A musical about the Addams Family? How do you write songs for people who live near a cemetery and keep a disembodied arm as a pet? When cartoonist Charles Addams created his series of New Yorker cartoons about a family with scary tastes, he set in motion one of the longest-running pop culture franchises. There’s already been a popular sitcom and two feature films (The Addams Family and Addams Family Values), and director Tim Burton is about to make a 3-D stop-motion animated movie about the characters. But all those projects had to do was translate Addams’s humour, and his belief that death rays and guillotines are part of everyday life. The Addams Family musical, opening April 8 with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, is trying to do something even weirder: prove, as composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa told Maclean’s, that these characters are “human and feeling” and can “sing something heartfelt.”
That’s a pretty big risk, considering that the only previous song about the characters was the TV show’s theme, which told us they were “creepy,” “kooky,” and “altogether ooky.” The musical is expected to make Morticia (Neuwirth) sing about her fears of growing older, and give Gomez (Lane) what Lippa considers a “really touching” ballad. That could give a new dimension to Addams’s famous characters. But it could also be more gruesome than anything he ever drew.
Not that the basic set-up of the musical, written by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (Jersey Boys), is any different from other versions of the franchise. All of them—including a Saturday morning cartoon and The New Addams Family, a cheap Canadian-made remake of the original sitcom—follow the lead of Addams, who started drawing these weird-looking people in 1938. Kevin Miserocchi, who edited a new Addams cartoon collection called The Addams Family: An Evilution, says that the cartoons had “recognition and a following by the reading public 30 years before they were ever translated into television.” What Addams gave to the public was a wealthy couple, Gomez and Morticia Addams, who have two children (plus some elderly live-in relatives) and a family habit of dressing in black, collecting instruments of torture, and telling guests “if you need anything, just scream.”
Most of the Addams humour is based on things that are usually considered gruesome or frightening. The sitcom version is sometimes confused with The Munsters, a similar comedy about horror-movie monsters. But the Munsters usually had bland sitcom adventures, while even with network censors on their backs, The Addams Family had characters throwing knives and blowing up model trains. And the characters aren’t shy about threatening bystanders with violence; the second movie had a scene in which introverted daughter Wednesday (played by future star Christina Ricci) turns a Thanksgiving pageant into an orgy of violent revenge against pilgrims. All that keeps them from being evil is that they never really hurt anyone, at least when we’re watching. In one of the best-known cartoons, which was adapted into the opening of the first film version (starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as the heads of the family), the Addamses and their butler, Lurch, are about to pour a vat of boiling oil on a group of irritatingly sweet Christmas carollers, but “you don’t see it happen,” Lippa says, “because then it’s no longer funny.”
That cartoon also sums up the formula of most Addams cartoons and their adaptations, which the musical is following: contrast the family with so-called normal people and let the abnormal people win out. Lippa says that the story of the musical features a seemingly normal family forced to stay with the title characters, because there has to be “some outsider who gets introduced into the Addams family world.” The ensuing chaos “blurs the lines of what’s abnormal and unusual,” with Gomez and Morticia improving the strangers’ lives by teaching them some Addams Family Values (as the movie title put it). The contrast between the “alternative” family and the boring everyday world is such a workable idea that it’s given Addams’s franchise a lot of influence on modern comedy. One cartoon, where the family’s crazed Uncle Fester is laughing at a movie that leaves the rest of the audience horrified, was copied for a scene with Homer on The Simpsons. It’s no wonder that when Michelle Obama and her daughters visited New York last week, one of the first musicals they went to was a preview of The Addams Family.
That cross-generational, long-term appeal may explain why, according to Variety, the musical played to full houses in its first week of New York previews (despite mixed reviews for its pre-Broadway tryouts). Unlike Shrek, the Addams Family appeals not only to the young, but to the old and everyone in between, because there have been so many adaptations in so many media that almost everyone has some familiarity with the characters’ quirks, like Gomez’s habit of acting sexually aroused whenever his wife speaks French.
Lippa learned about writing for popular cartoon characters when he created additional songs for a revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but he says that even he underestimated the amount of “audience awareness” of the Addams Family franchise. The original opening number, dropped during the Chicago tryout, didn’t connect with viewers because it had too much plot exposition and didn’t give the characters a chance, as Lippa puts it, “to say ‘this is who we are, and this is what we do.’ ” He adds that the new opening, created for Broadway, postpones the story and lets the characters do what they’ve been doing for the last 70 years, allowing the audience to get to “see them in the way they remembered them.”
But unlike the unrelated sketches that made up the Charlie Brown musical, The Addams Family is trying to fuse Addams’s cartoons into a story with some actual emotional development. This hasn’t really been tried in the other adaptations. Both the sitcom and the movies showed the characters as untroubled by self-doubt; any problems they had came from the outside, usually in the form of con artists trying to take them down. But the musical starts with Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez, Spring Awakening) falling in love with a boy and worrying that her family will embarrass her. In the first act, Lippa says that he’s given the character a song about her feelings: “She sings, ‘I’m being pulled in a new direction,’ about her love for this boy.”
Of course, since this is the Charles Addams universe, every time she sings “pulled” she pulls on a lever and starts torturing her younger brother Pugsley. (“He’s loving being tortured,” Lippa enthuses.) And the premise of the musical isn’t completely out of line with the earlier versions: it’s similar to an episode of the sitcom (and an Addams cartoon) in which Pugsley upsets the family by wanting to be a Boy Scout. But it’s still close to the formula of other big musicals, where characters have some sort of internal conflict at the beginning and learn to like themselves by the end. In other versions of this material, the Addamses don’t question themselves or their lifestyles; “they live in this bubble of a universe where everything is terrific,” Lippa says. In offering plot points like Morticia’s fears of growing older, the show is doing something that could seem un-Addamsy: letting them think, if only for a moment, that they might not be perfect. Some people who worked on the show thought all this introspection was making things too heavy: Neuwirth told New York magazine that in the tryouts, Morticia was “deeply unhappy from the middle of the first act through the end of the show,” and that she was hoping for “more wisecracks” as the creative team rewrote the script and songs. This family may live in a dark world, but this could be their first adaptation that isn’t basically lighthearted.
That may be unavoidable if the writers want to flesh the characters out for a full evening. The TV show only needed to come up with 24 minutes’ worth of story every week, and the features were episodic and patchy, but in a Broadway musical, Lippa explains, viewers expect “that in a story there’s going to be some conflict.” In a way, though, it’s just the logical culmination of one key fact about Addams’s creations: they may look and act strangely, but they’re basically a normal family that happens to have unusual tastes. Most of the cartoons and television episodes feature the characters doing familiar things and facing familiar problems. Jon Davis, who runs the unofficial Addams Family website at addamsfamily.com, says that the themes are usually “children, their behaviour, going to school, relatives coming to visit, familial misunderstandings and celebrations.” And though they act unconventionally, they’re not a dysfunctional family in any way. A famous cartoon shows the family gathered at the window, watching a storm outside; Gomez remarks that this is “just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive.” In what Lippa calls the “Addams inversion,” they enjoy the opposite of what we enjoy, but other than that, they’re a happy family that enjoys each other’s company. Addams created characters who are secretly conventional, and maybe even realistic: “Looking at the women in his life,” Davis explains, “they resembled Morticia, tall, black-haired and slender.”
Given how genuinely beloved these characters are, it may make sense for the musical to treat them like any other fictional family unit: people whose emotions and problems can be conveyed in song. Lippa points to a moment where Gomez is pushing Wednesday on a broom-shaped swing (a scene right out of the cartoons) and sings a song called Happy/Sad, in which he expresses mixed feelings about his daughter growing up. “I didn’t know I was going to go into the show writing a beautiful song from a father to his daughter.” Over 70 years after Charles Addams introduced us to the idea that a creepy family can be adorable, this is the next logical step: a Broadway show about a loving but old-fashioned family dealing with a changing world and their daughter’s changing values. That describes the Addams musical, but it also describes Fiddler on the Roof. Except that the family in Fiddler on the Roof doesn’t have a giant squid as a pet. Not yet, anyway.