Why, some musical mavens have wondered, has the 1971 motion picture musical "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," with its memorable score by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, not been adapted for the stage? The picture, based with a screenplay by Roald Dahl based on his book, mixed sweetness and menace (with a spoonful of showtunes), helping to make the experience stick indelibly in the minds of those who first watched it in its theatrical release or on TV screenings.
With due respect to projects that have made the transition from screen to stage, does a flying car or a doctor who talks to animals eclipse the commercial potential of chanting creatures known as Oompa Loompas, a boy plunging into a chocolate river, a sinister but warm candy mogul, a girl who turns into a blueberry?
Need we mention the musical numbers "The Candy Man," "Pure Imagination" and "I've Got a Golden Ticket"?
Considering the recent release and box office success of the Tim Burton-directed film "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," starring Johnny Depp and borrowing the story and original title of the Dahl book, Playbill.com asked songwriter Leslie Bricusse if there was a chance his 35-year-old chocolate-covered score (co-written with Anthony Newley) from "Willy Wonka" might he heard on stage.
As it turns out, it has — in a reduced children's theatre version that was produced at the Kennedy Center in fall 2004 and then launched on a tour. "We opened Willy Wonka as a children's version, and I wrote the rest of the score for it [Newley died in 1999 at age 67], because the movie only had half-dozen songs in it," Bricusse told Playbill.com July 20. "The Dahl family and the Kennedy Center put it out, and there's a little CD with the show."
Will we see a major commercial stage version of the 1971 "Willy Wonka" picture on Broadway one day?
"I think because that new movie was very high budget, they wanted to see where the movie went and those decisions will be made," Bricusse said. "Liccy Dahl, the widow of Roald Dahl, is obviously very protective of the property and wanted to have the movie made properly. I haven't seen it yet, but I gather it's pretty good."
And it's done boffo at the box office so far, taking in an encouraging $56 million in its first weekend, according to Variety.
Bricusse explained, "Roald Dahl wasn't happy [with the original picture] because the story wasn't right [although he penned the screenplay] and we weren't happy because the songs weren't right. They were there but they weren't done the way we wanted to do them. I would love it to come 'round again as a musical. There may be the possibility there will be a musical, but whether they will want to use our score or write a [contemporary] score, I have no idea."
Bricusse said any such decision is the hands of the Dahl family. "It's their heritage, and he was, as it has transpired, the best children's author of his generation," Bricusse said.
Are there trunk songs that never made it to the film score? "There was one we didn't use," he said. "Newley and I had wanted to write 10 songs and they would only let us do six. I think the film would have been better a.) if there had been a couple more songs at least, and b.) if they had been sung rather than acted. The two main songs, 'Pure Imagination' and 'Candy Man' were appallingly done by people who couldn't sing."
Bricusse admitted that Gene Wilder was rather charming as the titular chocolatier, despite any perceived vocal shortcomings.
For Bricusse's recent and refreshed kiddie stage version of Willy Wonka, there are new songs, with a score that totals 15 musical numbers. All the kids who visit the famed Wonka factory get songs — for example, Augustus Gloop sings "I Eat More" and Mike Teavee sings "I Can See It All on TV."
Will the children's version be available for licensing — or be expanded to a Broadway-level show?
"Liccy Dahl allowed this one version to be done by the Kennedy Center, and I gather they were pleased with it, but I don't think any decisions about anything will be made until the [new] film runs its course," Bricusse said. "What their plans are beyond that, I have no idea. All I know is, I had to do the score I would like to have had. At least I've managed to do that. Now that I've done the rest of [the score], it feels much more like a musical than the movie did. The next chapter we don't know…"
Bricusse said he's had no meetings or discussions about an expanded commercial stage version of his children's Willy Wonka. The songwriter said that the new kids' version came about because Freddie Gershon, the producer and showbiz lawyer who runs the licensing giant Music Theatre International (MTI), had found out there were "thousands" of illegal stagings being created at schools around the world — with the Dahl book being crudely cobbled together with the Bricusse-Newley songs.
"He said to the Dahl estate…and knowing we owned the songs: 'You are potentially losing a huge amount of income,'" Bricusse said. "If there were one official version, it could be sent out so everyone could be doing it for a fee. As an experiment [the Dahl estate] allowed this one production, and it's touring for the next two or three years as I understand it."
Bricusse said he would welcome the chance to hear his Willy Wonka sung by real singers in a major staging. "I wasn't very happy with the way the songs were done in the movie because they're weren't very musically approached, they were done more by actors than singers," Bricusse said. "So it didn't work terribly well, from my and Newley's point of view."
A revised stage version of Bricusse's Doctor Dolittle, with book, music and lyrics by Bricusse begins Aug. 2 at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh in a staging by Pittsburgh CLO. It's the launch city for a new national tour starring Tom Hewitt as the veterinarian who talks to the animals. "Talk to the Animals" won the Academy Award for Best Song.