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on Tue, 20 Dec 2016
By Heather Kincaid
Curiouser and curiouser! Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn tumbles down the rabbit hole in a spectacular new musical.
It was in 1886 that the wacky world of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland first made it onto the stage, in an adaptation that the novel's author, Lewis Carroll (otherwise known as Cambridge mathematician Charles Dodgson), had a hand in.
Within the writer's lifetime then, the topsy-turvy story and its cast of colourful characters were already delighting audiences in performance, and a mere 17 years later, they were being interpreted through the exciting new medium of film.
One of the latest companies to join the long and noble tradition of reinventing Alice is led by Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn, whose work on shows like Jekyll & Hyde, Victor/Victoria and Bonnie & Clyde has earned him international acclaim. First performed in 2009, Wonderland has already enjoyed success in the States; now a reworked version with a brand new British cast is making its way to UK shores for a tour beginning later this month.
Following a sneak preview of some of the fabulous songs from the show, both cast and creative team were on hand to tell us more about what we can expect when it hits Birmingham in early February.
“In the late ’90s, I was fortunate enough to have three shows on Broadway,” says Wildhorn, “Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Civil War, and so I was living on the Upper West side in a big high-rise building. I have two sons, and the elevator up to our home was always broken. Eventually I was running out of stories to tell my kids about why they couldn’t fix the elevator, and for some reason I told them that if anyone did manage to get on it, and take it all the way down through Macy’s department store, they'd eventually get to Wonderland.”
Wildhorn’s kids are by no means an unusual source of inspiration for him. A previous family musical, Excalibur, came about as an attempt to engage his children with the story of Camelot, which his parents had loved and taught to him, but which his own kids didn't seem to “get”. Departing somewhat from Carroll's vision, the story of Wonderland taps into this parent-child dynamic and the idea of the passing on of stories. Like the recent Tim Burton films, it sees Alice return to Wonderland as an adult, only this time, she's middle-aged, a mother going through a messy separation with her partner, as well as a schoolteacher with ambitions of becoming a children's writer. Much like the books then, it aims to present a child's eye view of the complexities and contradictions of the grown-up world.
“It all starts with the idea of the child within us all,” Wildhorn continues. “The opening lyrics of my song, Finding Wonderland, are ‘We move too fast; we miss so much’. And it’s true - there is a Wonderland in all our lives if we could only take a breath and notice it. In this particular adventure, Alice has to rescue her own child, and in doing so, she rediscovers the child within herself.”
“Frank's taken the Lewis Carroll story and done something really exciting with it,” adds Director Lotte Wakeham. “In the original, Alice doesn't really do very much - she's essentially a tourist in Wonderland. We've looked at how we can make the heroine of our show go on a great, energising adventure with her daughter and the audience.”
Having conceived the show while living in New York, it's perhaps no surprise that Wildhorn chose the city as the setting for its original stage outing. Just like in his story to his children, Alice ends up back in Wonderland via the lift to her apartment. However, when the show arrives in Britain, it will feature a completely reimagined setting and design.
“For the UK tour, we’re going back to the original story, and it will be UK based, with a relevant look and sound,” says Wakeham. “We’re still making some changes to the script, and we’re really excited about it. Since the source material is so quirky and quintessentially British, this version of the show will be exactly that, too.”
“I've been inspired by the original illustrations and other incarnations of the story, but I've also tried to give it a fresh angle,” explains Costume Designer Grace Smart. “I’ve been looking at a lot of the UK’s eccentric celebrities, so that we can keep the British feel yet keep true to the original story.”
“It's about looking at what’s been done before and thinking about what we can bring to the whole Alice In Wonderland world,” agrees Set Designer Andrew Riley. “It's a very episodic story - she goes to a lot of locations, and I wanted to create a contemporary visual that people will recognise.”
For the cast, getting to put their own stamp on roles completely new to UK audiences with almost no precedent to turn to has also been a thrill.
“My job is to be creative,” says Wendi Peters, who plays the Queen of Hearts. “I don't like doing anything for too long, and I just love the process of reading something off the page and thinking through how I can best tell the story. In the case of Wonderland, we’ve got nothing really to copy, and that’s lovely. I don’t think that any actor should ever copy what’s been before, though of course if the material’s out there you’re going to have a sneaky look at what’s been done previously! But apart from a performance by the Broadway cast at the Tony Awards, there’s little else online - and I love that because I can think through the character myself and hopefully bring something new to it.
“It's always fun to play baddies, but you must find something in them that makes people like them a little bit. I'd like to think there'll be a bit of all my comedy heroes in my Queen of Hearts: Molly Sugden, Peggy Mount and Patricia Routledge, who played Hyacinth 'Bouquet' Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. She's a monster, but part of you can't help loving her!”
While more than a century's worth of adaptations might have made the characters familiar in other forms, the versions of them in Wonderland will be unlike any you've previously encountered.
“This won't be a revival of any kind,” says Dave Willetts, who plays the White Rabbit. “It's essentially a new creation, and Frank is allowing us all to be a part of that. One of my grandchildren told me I had to have rabbit ears, and I guess there might be, but part of the magic is actually leaving a lot to the imagination of the audience. It's about the characterisation, the mannerisms, what you say and the way in which you speak.”
One of the most obvious breaks from tradition is the Mad Hatter, who will be played by a young woman, Natalie McQueen. There's a good reason for this change. We can't give away too much, but rest assured, in McQueen's own words, “It's not the Hatter that you know.” Instead of the mad old man we're used to, McQueen's Hatter is feisty, edgy and full of attitude. For her, getting to play the part has been a dream come true.
“Alice in Wonderland is up there with The Little Mermaid as one of my favourite films,” she gushes. “It's just completely bonkers and I love it. When I was up on stage last night, I actually had to have a moment to convince myself that the orchestra was really there, and that it was really happening. I was sure there must have been a mistake - it just seemed too good to be true!”
Frank Wildhorn hopes that audiences from eight to 80 will be just as entranced by the magic of Wonderland as McQueen has been, and wants everyone who comes along to fully immerse themselves in the spirit of the show.
“We're hoping the audience will come dressed up as the characters,” he laughs. “You should definitely encourage that!”
Wonderland shows at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, from Mon 6 to Sat 11 February; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Mon 10 - Sat 15 July; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Mon 31 July to Sat 5 August.