Alley Theatre's Artistic Director Gregory Boyd Goes Down the Rabbit Hole With Alice
Alice is a children's book writer who's estranged from her husband and not doing well at all with her daughter. Worst of all, to Hair Balls's way of thinking, she has writer's block.
So she goes to the strange and crazy place called Wonderland, dancing and singing her heart out along the way, to give Houston the world premiere of a musical theater take on a modern variation of the Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass legend.
Alley Theatre Artistic Director Gregory Boyd wrote the book along with lyricist and co-book writer Jack Murphy and they teamed up with Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde) who did the music to put together the show that begins previews January 15, opens on January 20 and runs through February 14 at the Alley.
And as Boyd made clear in an e-mail exchange with Hair Balls, you may want to come more than once since the show which had an earlier run in Tampa, continues to change on a daily basis.
It's not often that you get to see experimental theater that is still experimenting and not at a level of your high school improv group. These are actors who've performed lead roles on Broadway and been on national tour. All are hoping, of course, to find the perfect combination of talent, songs and story that would lead them on to Broadway and beyond that to international performances. And to avoid bad reviews, although Wildhorn has certainly overcome those before - Jekyll & Hyde wasn't beloved by critics, but went on to score international success. And three of the Broadway shows Wildhorn has written the music for (Jekyll, The Scarlet Pimpernal and The Civil War) took in eight Tony nominations.
Wildhorn, who wrote pop rock music for Wonderland, and Murphy were too deep in rehearsals to answer questions, but Boyd, put in some extra time to answer questions for Hair Balls about how a new show is put together.
Tommar Wilson as the Caterpillar and Janet Dacal as Alice
Hair Balls: What made you think of doing a take, albeit one step removed, from the Alice in Wonderland story? Why do a story based on a well-known story, rather than creating something out of whole cloth? Is there an advantage to an audience coming in with at least some sense of context (namely that things are going to get pretty crazy)?
Boyd: We had all been interested in the Lewis Carroll original for some time, and talked of an "Alice" for the stage (there have, of course, been many many versions) as long ago as 1998. At that time our Alice was a young New York woman and Lewis Carroll not much more than a touchstone. The project became interesting again to me eighteen months ago when Frank and Jack played me five songs they had written, and we all saw that a very good pop score was possible and I found an approach to the visual that we thought fun - and that's when we started again to work on it together.
HB: Two of you were brought in to the project after Phoebe Hwang was dropped. What made you willing to take this on? And is it easier/harder to sort through something someone else has started?
Boyd: Phoebe wrote an early draft that was fun and clever but the producers were interested in a different take and Phoebe herself had other projects at the same time, so Jack and I took over and the book changed into something very much transformed, and is still changing. As the wise man said: "musicals are not written, they are rewritten." But in all events, Jack was always involved as a writer on the project and I was always the director - so our collaboration began at the beginning - as Lewis Carroll might say.
Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts and Nikki Snelson as the Mad Hatter
HB: We read that you (Gregory Boyd) dumped Humpty Dumpty because he just slowed down the show and was too negative. Do you think theater audiences appreciate that you make your own rules and they just deal with it? Or do they get upset when you change things?
Boyd: The show is most definitely not Alice in Wonderland or Through The Looking Glass - it's not an adaptation of a Lewis Carroll story - it is proudly and totally unfaithful to the books - and that's clear from the outset. Having said that, there was no 'Humpty Dumpty' there was a character with that name, just as various characters show up with various traits of some of the Carroll menagerie - but that's not what the show is interested in. Carroll purists would no doubt wax quizzical at how the Mad Hatter could be played by a woman - but she is and she's not your grandmother's Mad Hatter. Nor is she Lewis Carroll's.
Julie Brooks as Chloe
HB: How important were the dancing talents of your cast to the story you are telling?
Boyd: Dance is a major element in the show - so everyone dances. The point was to create a pop show with a catchy score and lots of dance in various pop styles. I only ever thought of [choreographer] Marguerite [Derricks] for it - I love her work on film and stage, and I loved working with her in the theatre before and she has such a flair and a sense of humor and is in general a huge delight - and you always want people around in the developing a new show that have humor and brightness and healthy sexiness and imagination and she has all those virtues in overabundance. And the dancers she introduced me to are some of the most talented, beautiful positive-spirited artists I've worked with. So yes, lots of dance, and everyone in the cast has a lot to do.
HB: When you were working on it, were you aware of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Alice movie under way? Will this have any effect on playgoers' interest in Wonderland?
Boyd: There are unexplainable sparks in the culture from time to time where explosions of interest occur in certain subjects and then re-occur - it's happening with Sherlock Holmes recently and with Lewis Carroll and Alice as well - the SyFy channel's two part 'version' and the Burton movie. We didn't know about either of them when we began, but it's interesting and terrific that it's all in the air - though I couldn't tell you why. Except to say that the "Alice" story is always being re-invented somewhere by someone - like Peter Pan and Dracula and Scrooge and Jekyll and all the other magic mythic touchstone characters of our collective unconscious - most of which seem to have sprung up in the same Victorian dream-scape at the time Freud and Marx and Einstein and Darwin are beginning to make their ideas felt - but that's another story. As Frank Baum said when he created "Oz" - "I owe everything to Lewis Carroll and that young girl of his."
Tad Wilson as the Jabberwock
HB: Reviews from the Tampa area were generally positive except that one reviewer, Jay Handelman, thought the story wasn't as strong as the music. Handelman thought audiences would have a difficult time connecting with the story. Do you think that's a fair criticism? Have you changed it at all since then? In one published interview, a comment was made that Jekyll and Hyde was in a state of constant revision. Is Wonderland still undergoing rewrites? Will it through its Houston run?
Boyd: The play changes every day, and we are putting in new material every day right now - new songs, revisions, etc. "Jekyll" changed so much during its initial run here that -literally - every week of the run was different in some significant way. Wonderland is changing too - and will change through the run. We had many audience members in Florida come back to the show multiple times throughout the time there to see how the changes affected the show - it's a large part of the reason why you make productions in this developmental way, through a series of iterations. Even when something was working, we would take it out for a night or two to see how the material on either side of a scene or song was affected by the omission - it's very invigorating to work that way. The reviews and the audiences were very enthusiastic throughout and we learned something from each of them, and tried to be open to acting on what we learned. At the most fundamental level, however, you still work to please yourself.
HB: The television show Glee has attracted a huge audience of teens and their parents, by doing musical theater. Has this at all raised the interest of people, particularly younger people, in going to live musicals? Are you able to appeal to any of the same audience? Can you capture that magic that has not only got viewers, but inspires them to download, buy CDs, buy the DVD of the first half of the first season?
Boyd: Glee is basically a musical done in weekly installments - and it's terrific. Our audience in Florida, and I suspect here as well, was filled with young people - teens, tweens, younger and families - which was a great great audience energy in a pop show, and especially in one that we hope has some attraction for the mature members of the audience as well. Many of the younger members of the audience were dancing out of the theatre at the end and that's a wonderful thing to see. The CD of Wonderland is also a great calling card for the show.
HB: What was the attraction of Wonderland for the lead actors who you got involved in this project - such as Janet Dacal [Alice] Julie Brooks [Chloe] and Jose Llama [Hector/El Gato]?
Boyd: You'd have to ask them, but I think they all as actors have a great passion for working on new material, and in this example had a keen interest in working with Frank's music and with Marguerite - and all the creatives on this - Ms. [Susan] Hilferty, Mr. [Ron] Melrose, Mr. [Neil] Patel, all the designers are of such high pedigree and the 'Genesis' project such an interesting new venture - and this its maiden voyage, it had a lot of things going for it.
Nikki Snelson as the Mad Hatter and Company
HB: Do you think Broadway and its critics will be receptive to your latest work? In Jekyll & Hyde you gained an international audience. Does Wonderland have that potential?
Boyd: The focus on a new show in its developmental production should not be on commercial life but rather on getting the show in the fashion you want it to be. All new musicals go through the process - but this opportunity to do it through the Tampa Bay and Alley iterations is unique and a real gift. Many of Frank's shows have indeed had a large international life - there is a lot of interest in Wonderland but that's for down the road, once we know more about what the show is and what it wants to be as it grows - a very Alice metaphor.
HB: Does the show have the same cast as in Tampa or were there changes?
Boyd: Same cast.
HB: Why is it important that the Alley Theater take chances like this, put on new work? And how do you attract audiences to something that isn't well, classic? (at least not yet?)
Boyd: The Alley's latest and strongest initiative this season is the new work project - we have three premieres this season, including Wonderland, Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries and Kenneth Lin's Intelligence-Slave. It's absolutely the highest item on the artistic agenda to increase our commitment to new work. The work on classic and modern plays will of course continue, but our work on classics, for example, is profoundly impacted by the side by side work on new plays, and vice versa. Wonderland is already proving itself to be attractive to audiences, and "Gruesome" did very well in its premiere at the Alley in October too - there is no question that our audience has a real appetite for new work, especially if we can offer it in intriguing, visually arresting and brilliantly performed productions - as I think both "Gruesome" and Wonderland are.
HB: Was this all really hard work or was there fun in doing this?
Boyd: It is hugely fun. Grueling, sleepless, exhausting, joyful fun.
Tickets for Wonderland are available at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley Theatre Box Office, 615 Texas Avenue or by calling 713-220-5700. To hear some of the Wonderland music, visit www.wonderlandthemusical.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.