Singing New Tunes, The Addams Family Gets Major Makeover for National Tour

By Kenneth Jones
07 Oct 2011

Composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa

STORYTELLING

"There was a wish list from the time I saw the show in Chicago," Zaks said. "It had to do with finding the story that would compel the audience to listen and want to turn the page with us. It was a huge challenge with this because, for all intents and purposes, the [source material for the] property existed as a series of stills — the cartoons, you know?"

Zaks said he wanted "to make a story that people would care about," that was distinct from previous TV or film treatments of the characters of Grandma, Lurch, Pugsley, Uncle Fester and the rest. The goal was "a story that made them human and a situation that they had to work through and…a conclusion that was satisfying."



Oken said there were "two good reviews and a mixed review" in Chicago, but the team, led by Zaks, identified that more work needed to be done — particularly in the show's first ten minutes. Between Chicago and Broadway, an entirely new opening number, "When You're an Addams," was written by Andrew Lippa and put into rehearsals. It better introduced the clan's personality (creepy, nocturnal, Latin-kissed) and world (we're in the ancestral graveyard on the grounds of the family's Victorian mansion located on the edge of Central Park).

SCARING UP BUSINESS

Fed by the fuel of The Addams Family brand name (from years of history as New Yorker cartoons, a TV sitcom, an animated TV series and feature films) and goosed by the Broadway marquee names of Tony Award winners Neuwirth (Chicago, "Frasier") and Lane (The Producers, Zaks' Guys and Dolls and …Forum), the Broadway box office was booming by early 2010. An advance of $14 million had been amassed by the time of opening. In the months leading up to the April 8, 2010, opening night, some pundits and show geeks who hadn't seen the work in Chicago were guessing that The Addams Family, in spite of the reported change of artistic leadership, would probably be the season's Destination Show. Its chief competition seemed to be a starless rock 'n' roll musical, Memphis, about an interracial love affair between a white DJ and a black singer in the Jim Crow South.

Although Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark's producers famously ended up hyper-extending their preview period by six months a year later, in 2011, the option to add weeks or months of development — perhaps bumping its opening to the fall of 2010 — did not exist for The Addams Family.

"We had a commitment to a theatre," Oken said. "We had a $14 million advance…and we had stars under contract. What were we going to do? Nathan's run on Broadway may have been limited then to five months if we didn't open it on time…"

Oken said that Zaks' work on the show in early 2010 "did what it took to get us our 22 months on Broadway. He did an amazing job to give the company confidence and…improve what we had. It didn't seem like we were in that much trouble, but I think, in retrospect, expectations were very high so we were judged very harshly. Maybe if the expectations weren't so high, maybe we would've been judged a little less harshly and it wouldn't have turned into the thing it turned into, but we were a high-profile, big-budget musical with a big advance and we fired the director. You do that, you become a target."

The Addams Family became the favorite punching bag of New York theatre journalists and critics.

Co-writer Rick Elice
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Zaks observed, "With this particular piece, there are a lot of experts, if you will, who felt they understood what Addams Family meant. They had their own particular definition, and were very precious about it, and if what we didn't conform to what they thought Addams Family was, we took a lot of grief. And we also took a lot of grief for the reasons you mention — high profile, stars…"

Oken said, "We over-promised and under-delivered. That is jarring to people."

Zaks said, "I think we did a pretty great job of taking what we had and at least giving it a form and a structure — a beginning, middle and end — and it satisfied the audience. For me, the greatest thrill is at the end of the show. When people cheer and roar, it's a sound that I've heard a few times in my life, and it never happens out of charity. It's either earned or not."

By April 30, 2010, a few weeks after the Broadway opening of The Addams Family, the producers announced that the popular success would get a national tour, to launch in New Orleans, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, in September 2011. (It's the first Broadway musical to take advantage of the incentive programs offered by Louisiana Entertainment, the state's entertainment industry development office.)

Memphis ended up winning the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. The Addams Family was nominated for two 2010 Tony Awards — for Best Score (Andrew Lippa) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Kevin Chamberlin, as Uncle Fester).

But the audience didn't care. The advance-paying crowds and tourist ticketbuyers swelled the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, a cast album was recorded on the Decca Broadway label, and the Addams brand name and the stars prompted healthy ticket sales into March 2011, when Nathan Lane's contract ended. The week ending March 13, 2011, a year after previews had begun, saw a respectable gross of $721,811 and an average ticket price of $81. Tony winner Roger Rees replaced Lane. Later, Brooke Shields joined the company after Neuwirth's contract ended. (Rees and Shields continue on Broadway.)

An inevitable softening Broadway box office was on the minds of the producers and the creative team, but there was a pulse of life that kept them looking toward a more vibrant future: Since the opening, they had harbored another wish list of ideas for the show, to be explored for the creation of the national tour. It was decided that The Addams Family on the road would not be a clone of the Broadway brood.

 Continued...