“It’s one of those shows that really cries out to be a musical,” says director Christopher Ashley. “It’s so hard to really understand what’s happening in someone else’s reality, inside someone else’s head, and there’s something enduringly powerful about the idea that for a day you can live someone else’s life, inside someone else’s body and be inside their viewpoint. And it’s amazing to tell that story with music, because musicals get inside people’s heads uniquely well.”
Ashley is discussing Freaky Friday, the new musical based on the 1972 Mary Rodgers novel and the hit Disney films about a mother and daughter who are always battling, and who must switch bodies for a day—the day before the mother’s wedding. The show, developed by Disney Theatrical Productions specifically for licensing to theatres, has its world premiere this month at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. It will also be produced at California’s La Jolla Playhouse beginning January 31, 2017, at Cleveland Play House in April, and at Houston’s Alley Theatre in June.
The score is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (If/Then, Next to Normal), with a book by Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights). Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet!) choreographs.
Ashley, the Tony-nominated director of Memphis and The Rocky Horror Show, says Freaky Friday is “particularly resonant” for him “because the first thing I directed when I got out of college was a 45-minute Theatreworks USA version of Freaky Friday that Mary Rodgers herself wrote that toured schools, so it was my first experience in musical theatre. It’s wonderful to revisit it, older and hopefully a little wiser.”
The 1976 movie starred Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, while the 2003 remake starred Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan. Signature’s stars Heidi Blickenstaff (Something Rotten!) as the mother and Emma Hunton (Spring Awakening) as the daughter.
Ashley, whose credits also include Leap of Faith and Xanadu and who serves as La Jolla’s artistic director, says the members of the creative team were “all first approached by Disney, which said, ‘Would you like to work on it?’ So Bridget, Tom, Brian, Sergio and I have had access to the original book, which is extraordinary, and both movies and also have given ourselves real license to reinvent it for the present day. There’s something from the book that emotionally anchors us, and there’s great storytelling from both movies.”
The current production “is set in Chicago in the current day. It’s a world where cellphones exist, and Uber, so it hopefully feels current, but also universal.”
The score, he says, “is rock—contemporary rock, very propulsive. There are two halves—there’s the music of the teenager and the music of her mother. For the teenager, it seems much more an indie rock feel, and for her mother it’s more music you might recognize as that of Tom and Brian from Next to Normal and If/Then. And it dances beautifully. There are all kinds of opportunities to dance within it. Hopefully it’s funny and really personal.
“New musicals are fiendishly difficult to get right. But when you do, when a moment clicks, when the story and the characters and the book and the music and the band and the staging come together, it’s as sublime as it’s possible to be on a stage. … There’s the possibility for emotion and exuberance and life in that music, in that story, to explode on the stage. When that works, it’s the most thrilling thing you can do as a director.”
(Updated October 5, 2016)