In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, iconic candy-man Willy Wonka comes to life onstage as he invites five lucky children to his whimsical headquarters. Like all previous versions of Roald Dahl’s story, the kids meet dark, comic ends until just one remains. But in the Broadway production—now in previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre—the last-standing kid is the only one who wouldn’t be admitted into a bar.
While three young actors—actual children—alternate the title role of Charlie, the four performers playing his fellow golden ticketholders span from their mid-20s to early-30s.
“It was a no-brainer,” says director Jack O’Brien. “I wanted Charlie to stand out. And if you have five children onstage and they’re all eccentric, he doesn’t get to show off an advantage.”
The casting decision is one of several changes made to the musical since its 2013 premiere in London’s West End. O’Brien takes over for Sam Mendes, who helmed the London production. The New York staging also incorporates additional songs from the 1971 film adaptation.
O’Brien continues, “An older actor who looks like a kid can land that laugh in a way a child never could. I wanted to get enough out of the comedy, because they all meet terrible ends. If it’s a kid, I don’t know how funny that would be. If it’s an adult, you want to hit them yourself.”
Christian Borle, who takes on the role of Willy Wonka, expands on this, explaining the twisted delight that comes from watching these characters’ demises at the hands of the confectionery mastermind. “We can heap abuse upon them in a way that you couldn’t with other children,” the two-time Tony winner says. “They can be even more awful and deserve their comeuppance even more.”
F. Michael Haynie, who plays Augustus Gloop, recalls being met with surprise and suspicion when telling friends who had seen the London production about going in for the show. “They were like, ‘I loved it, and the kids were so great! Who are you going in for?’ And I said, ‘Augustus, the 12-year-old. And they’d be like, ‘Oh, you should call your agent to make sure that’s not a mistake.’”
It was not a mistake, and now Haynie and three of his co-stars are looking back to their own childhoods to learn to love being rotten.
“It’s about permission and freedom to indulge in all the negatives aspects you’ve spent your whole life trying to push down,” says Michael Wartella, who takes on the role of Mike Teavee. Emma Pfaeffle—the production’s Veruca Salt—adds, “We all had our tantrums at one point. Instead of trying to make that up, I try to go back to my bratty tantrums that actually happened in the early ‘90s.”
Trista Dollison has a slightly different approach for her performance as gum-popping Violet Beauregarde. “I channel my Mariah Carey,” she says. “I try to be a diva and figure out, ‘What would Mariah do?’” That’s my thing—all the dramatics.”
And how do the three young actors playing Charlie—Ryan Sell, Ryan Goust, and Jake Ryan Flynn—feel about being the pint-sized moral compass in a sea of tantrums and divas?
“The creative team made such a good choice to have the kids as adults,” says Sell. “As an adult they can bring so much more to those roles. I feel like those roles are really hard to play as a kid.”
Foust agrees, ensuring that the four actors indeed bring impressive layers to their performances: “It’s so cool how talented they are, and they’re all such great actors. When you talk to them, they’re so nice.”
Flynn is quick to add: “But they can act very bratty.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opens officially April 23.