New R-Rated Beetlejuice Musical is Headed to Broadway

Beetlejuice like you've never seen it before.

Culture Feature

Not two hours before curtain of his first Beetlejuice preview at DC's National Theatre, Alex Brightman was at Hamilton – the restaurant, not the show.

Calm, comfortably dressed, Brightman took time to hug familiar faces and meet their dining companions, charming as ever – impressively collected for an actor about to climb into the character of a demon who personifies pure id. At that point, fewer than 200 audience members had witnessed Broadway-bound Beetlejuice – which returns Brightman to his former Dewey Finn dressing room at the Winter Garden next spring, earning him the rare distinction of starring in back-to-back musicals making their Broadway debut in the same theatre. This time, in lieu of teaching ten-year-old Zack Mooneyham to get his workaholic dad to hear him via face-shredding guitar solos in School of Rock, Brightman teaches Lydia to capture her work-focused father's attention through terrorizing people to the point of sh*tting themselves.

By Matthew Murphy

A raw electricity–accompanied by an infusion of nerve-wracking energy in the case of material headed for Broadway–permeates the first preview of any play. All theatre is ephemeral, here one moment and gone the next, but a first preview offers the possibility to see a show that, in all likelihood, will never appear in that particular form again. For those involved behind-the-scenes, first previews provide proof of the magic that exists inside true theatre folk: ready or not, come curtain time the show goes on. For the character of Beetlejuice, this includes tracking fire and musical instruments tossed up from the pit, riding multiple set-pieces and a number of ad libs Brightman merges effortlessly into Scott Brown and Anthony King's book, as though part of his body's exhalation. From first preview, Brightman breathes as Beetlejuice.

Many theatre-goers avoid attending first previews, knowing the work remains in a state of transition and final tweaking. Some, on the other hand, seek them out: perhaps for the thrill of the unknown, perhaps due to the likelihood of a lower ticket price. Braving Beetlejuice's inaugural public performance offered a unique bonus: be among the first to witness the musical's "REALLY F*$#&*G EXPLICIT" departure from its family friendly source material. The creative team took a risk, exorcising Beetlejuice from his PG-rating and unleashing him into a show that explodes out-the-gate with references to puppet sex, butt stuff, and snorting a hefty forearm's worth of cocaine.

In sharp contrast, audiences meet the show's co-star, Lydia Deetz at the funeral of her mother; new ghosts on the block Adam and Barbara Maitland begin their arc as a waspy couple facing the recent aftermath of a miscarriae, coping through crib polishing and carrot peeling. After their sudden and untimely deaths, the mild-mannered Maitlands scheme to scare Lydia and her businessman father, Charles, out of their home – before Deetz converts it into the model unit of "rural retreats for urban elites" that shoehorn the concept of "family" into a shallow and misguided abstraction of wealth and sophistication.

Lydia and the Maitlands each start their journeys in a state of sincere grief and loss, Charles surrounds himself with the superficial: all the while, Beetlejuice is on-hand to make gibes about guacamole, herpes, and Katharine Hepburn. No subject matter is safe, from boners to Broadway musicals: Brightman's Beetlejuice pokes fun at several classics of The Great White Way, some cleverly concealed Easter eggs for theatre-dorks (which Brightman unabashedly is) – others actual callouts.

Though the show's title belongs to Beetlejuice, its heart belongs to Lydia, played by seventeen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso.

Broadway World

Unleashed by Lydia in a moment of extreme desperation, Beetlejuice is what happens when the root of a problem isn't confronted head-on – a metaphor made painfully real by the production's current proximity to a Trump-run White House.

Navigating adolescence, a move, dead mom, dismissive dad – plus ditzy Life Coach Delia, whom dad hires to heal his daughter's pain, ghosts and demons seem appropriate playmates for a death-obsessed teen who longs to reunite with her mom on the "other side." Much like an extra-angsty Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Lydia finds herself isolated "high on a hill [in] a big old house with something wrong inside it," equally intrigued by the idea of invoking spirits – except the insufferable male hidden up in Lydia's attic is an actual demon, not just a whiny brat with a bad back.

Audiences may recall Caruso's brilliant performance as Helen Keller, a role she tackled at age nine, under the direction of Patty Duke (who had originated the role on Broadway in 1959) – or perhaps her heart-stopping appearance alongside Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in the 2016 Broadway revival of Blackbird. The point being: Caruso is the real deal when it comes to embodying vulnerable trauma on-stage, and it will be exciting to track the evolution of her journey in this role opposite Brightman's Beetlejuice.

The show's second act deals with an arranged marriage/murder plot between "Creepy Old Guy" (Beetlejuice) and his underage bride (Lydia), played out alongside jokes about pedophilia, dead parents, and pubic hair ("just like Lolita – but fine!"). Recognizing this taboo topic and the dark brand of humor Beetlejuice brings, Director Alex Timbers at one point turns the entire cast to face the audience – Beetlejuice included – to express disbelief that "some cultures think this kind of thing's alright!?" At all times it is clear: the show does not promote this behavior.

A ballad from Barbara Maitland attempts to balance the bawdy darkness, taking a beat to sing about the "mother [she] never got to be." Kerry Butler's performance is sweet and heartfelt, framed overhead by a strip of attic ceiling boards that resemble a white picket fence suspended in mid-air (shout-out to set designer David Korins for this lovely detail).

There is a subtle connection between Brightman's back-to-back Broadway leading roles – one akin to a line from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, confessing a feeling of connection between the author and his homicidal subject: "it's as if [we] grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front." Where Dewey Finn wanted to compete in the Battle of the Bands, Beetlejuice wants to "kill lots of people and f*ck sh*t up" – almost as if Dewey Finn never stepped foot into Horace Green Prep and, instead, melted his mind with psychotropic drugs and died horrifically. Lydia's version of a climactic "Teacher's Pet" guitar solo is committing murder, forgivable in context – heart-warming, even – because she did it alongside loved ones and is now "seen" by her dad.


If for no other reason, to witness Brightman's artistry in taking on another massive leading role – and crushing it with inspiring commitment to character and unbelievable energy, which seems to be his wheelhouse. (Ditto for Caruso: she's certainly one to watch hone her own distinct frequency.)

A dare to parents: consider taking your kids – seriously – especially if they're budding Broadway geeks who caught Brightman's Tony-nominated performance in School of Rock. (There's nothing more extreme here than the more memorable lyrics from Book of Mormon's "Hasa Diga Eebowai" or "Joseph Smith American Moses" – and it's highly unlikely Beetlejuice will get more filthy between its first out-of-town preview and Broadway.)

Have a pre-show discussion about the reasons behind using shock value in art – in this instance as a way of showing the dangers that befall emotional struggles that go unaddressed. Celebrate an actor's artistic range – that the same guy who got them picking up guitars and drum sticks is now tap dancing and making dick jokes and riding a Graboid on the very same stage. (And, two hours before his first preview, took time to make rounds at a nearby restaurant, playfully helping a server hand-off a gluten-free beer – to the author of this piece.)

Beetlejuice concludes its out-of-town tryout at DC's National Theatre November 18, and begins Broadway previews March 28, 2019: check it out.

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