PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Frank Wildhorn

By Kenneth Jones
January 25, 2011

Frank Wildhorn, the composer of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Jekyll & Hyde, takes on a new literary source for the Broadway musical Wonderland.



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In a Broadway season that has had two musicals dawn without the benefit of an out-of-town tryout, Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland will have had three public tests before it bows at the Marquis Theatre this spring. That's not counting readings and workshops.

The new musical about a modern-day mom named Alice who goes down the rabbit hole made famous in the 19th-century Lewis Carroll stories finished its third public engagement on Jan. 16, in Tampa. It premiered at Tampa's Straz Center (one of the producers of the show) in late 2009, moved to the Alley Theatre in Houston in early 2010, had a cleanup workshop in the summer and returned to Tampa Jan. 5.

Wonderland. A New Alice. A New Musical (its full title) is directed by Gregory Boyd, with a book by Boyd and Jack Murphy, lyrics by Murphy, and music by Frank Wildhorn. Boyd and Murphy are trusted collaborators of Wildhorn's; they wrote The Civil War together, and Murphy and Wildhorn have collaborated on pop tunes and other musicals (Havana, The Count of Monte Cristo).

We caught up with Wildhorn — a Tony Award nominee for Best Score, for Civil War, one of his five Broadway musicals — in the final week of the latest Tampa run to talk about Wonderland, pop songs and his passion for music.

I'm curious what you learned from the Tampa 2009 and Houston 2010 runs of Wonderland.
Frank Wildhorn: I'm about the audience. That's all I'm about. I'm the composer who stands in the back and talks to everybody in the audience after the show — and that's who I write for because that's what I am. I feel that they are the teachers, and [if] you play for tens of thousands of people and you talk to a lot of them, you're going to learn what works [and] what doesn't. Is this touching them? Is this not? Is this song landing? Is it not, and why? After you do your own marketing research — for lack of a better phrase — you just keep on learning and you take those lessons.

And of course, as you know, you never write, you just rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. So that's kind of where we are. In this particular journey, as opposed to some of my other shows, the way it worked out [was this]: we were a year ago here, and then did rewrites between here and Houston, and then did rewrites from Houston to the workshops in New York that really [were] the key to raising the money for Broadway. Even down here, [we're] learning a little bit more. So by the time we get there, this show will have really been through tens of thousands of people seeing it and responding to it. We're not always allowed to do that. The economics of things sometimes push you along in a different way, but in this particular case, it's been invaluable. Sometimes, you open too quick, as I'm sure you see all the time there. [Laughs.]

I'm kind of a purist. I didn't want to listen to the concept album because I like stuff to hit me cold in the theatre. Can you give me a sense of the musical flavors of Wonderland?
FW: It's my most eclectic score by far. It's also the score that brings me back to my real pop roots…what I used to do for a living in the '80s. [Laughs.] If you're going to go to a place called Wonderland, it's a phantasmagorical place, so you really can set your own rules, and in fact, if you establish that the rules are going to be a rule of eclecticism, and you're consistent with that, you can go anywhere from Latin to jazz, from literally classical to boy-band. You can do all of those things because each of these characters has their own musical identity and musical vocabulary. Again, you can't do that in any other show because you have to be consistent with the musical's vocabulary of the place and time that you're in. But once you go into Fantasyland, that changes.

 

Janet Dacal as "Alice" in Wonderland
photo by Michal Daniel

It helps you that the starting point is that you've re-imagined Alice as a modern mom. It gives you permission to be contemporary, musically.
FW: Yeah. I came up with this concept when I was running a division of Atlantic Records in the early 2000s. [My former wife] Linda [Eder] and I used to live on 87th and Riverside, and there was an elevator and the elevator was always broken, and I always used to joke that if the elevator worked, it would go down a thousand floors under the apartment and we'd find Wonderland. So it has the freedom of that expression, if you know what I mean.

Your character's not a person from 1870, which would trap you into a period. She's a modern woman, and you can go backward in time and take from all periods…
FW: Absolutely, absolutely.

Literally, the seed of the show came from your elevator comment?
FW: Yeah. I mean, look, I'm a music guy. I come from the world that I come from, and everything for me always starts as a record, always starts as, "What kind of music do I want to do? How do I reinvent myself? What would be a cool record to make?" And so this particular show, the germ of its idea, started back then, and I used to say, "All right. Well, maybe Avril Lavigne could be Alice, and Pink could be The Mad Hatter and Luther Vandross or Stanley Davis would be the Caterpillar and Aretha Franklin would be the Queen of Hearts, Santana would be the Cheshire Cat," and next thing you know is — just by saying those names, whether you use them or not — it starts you in a direction [for] a musical vocabulary. Again, different than other shows [of mine], this show has given me the freedom to do that kind of stuff.

Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts
photo by Michal Daniel

You took the "Alice" idea to Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy?
FW: I talked to Jack and Greg about it because I loved the experiences that we've had together as a team. Of course, Greg is the reason I do this in the first place, because in giving birth to Jekyll & Hyde, which was the first show I ever wrote in my life, ever — not knowing what the hell I was doing, and it was the first show for Linda and all of that. Greg has a great, giant imagination and he goes with me. And so I thought he would be great, and the thing about Jack is, Jack is a great pop writer and he's a great theatre writer, and this show requires both. There are some songs that have a kind of traditional theatre responsibility in moving plots along or giving you insights into characters and things like that, but he also knows how to write a pop song — and not a Broadway version of a pop song. A real pop song.

What is it about you and Jack that works so well?
FW: Jack is a real student of the theatre. Jack's an intellectual. I am not. [Laughs.] If you know Linda's songs, you know how clever Jack can be. He does that "Cole Porter for the new century" thing, and of course, with Linda, we have the greatest voice in the world to [sing] that [material]. Jack has the ability to be as clever as anybody can be, but he also knows how to be simple and how to be much more of a pop writer. We've had success doing that, and I love that combination, especially in a show that really requires the both of those crafts, and again, not the Broadway version of a thing, but a real thing. I think he's just fantastic, and we have so much fun doing it. We have all these shows around the world now, and each one has been such an adventure, and we enjoy each other's company.

When you say, "Not a Broadway version, but a pure pop version of a song," there's still a responsibility, story-telling wise.
FW: Well, you know, [Laughs], when George Gershwin and Cole Porter were writing the hits of their day and they were all from shows, were they theatre pieces or were they pop pieces? You tell me. If you want to get into that, that's my favorite conversation forever. [Laughs.] "Some Enchanted Evening" is a standard pop song. It happens to work fantastically in the show it's in. It has everything you would want from the craft of writing for theatre, but don't tell me it's not a pop song. All that means is — when I say that, I want to be very clear — all that means is that it was popular and accessible enough to transcend the show it was in and live on its own accord.

What was the biggest challenge of the storytelling of Wonderland?
FW: That's a very good question. Alice goes to Wonderland because her daughter is kidnapped, and when she goes to Wonderland, she both has to find her daughter, but in finding her daughter, she has to find the child within herself that she's lost. [The goal is] making that clear and being consistent to that theme as we tell the story of Wonderland. It's like Dorothy going to Oz. You're going to meet all of these great characters, you're going to have a plot that you have to deal with, and all of this kind of stuff. But holding on to that theme — you know how it is. You work in New York. We go so fast that sometimes we forget that Wonderland could be in our daily lives, you know what I mean? And we get caught up in the race and stuff, and sometimes we don't slow down to realize that Wonderland could be a very ordinary thing and we lose the child in ourselves a little bit. I know, myself, I try very hard and make a conscious effort not to do that. Now, it's easy when you have kids that keep you young all the time [Laughs] and stuff like that, because of that energy. But let's face it, we're in a tough business in a tough world and it goes so fast. To try to hold on to that kid in you is sometimes not easy, and I think, as we were told this story, keeping that theme so the audience would leave with that, was a good challenge, a good mountain to climb, and I think we've done a pretty good job doing that.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at kjones@playbill.com.)