Are Some Roles Too Iconic For Broadway?

Beetlejuice at the Winter Garden.jpg
  • Aaron Netsky

I’ve noticed something of a trend at the Winter Garden Theatre over the past few years. Three of the last four productions that have played there have been musicals based on movies with iconic central characters. The one production that did not was about icons, but of a very different sort. The historical figures depicted in “Wolf Hall” are iconic, but not from movies, not from being embodied by a singular actor. Rocky, from “Rocky,” Dewey, from “School of Rock,” and Beetlejuice, from “Beetlejuice,” are very closely tied to the actors who played them originally, actors who were a big part of why the movies were so popular that they were adapted into musicals.

As each one of these musicals has come to Broadway, most recently “Beetlejuice,” taking up residence in the Winter Garden this spring, I’ve had the same apprehension: the material may be good for the musical theatre treatment, but who’s going to get stuck toeing the fine line between doing his own thing and imitating an icon?

The Winter Garden isn’t the only place where this happens on Broadway, just the most consistent, recently. Most of what comes to Broadway comes from the screen, and there are a lot of iconic characters out there. Christian Borle starred in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in the shadow of Gene Wilder. When I went to see “Six Degrees of Separation,” I wondered how I was going to get Will Smith’s version of Paul from the movie out of my head. Corey Hawkins’s portrayal turned out to be beautifully original and stood on its own, which was a relief, since so much of what makes the movie memorable is Will Smith’s Will Smith-ness (Smith now faces his own stepping-into-an-iconic-role challenge as the Genie in Disney’s live action version of “Aladdin,” originally played to perfection by Robin Williams). It can work, playing an iconic role differently than the person who made it iconic, and it is certainly preferable to copying another actor. But do Broadway audiences, many of whom are tourists who are attracted to these shows because they are familiar from their Blu-ray or DVD collections (or even VHS), expect something other than what they already know? Should they, for the money they paid for tickets?

Rocky was Sylvester Stallone for decades before Andy Karl played him, and still is. “School of Rock” was a perfect vehicle to showcase Jack Black’s manic energy and guitar chops. “Beetlejuice” not only presents the same problem as those other two for its star, Alex Brightman (who also played Dewey in “School of Rock”), but for its creators, since the movie is such a purely distilled essence of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman that it is hard to imagine a reimagining. I suppose Brightman’s green-tinted beard in the advertising is a signal that he’s going to go for something very different than what Michael Keaton did, and more power to him, I hope I see it and I hope I love it. But is it fair to ask actors to do this? To take on rolls that audiences are going to bring a lot of nostalgia to? The internet is full to the brim with #NotMyThis and #NotMyThat about so many recent reboots, sequels, prequels, and recastings from Hollywood. That sort of thing is only going to get worse with time. Should Broadway be as meddlesome with the classics?

Then again, I myself have never been offered such an opportunity, and would probably jump at it. Perhaps these actors relish the idea of putting their own stamp on fixtures of the silver screen. That’s what theatre is about, in a way, bringing back the old to speak to the new. So many Ethel Merman roles are iconic, but her musicals come back again and again. The difference is, while the audiences at the Patti LuPone or Bernadette Peters revivals of “Gypsy” may have been well versed in the Merman cast recording of that musical, most of them probably didn’t see her do the role live, let alone over and over again on their home entertainment system. I wouldn’t be nearly as excited or apprehensive as I am about the “Beetlejuice” musical if I didn’t watch the movie once a year and have fond memories of watching the cartoon after school as a kid. 

While maybe it is not as daunting a task as taking over the title character, Kerry Butler playing the role of Barbara Maitland in “Beetlejuice,” originated by one of the funniest women ever in movies, Geena Davis, is no small deal. I saw Butler in “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2003, taking on a role so tied to a specific actress that that actress revived it herself in New York City Center’s 2015 production thirty-three years after debuting it off-Broadway. I am speaking, of course, of Ellen Greene’s Audrey. That’s some Carol Channing-level loyalty to a role right there. I had seen Greene in the movie, but still loved Butler’s performance on the stage. My appreciation for “Little Shop” was fresher at the time than my devotion to “Beetlejuice” is now. It wasn’t as big a deal for me. 

And maybe the musical “Beetlejuice” won’t be for me, maybe it will be for a different generation, the Lydias in the audience. It won’t make the movie disappear, I’ll still be able to watch it. There’s room for both in the world, like there was room for both “Rockys” and both “School of Rocks.” The one doesn’t make the other disappear. I shouldn’t fret so, musicals have been doing this for decades. Perhaps I just feel protective. Not just of the movies, but of the actors I fear will face backlash for not being exactly like their movie counterparts.

It’s a dangerous, social media-driven world out there, and it causes me anxiety. I will give “Beetlejuice” a fair shake, if I am so fortunate as to see it, and ditto Mr. Brightman. After all, ideally one day I’ll find myself recreating something he made popular, and I’ll want the same consideration. 

Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter, @aaron_netsky on Instagram) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account.