Why I Don’t Care for the New “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” Musical

Anthony J. Piccione 

  • OnStage New York Columnist

This week marked the official Broadway premiere of a brand new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All I have to do is take a look through the vast majority of theatre news sites that I follow, and it’s easy to notice this is what many people seem to be talking about. (Although I will say – while I have my obvious biases – On Stage has done a good job at staying focused on other stories and topics that are relevant to all aspects of theatre, as well.)

Now before I go any further, let me be clear: I am not criticizing the talented artists that are involved in this production. Christian Borle, in particular, is one of my favorite performers in musical theatre alive today. I’m not even saying this adaptation – in particular – is a bad one. The original West End production received mixed reviews, and so far, this Broadway production seems to be receiving a similar reception from critics. Personally, however, I have not had the chance to see it, and I’ve always believed that you should withhold full judgment on a show’s quality until you’ve seen it for yourself.

Having said that, it’s already hard not to look at a premiere such as this, and think this is just another example of how new shows – which may be of better quality than this one – have less opportunities to make it to Broadway, because of an older story once again being rehashed and brought back, perhaps purely for the sake of selling tickets.

As both a theatre critic and as an audience member, I’ve seen my fair share of new plays and new musicals, and I’ve seen even more that have been around for awhile, but never had a Broadway production. Some shows I liked more than others, but many of them – although not all, necessarily – could easily become Broadway hits, as well, if they were ever given the chance. To anyone who questions my motives, I do not say this to benefit a playwright such as myself who probably isn’t doing himself any favors by writing articles that question the decisions that some Broadway producers might be making. I sincerely say this as someone who just likes to see fresh and innovative new shows as an audience member. I suspect I’m not alone when I say that I would find it refreshing to see more new musicals produced on Broadway, in addition to some of the ones we already have.

Yet instead, we get flashy remakes of old stories such as this: A show the New York Times has described as having “some sugar but not enough spice.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune said that the show “has barely a drop of that magic chocolate”, and Entertainment Weekly stated that “the moment the curtain raises [sic] until the moment it finally drops, there’s a sense that something is missing.” This shouldn’t be completely surprising. Four years ago at the West End, the Times said of the show “when it is over little is left. This biggest, costliest most famous show adds up to nothing much”, while the Daily Telegraph said that “it only rarely touches the heart or stimulates the imagination.”

So then how is it on Broadway? Surely, the producers of the show must have seen the script for this adaptation in advance, or at the very least, have heard about the reception that the West End production got? Again, this isn’t me necessarily saying that it’s bad, as I personally haven’t seen it. However, while the critics aren’t always necessarily right about every show, the fact that this adaptation of a timeless classic is getting mixed reviews ought to be enough to call into question whether it is truly worthy of getting this opportunity over other shows that haven’t been on Broadway, given how there are only so many Broadway venues that are available.

Sure, you could make a valid argument – from a financial perspective – that marketing is a good reason to produce a show such as this. Indeed, in terms of ticket sales, a tried and true story such as this is always guaranteed to attract lots of attention and box office success. This problem that can sometimes exist in commercial theatre is also far more prominent in the film industry, where bad films continue to be made in Hollywood simply because they are more easily marketable and have familiar storylines.

However, let’s not forget that many shows that we look back on today that we now consider to be classics were also once new shows, as well. They needed to be successfully marketed to a large audience back then, too. It’s worth mentioning that some of them probably weren’t initially thought of as particularly brilliant ideas, at first, until the vision for the show was fully realized. Let’s not forget that Lin-Manuel Miranda was initially laughed at when he first stated that Alexander Hamilton “embodied the spirit of all things hip-hop” to his audience during an event at the White House in 2009. Yet a few years after that…well, the rest is history.

So yes, not all adaptations or revivals of old material are bad, necessarily. Occasionally, it can be nice to see an old favorite – or a re-interpretation of one, if it’s done right – brought to life in a new time, for us to enjoy. However, far too often are old stories given tired remakes – as opposed to new stories being given the chance to be shown to a larger audience – and I can’t help but sense that this is just another big example of this unfortunate trend. Indeed, how can the next Stephen Sondheim or the next Jonathan Larson or the next Lin-Manuel Miranda ever have a shot at seeing their own musical produced on Broadway one day, if shows like this are often the ones premiering at the biggest theaters in New York City?

I hope that maybe, at some point or another, more people in the industry will realize that…

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet, critic and essayist based in New York City.

To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage) and on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione).