’ll discuss the dream teamwork that allowed them to bring their individual talents—and shared respect for the classic Tim Burton film—to a musical and visual spectacular.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here today with William Ivey Long, the legendary costume designer, who is here today nominated for two Tony Awards for Tootsie and Beetlejuice, which I believe that’s your 74th and 75th Broadway show. Is that correct?
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: You have got your numbers exactly right! Oh my goodness!
ELYSA GARDNER: See, too many numbers. That’s what was messing me up.
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Perfect. So my diamond jubilee is Beetlejuice which is why, since you all can’t see this, I am wearing a Beetlejuice tie and a Beetlejuice pocket square. Well, at least I think they are.
ELYSA GARDNER: Amazing
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: In honor of the 75th
ELYSA GARDNER: So is this just old hat at this point? Going to these…
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: It is so not old hat. Every time is brand new. Every time… by upping the ante by just sort of still living, you have to still try to top yourself and still be relevant and still be interesting and still be full of surprises. So, it’s the opposite challenge for the youngsters who I pass in the hallway and of whom I’m so proud because I have to go “okay show me” and I have to show you new things, exciting things, extra tricks. I wake up in the middle of the night and scribble something down. You know, always have to stay relevant and interesting and all in support of the storytelling, so.
ELYSA GARDNER: And these are two beloved films that were adapted
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Oh my goodness, film to stage! I have done, I would say half of my 75 Broadway shows, I would say half are film to stage. I always tell people when they say why are you being so exact or why are this, I say listen, they only revive something or turn something into another medium because the first time was excellent and the first time was superior. So they’re not doing it because it was a bad job, or that no one has another idea. They do it because they want to see you celebrate this extraordinary film in another medium and find new truths and new excitements and new challenges. And all of those could explain what we tried to do with both Tootsie and with Beetlejuice.
ELYSA GARDNER: And I spoke with you about Beetlejuice and staying true to Tim Burton’s aesthetic while still making the show very much it’s own thing. With Tootsie, I know the show has evolved quite a bit where it’s now set in the current day. Was it a similar thing though where you wanted to stay true to the spirit of the film? There’s less of a specific visual flavor, I think, perhaps attached to that film.
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Well you sort of answered the question, so thank you for that. But I will say that both of them have been updated to the world of cellphones and it’s today. There’s cellphones in Beetlejuice and there’s cellphones in Tootsie. So once you do that, all sort of clouds of nostalgia and romance are off and you’re looking with the bright glare of today. So is this real, can we believe this. So all departments have had to step up because they’re both magical sort of romances in a way. Beetlejuice has more visual magic in it, but Tootsie has a lot of magic in it as well in the effect of Dorothy on the entire culture of the Broadway season. Because Tootsie… Dorothy Michaels is not in a soap opera, she is starring in a Broadway musical. So, the whole game has changed, but yet the humor and the truth and especially today when we’re diving head… I describe Tootsie as the playwright, the composer-lyricist, the producer, the director, and Santino all sort of held hands and have… dove or diven, the jumped into the center of the swimming pool of the #MeToo moment. So they didn’t avoid it, they didn’t go on the side, they didn’t wade in, they jumped in with big old cannonball splash. So, hopefully, no one has you know, yelled and screamed at us yet. So it’s addressed, it’s embraced, it shows that we still don’t know what we’re doing as people on this planet but we’re going to be better.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: And I think that’s the magic of this particular version of Tootsie.
ELYSA GARDNER: It is, that very much came through. So what’s next for you? You never seem to stop, have you? [laughs]
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Well let’s hope not [laughs]. Well, I’m going in June, I fly to Macau where Susan Stroman is directing and choreographing of are you ready, drum rolls, Kung Fu Panda, based on the children’s films number one and number three. I mean for film lovers everywhere it’s one and three. So we get to go to the Panda Village and meet Po’s actual family. So, it’s pretty exciting, it’s pretty exciting. And we’ve been working on it for about six years and everything will be made over there. We made prototypes for all of these sort of, I mean panda costumes anyone? They have to have fans in them because they are so hot. So lots of things like that. So that’s next. That’s actually up next.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, that sounds fantastic. Well, hopefully, we’ll speak with you again soon about that.
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Absolutely.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well thanks so much for stopping by. William Ivey Long as I said, legendary costume designer up for two Tonys this year adding to, you’ve already gotten a bunch. Thank you.
WILLIAM IVEY LONG: Thank you.
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ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with David Korins, set designer for Beetlejuice is here, nominated for a Tony, also Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton. Go right on down the line, you are one of the A-list designers on Broadway right now, and you are part of an A-list team for Beetlejuice. And I know we’ve spoken before and you’ve mentioned wanting to stay true to the aesthetic of Tim Burton while still making this show very much its own thing and you have clearly succeeded.
DAVID KORINS: Oh, well thank you
ELYSA GARDNER: So tell us about that.
DAVID KORINS: I feel like you have no choice but to honor Tim Burton and his visual world. But also we had no choice but to veer from it because we’re not making a movie and we’re not making Beetlejuice the movie, we’re making Beetlejuice the stage show which is you know, a decidedly different narrative. But also, Alex Timbers, the director, and I decided really early on that we weren’t going to just honor Beetlejuice the movie, but kind of Tim Burton’s overall visual vocabulary. People forget that Beetlejuice was, I think, his second movie that he made and since then, in the 30 years since then, he’s made so many iconic visual worlds that we felt like it was such a kind of delicious opportunity to infuse into our world; all sorts of Burtonian things, iconography. And so there’s planted in there all sorts of easter eggs that you might recognize from different movies of his, “Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline,” “Edward Scissorhands,” a bunch of stuff. But also, this is by far, by far the most complicated set design I’ve ever worked on and by far the most complicated set design I’ve ever seen. So, when you said an A-list group of collaborators, it really is. There are eight designers on this show, not four. There is puppetry, special effects, illusions, you know, lighting, sound, scenery, costumes, and projection design because the show demands so much of the physical world. And it’s such a complete physical world that it’s thrilling and terrifying to get that phone call.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And I understand that Alex Timbers, the director, really created an environment that was collaborative and playful, which I would also think would be conducive to a lot of fun and a lot of hard work.
DAVID KORINS: I mean if you look back at Tony nominees and winners in the last five or six years, Alex Timbers’ name is never far away from those, that list. He is, I think, one of the real seminal voices in the theater and certainly of my generation and he’s a true kind of visual auteur. I mean he’s following up with Moulin Rouge! which I have not had the pleasure to see when it was out of town in Boston, but I saw the photographs and I’ve heard nothing but spectacular things. And he really has a sense of world building. So you know, when he calls you and says “you wanna do a Tim Burton show,” you, you know, it’s like double world building. And you just try to keep up. But, he, he does, he creates a real collaborative spirit because he has such a kind of, you know, he becomes like the North Star, like the guiding light to where we’re going to head. And I think in a way, he’s often the only person who really sees the whole picture because the things that he works on are so complicated and so rich and textured. So, this was an amazing, amazing collaboration and it was kind of like best idea wins. And it had to be that way because so many disciplines overlapped.
ELYSA GARDNER: And I know so many fans have been loving this show. People who never saw the movie, people who are obsessed with the movie, do you have, do you hear from people as the set designer, they come to you and say “oh yeah, I recognize this from that movie” or “I love what you did that was new”?
DAVID KORINS: You know, definitely. Tim Burton’s fans are a strange crew. There are people who show up at the theater in costume. There are people that show up with tattoos on their body of like a famous character or a famous quote from one of his movies. I get reached out to frequently. I think the thing that is interesting about it is we are surprising. Because like I said, we are not Beetlejuice the movie. So I think we are surprising and I think that we are delighting people. And I think that really and truly our show is unlike anything else on Broadway. And I think it surpasses expectations. It’s a really, really fun night. You get to see a cast who is working at the top of their game. They are, each one, delivering an incredible performance. Alex is also working at the top of his game. And this design team is incredible. And so it’s rare to get kind of asked to make a complete world that is as zany and crazy as this thing needs to be and that it pays off. You know it is not a frivolous effort. It really is heartfelt and I think hard-won this effort.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, well again, thank you so much for stopping by to chat with us.
DAVID KORINS: Oh it’s my pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: And congratulations again!
DAVID KORINS: Thank you very much, thank you!
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here today with Eddie Perfect, who is up for the score for Beetlejuice. Quite an entertaining show if you haven’t heard about it. Congratulations on your first Broadway nomination for your first show, not a bad record.
EDDIE PERFECT: Thank you very much!
ELYSA GARDNER: It’s a riot. And it’s based on a beloved movie as we all know. And you stayed true to the spirit and the designers to the visual aesthetic, but also expanded on it. So tell me a little bit about that from the point of what you did.
EDDIE PERFECT: Of course. Well, I mean I think we were in a fortunate position with Tim Burton, his imagination roams so freely and the characters he creates are so large, but identifiable, relatable, that it didn’t feel, to me at least, a stretch to make them sing. They already feel like they are a long way unhinged from naturalism. So giving them this bold inner life and allowing them to sing felt like something that was kind of inevitable and exciting to explore. And what… I came along after the book writers had been developing the script for about three years. And what they had very cleverly done is put Lydia’s story, Lydia Deetz, she is a 14-year-old girl, front and center in the show. And where our piece differs from the movie plot-wise is Lydia has just lost her mother. She’s grieving and she’s unable to come to terms with her grief because her father will not talk about her mother, won’t even mention her name. And so, because we discover he thinks it’s the best way to deal with it, just to march forward. But she’s very much left behind and starts seeking answers beyond the kind of mortal world. And she’s sort of desperately obsessed with where people go when they die, where her mother is. She doesn’t feel like her mother has left her and when she meets the ghost of the Maitlands and then eventually Beetlejuice, she’s kind of invited into a world of… beyond the physical one. And Beetlejuice is very much a character who feels invisible and so does Lydia and they, I guess, they connect over their shared invisibility and wanna do something about it. Lydia wants to travel to the netherworld and experience death and reunite with her mother or at least the sense of home she felt when her mother was alive and Beetlejuice wants life. He wants to feel, he wants to be amongst them, he wants to be seen. So they make a very unlikely pairing and I mean, we never get that buddy buddy relationship in the film. That was much more a feature of the cartoon, which I also grew up on, which I loved, where Lydia and Beetlejuice were kind of a duo and Beetlejuice was almost like her magical pet. So we get to explore a bit of that in the piece as well.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. And I hear that a lot of movie fans are turning up at the show in a lot of cases dressed in goth gear or in costumes?
EDDIE PERFECT: Yeah, yeah. A lot of beetle stripes. A lot of Lydia’s in wedding dresses with the veils. A lot of strange and unusual people are gravitating towards the show. And I think that’s a big responsibility. You can’t mess it up for those people. Not only do they love the film, it’s a 31-year-old film. That’s… the film is older than a lot of the people who love it. So a huge responsibility there to deliver something that feels satisfying and in sync with the characters and the aesthetic they know and love, but also to give them something new. You know, because there’s no point in doing it if it’s just a recreation of the film and that comes in this amazing book by Scott Brown and Anthony King and the incredible visual world created by our designers. The music and lyrics which take the whole thing in a different direction. Our unbelievable cast of comedians who are so gifted and talented and courageous to make something that is… you know it’s a comedy about death. Which is tricky.
ELYSA GARDNER: Which is what they announce in your opening number which is great.
EDDIE PERFECT: Yeah it’s a show about death
ELYSA GARDNER: Well thank you so much for spending some time with us. We really appreciate it.
EDDIE PERFECT: It’s been a pleasure to meet you!
ELYSA GARDNER: Congratulations, you as well.
EDDIE PERFECT: Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: Take care.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with Ken Posner and Peter Nigrini who are Tony-nominated for lighting design for Beetlejuice and Peter is also up for set design for Ain’t Too Proud. Well, welcome first of all to Broadway Direct and congratulations! Lighting design, that’s a category where you need a lot of technical expertise I would imagine.
KENNETH POSNER: Um, yes and no actually. You’d be amazed how little technical expertise as long as you surround yourself with really bright people, you can get away with a lot. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, I interviewed some cast members recently and they confirmed for me how much this show has evolved since Washington. How they said everybody has really come to the plate and slept very little and the show has really grown as a result. And they included you in this evaluation of the show. So tell me a little bit about that. Were there many sleepless days, in fact, leading up to that?
KENNETH POSNER: Um, yes, absolutely. But you know, it was really a joyous collaboration. Alex Timbers is a tremendous leader and inspiration and one of the smartest people I have ever met. And he really just gathered the team, circled the wagons and the writers did an amazing transformation of this show from D.C. to New York. So I think the audiences are enjoying it, we had a great time.
PETER NIGRINI: Yeah, I also think that you know, that kind of transformation is exactly why we do shows out of town. It’s such a gift that, you know I look at the world of opera or dance or other performing arts and they don’t have that benefit of, we get to do it once, we get to do it with an audience, we get to see it for six weeks, 10 weeks maybe, and then we get to all go home and sleep a little more and consider it, and think well, how can we make it better. And so that to me is the most joyous part of the process. That sleepless rewriting and remaking. You know, the first time is… I always think that like the first opportunity is to make, is sort of making a first draft. It’s never gonna be the perfect thing on that out of town outing. And what’s great in the joy is making, is trying to make the perfect thing, which is what we get to do when we come in town. So those revisions are not a burden, they’re… to me, it’s a great gift that we get to do that second pass.
ELYSA GARDNER: You have a real A-list design team for this show, as much as any musical or show I can think of nominated this year. William Ivey Long, David Korins, Michael Curry, you all. So this is, this is a really spectacular show visually. And you stay very true to the aesthetic of Tim Burton. I know that was something that I had spoken to a couple of the designers about. Tell me about the challenge of that, of making a show very much it’s own thing, which it is, while staying true to that aesthetic that fans really treasure in Burton’s films.
KENNETH POSNER: Well firstly, thank you for those kind words. We really appreciate it. And I think that was always the mission. I think that was always Alex’s vision, the creative team’s vision is to really embrace the world of Tim Burton. That was sort of the mandate, the visual mandate. And also, but also interpret it in a theatrical way. you know, inject some new ideas into it that a contemporary audience would embrace. So I think that’s, I mean hopefully, that’s what we achieved. And that was certainly the intention.
PETER NIGRINI: Yeah, I think there’s a puzzle about adaptation right. Is that people have expectations, they have desires, they have a memory of something. They may have a memory of what their feelings about that film were 20 years ago, not their memory of what it actually was. But their 20 years old version of what it actually was. And I think that process of adaptation is really important. And I think it’s like it’s flowed from the script, right. The script is, actually, the plot line is radically transformed from the film. There are touchstones that you understand but much of it is very different and retooled for a theatrical format as opposed to a cinematic format. And I think that was our challenge visually as well, is how do we embrace the idea of the original film without sort of slavishly reproducing it. Because I think those slavish reproductions often fall flat because they aren’t alive and present and contemporary. You know, so we were looking at not just “Beetlejuice” as the inspiration, but this sort of bigger Tim Burton of you know “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and any number of other things about like, what’s the kernel of something that people will look at that and say “oh I remember this.” I mean, I think the success is when they look at it and they say “this is perfect, this is exactly what I remember.” And what we’ve done is actually made something completely new. It wasn’t what was there at all. But they feel like we’ve captured that spirit.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yes, yes. And something else I heard was that Alex Timbers encouraged sort of collaborative play in rehearsals and actors could come with a note and say “hey, why don’t we try this” and then the next day something would appear on the set. So I would imagine designers were involved in that and you were probably very busy trying different things and you could, I would imagine, propose new ideas as well, constantly. A lot of back and forth. Is that the case?
PETER NIGRINI: Absolutely. I mean and I think that’s true to greater and lesser degrees on many shows. But this one because so much of it was about play. In other words, the amount of time we spent talking about jokes. It’s like fantastic to go to work every day and think about what’s the joke we can make today, you know. It’s a great past time. But I think that that collaboration, and also sort of between disciplines right, that William Ivey might come up and make a suggestion of what the projection might be and I would be talking with David about changes that might happen to the set. And it’s not about everyone staying in their lane, it’s about all of us are theater makers and we all have visual sensibilities and theatrical sensibilities and the openness for the best idea from any quarter is I think, you know, really a hallmark of what Alex brings to the process.
KENNETH POSNER: I completely agree. You know we’re blessed with this incredibly gifted and smart and crazy talented acting company. I mean, our cast, I mean thank you for the compliment a little while ago about the design team, but 1,000 times that for the acting company of this show. And it was so much fun to come to work and you know riff off of an idea, an acting idea, a notion, the spirit of something and just really the collaboration on both sides of the footlights. And the comfort we all had with each other was really like the most enjoyable I’ve had in the theater maybe ever. And, I just think about Leslie Kritzer’s genius with creating this character and Alex Brightman, who is an amazingly talented person, but also an amazing leader and just really, and a great host and the sweetest person you’ve ever met in your life, and incredibly funny onstage and offstage. So when you’re in a room with that kind of spirit, the creative juices are endless. And I do agree with Peter. I think the best ideas come at 3 o’clock in the morning, by the way. [laughs] So that’s why we don’t sleep.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh no!
ELYSA GARDNER: So don’t forget to tune in to the Tony Awards which will be airing live Sunday, June 9 at 8/7 central on CBS. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.
In this unique Tony episode of Stage Door Sessions, we speak with some of the 2019 Tony-nominated members of the Beetlejuice Creative Team, including William Ivey Long, Kenneth Posner, Peter Nigrini, David Korins, and Eddie Perfect. Tune in to the Tony Awards live on CBS on June 9 at 8/7c.