Horror Business: Bringing BEETLEJUICE: THE MUSICAL to Life
Beetlejuice will forever hold a very special place in my heart. It wasn’t only my quintessential gateway horror movie but it also shaped a lifelong unapologetic appreciation for all things weird and macabre. The movie had a “lightning in a bottle” combination of a devilishly rebellious spirit and a singularity of vision that introduced the world to the wonders of Tim Burton. It was and forever will be an iconic and magical movie.
Every Saturday morning, Beetlejuice was my go-to cartoon, and my VHS of the movie practically melted from being watched so much. I had the Halloween costume (as a child and as a grown up) and at six-years-old, I got a time out for making my Beetlejuice action figure say, “Nice fucking model!” in the first grade. Needless to say, Beetlejuice is a part of me.
The movie is just as sacred to countless others for all of the same reasons, which is likely why the Beetlejuice sequels and remakes have remained in production hell for decades. How can you possibly reimagine a classic that means so much to so many people? The answer: turn it into a musical.
Despite being a little apprehensive at first, what struck me within the first ten minutes of Beetlejuice: the Musical was that it was developed with a tremendous amount of love and respect for the original movie. The show encompasses all of the many facets of what made the movie so great while expanding on the story in ways that are equal parts inventive and reverential. It even has several nods to the cartoon which just plain made me happy.
This is a killer show and I urge you to go see it. The costumes, the music, the humor, and the insanely elaborate Burtonesque sets and visuals are an overwhelming and blissful experience for fans of the original, plus the anarchistic spirit of lewdness and rudeness from the movie is retained in full force. I don’t know what else to say other than Beetlejuice: the Musical is downright fucking awesome and it completely floored me.
We sat down with the writers of the show, Scott Brown (Sharp Objects, Castle Rock) and Anthony King (Silicon Valley, Broad City), and learned all about how they were able to turn such a beloved icon into a fantastic Broadway experience.
Before we get into the interview, here are 3 key pieces of advice for aspiring writers from Anthony King and Scott Brown.
- Find a writing group. A very common piece of advice for mastery in any domain is to have a mastermind group of like-minded peers who you can turn to offer you feedback, inspiration, and the sharing of resources. This is probably most critical for writers. Multiple authors and screenwriters frequently have writing groups, in which they have their work critiqued by others whom they trust. Scott & Anthony credit this practice for enabling them to grow significantly as writers. Try to find or create your own writing group, even if it’s just one person (for Steven King, it’s his wife).
- Be comfortable being mad. Scott and Anthony have been collaborators for years, and claim that the ability to get super mad at each other, and then not take it personally, is key to their collaboration. Do they always agree on everything? No. But to have a working collaborative professional relationship requires embracing and exploring conflict, which they do comfortably.
- Write to the end of each idea. There was a major plot point that Beetlejuice: the Musical consciously did not address and it ultimately made the story much better and more honest. This plot point, which we mention down below, (look for the spoiler warning) was in earlier drafts of the script, and by exploring it fully and thoroughly, Scott and Anthony realized that it had to be taken out. Had they not explored this plot point, they forever would have been tormented wondering whether or not it belonged in the story. When writing a script or a story, certain plot points have to be explored to their very conclusion to know whether or not they fit in the larger story as a whole. Writers can only clearly see things like these retrospectively – in other words, you won’t know what belongs in your story until you get to the very end of it. Scott even went on to say: “You can’t fix it if it’s not finished.” So write all the way to the end, reevaluate, and rewrite.
Beetlejuice: the Musical is currently in previews at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. The musical officially opens on April 25th. You can get tickets on StubHub or the show’s official website.
Dread Central: Hey guys, thank you for taking the time!
Anthony King: Thank you.
Scott Brown: Thanks for having us.
DC: Huge, tremendous congratulations on Beetlejuice: the Musical. I was lucky enough to get to see it in previews and I was totally blown away.
AK: Oh, great.
DC: This is a movie that’s been very close to my heart since I was a child. It literally is part of my identity.
SB: Is this where you pull up your pants and we see the striped socks?
DC: My whole leg is tattooed with Beetlejuice stripes. Haha! But, yeah, I feel like there are a lot of people like me who really loved the movie and it meant so much to them. Was it intimidating to approach such a beloved property?
AK: Oh, a hundred percent. I mean, we also love it. I think we decided early on, there were some things that we thought were untouchable that we had to just completely grab on to and go, “This is what Beetlejuice is.”
Then we thought there were things that we could repurpose but still honor, and then there were things that we wanted to change. Not because we don’t like the movie, but because, early on it was decided that Lydia was going to be the main character of the musical. She’s obviously not the main character of the movie. Things had to shift around, to tell that story, but we wanted to keep the spirit of Tim Burton, the spirit of Beetlejuice alive especially the character, while not just having a Michael Keaton impression.
AK: It’s obvious his genius is such a huge part of that character.
DC: I have to say it was so clear watching the musical that Beetlejuice was in very loving hands.
AK: Oh good. That’s great.
DC: It was so clear. Because this is a meaningful story to a lot of people. And the minute before the curtain comes up, there’s a tinge of anxiety where you think: “Oh shit. What if they don’t get it right…?” I was nearly moved to tears by how awesome it was and how celebratory it was.
AK: Oh, good.
DC: It was just so blissful for me as a Beetlejuice fan, and as a horror fan. Again, huge bravo to both of you guys.
AK: Thank you.
SB: Thank you.
AK: That means a lot: that people who love the movie also like the show. Because we would be devastated if they said, “I love the movie and you ruined it.” That would be so horrifying.
SB: Our sense of memory of Beetlejuice is so strong. I think that’s also what we wanted, just the feelings that Beetlejuice evoked, even if specific plot points and structures have to change because it’s a musical, it’s on stage, because Lydia is the main character, and the Lydia-Beetlejuice dynamic is what we are trying to foreground. When those things change we hope we can preserve that feeling we had when we were twelve or thirteen years old, and just loving this kind of celebration of anarchy and unexpected emotion, you know. The triumph of weird people.
DC: Right. Well, how did you approach the story? What was the research process? How did you figure out what you wanted to cover?
AK: I think the first thing was, we decided Lydia was going to be the main character. And Beetlejuice was only in the movie for like, twelve minutes… he is barely in the movie. So, we decided we wanted them to be dual protagonists and antagonists. Then everything shifted around that, so we had to ask questions that aren’t really explained in the movie, like: “What is Beetlejuice doing?”
AK: “Why is he there?” In the movie, he is just hanging out in the model and he wants to scare people. But getting a little more understanding of where that’s coming from and why he wants all of that, because in a musical, they have to sing. There’s a little bit more emotional depth you have to mine for in characters to make a musical.
AK: That’s right.
DC: That was the most fascinating thing about it, because you addressed all these things you just didn’t think about in the movie.
AK: Another influence that we really thought a lot about while making the show was the cartoon.
DC: I was going to bring that up. I noticed that.
AK: Because, we watched that a lot as kids, and in that, Beetlejuice and Lydia are pals. He’s almost like her magical pet who’s causing chaos. A lot of the second act of the musical is from that idea, they are together, they are kind of a unit, and then things fall apart. We wanted the spirit of that as well. I mean, in the movie they talk twice, I think, and then he tries to marry her.
SB: It is strictly an extortion relationship.
SB: People forgive that, because they did see the cartoon afterwards, where they were kind of pals and he was harmless. And they think back to the movie and think, “Oh yeah, they were hanging out and doing stuff.” But you go back and it’s not at all, like that. He is not her friend. He is purely transactional and then it’s a huge problem.
DC: Yeah, it was relatively creepy.
AK: Which we tried to dive straight into and address.
DC: Right, right. It’s definitely wise to acknowledge all that. The cartoon influence I totally saw in the second act. How did you guys get involved with Beetlejuice
AK: We wrote this very strange show that ran off Broadway, called Gutenberg the Musical, and Alex Timbers, who’s directing Beetlejuice, directed that. After we finished that he was talking to Warner Brothers about doing a show and told them he wanted to do Beetlejuice and he wanted us to write it. Then we got brought in to say, “Here’s what we will do with it,” and then many, many years later…it was Alex who brought us in, and it’s been that collaboration from the beginning.
DC: Very cool. What was the process
AK: It’s kind of exciting writing in that way, thinking about the end product at the same time as you’re creating it. And then, of course, Eddie Perfect came on board to write the songs and that became its own collaboration–of him writing songs for things we had already pitched, but us also rewriting for ideas he had, and it’s been a really great collaboration.
DC: Very cool.
AK: You’re right, all those elements influence each other. And when something else comes, when somebody new comes on board, things start to have blowback effects into the show… Pretty early in the process, Dave Correns, who did the set, was brought in to also start talking about what’s actually possible. Because there were a lot of different ideas, how we were going to use the house and what it was going to look like. And parts of the house would move around…
Then the actors. We started finding our actors and doing workshops with them because it’s a comedy… once we had the people we were writing towards what their strengths were. That comes from the background I have
DC: Yeah, that’s very cool. You guys have been collaborators for a long time, right?
AK: Yeah, we’ve known each other since eighth grade.
SB: Probably about since when Beetlejuice came out. It was not long after that.
DC: Well, I feel like it’s rare to have writers who are such close collaborators. What are the keys to your long-standing collaboration?
AK: I would say shorthand, and the ability to get mad at each other and then drop it immediately.
SB: That is so crucial. I remember once we were talking about a scene where—I won’t get into details, but where a magic book was either opened or not opened and there were various reasons why it could be opened or couldn’t be opened–and we had a giant fight about that and then later just said, “It’s so great that we just had a world-ending fight about a magic book that does not exist and here we are having dinner.”
AK: We’re essentially like brothers at this point. No fight is actually personal.
DC: As you were writing this story, what were some of the alternate plot directions you almost went in that were different from the final product?
AK: Lydia is the main character and Lydia’s mother is dead, and you don’t know what happened to her mom in the movie. You know Delia is actually her stepmom in the movie. It’s barely mentioned but it is there.
Again, it’s a musical and you have to plumb more emotion. We thought, “Let’s have her mom be dead, and recently dead, so there’s more tumult in their lives.” Then once we decided Lydia was the main character we wanted Lydia to go to the Netherworld. And so there’s the big question of, since she wants to find her mother, does she meet her mother or not?
(SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD)
AK: There were many different versions of that. We tried versions where she met her mom. We tried versions where the Maitlands went with her to the Netherworld. Ultimately, that’s not where we landed. The interesting thing for us was that, in trying to write a scene where she was reunited with her mother, you think, “Oh, it’s going to be so emotional. It’s going to be so great.” But what we found, at least in our way of thinking, is when someone dies, you don’t get to see them again.
The pain of that is what’s relatable. It’s actually not relatable to see them again. There’s something just false about it. “I want to say all the things I didn’t get to say.” Well, the relatable pain is that you don’t get to say these things. You have to let that go and live with it and move on. That ended up being what our show is about. Going down those roads actually helped us get to where we are, and that was really interesting.
DC: That occurred to me as I was watching it. I kept wondering if she was going to see her mom and I think the fact that she didn’t
AK: Right, that’s exactly right. We wanted it to be a show that addressed “What do you do once you are in this place of grief?” The answer is reaching out to other people and finding a way forward together. I think writing the version where she met her mom is how we got to that.
DC: Interesting. Sometimes it’s important to go down different plot holes to arrive at the final story.
AK: If we hadn’t done that I think that would have haunted the show on some level. I think we would have thought, “Oh, maybe there’s a really hard but fulfilling scene we could have found there.” But since we did it first, I think we knew (what was right for the story)…
DC: Was there anything interesting that you uncovered in your story research process? There were sequel scripts floating around. There was going to be a female Beetlejuice at one point, for a remake…
AK: Yup. The original script is very dark. Not really comedy, even. There’s little bit of comedy, but it’s much more horror. And he was trying to kill everyone, and I think he kills Lydia.
SB: Or her sister.
AK: Yes, her sister. She has a sister and he kills her sister.
SB: Who is bitten by a rabid squirrel or something.
AK: Yeah, it is a very crazy script. Then, after Beetlejuice was a success, they were green-lit for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, w
AK: There’s a reason why he’s never made it. Then there’s been these rumors, obviously, of a sequel for a while and I know Seth Grahame-Smith wrote a script and I think now someone else has written a script, but I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen or not.
DC: Everybody wants more from this world. Nobody wants a reboot, and a sequel is so risky. But to just reimagine everything on the stage in a brand-new format with a musical, I think is the coolest way to refresh a beloved property.
AK: Yeah, I think the reason we went there is because we weren’t that interested in just putting the original script on stage.
SB: To their credit, the producers were not interested in that, either.
AK: No. Because we love the movie and think that the script is so great, to try to approximate that would have felt silly, and like we are doing a carbon copy. But I think the bigger thing, also, is that I don’t know how you even do anything exactly like Michael Keaton did and not feel like you are just doing a pale imitation of that.
For us, it was taking what Beetlejuice has at its core, where he is this kind of lounge singer, gross guy who desperately wants people to see him and wants to be part of stuff. Then put that into a slightly different voice. And that what’s great about Alex Brightman’s performance is that, I don’t think at any point do you feel like he is doing Michael Keaton’s.
DC: No, definitely not.
AK: He is his own Beetlejuice. He created his own thing. What I like about that is, it’s outside the uncanny valley of like, “Is this supposed to be exact?” You’re just immediately like, “Oh, he’s not. He’s doing something different.”
SB: You know, their makeup tests supported that, too. I mean, there were versions of the show where we tried a look on Alex Brightman that was more the canonical Beetlejuice. I am here to tell you it was terrible.
AK & SB: It did not translate on a stage.
AK: Some of it is having to look at him for a whole show. Again, he’s in the movie for twelve minutes and you aren’t having to just literally watch him on stage.
DC: Because he’s so gross-looking?
AK: Yeah, yeah.
DC: Really? Wow. Yeah, I was him for Halloween last year. I had to do the green mold on his face. Yeah, pretty gross when you think about it.
SB: That Halloween costume aspect of it is something that we were really worried about. Because Beetlejuice is a very common Halloween costume. Iconic in that sort of way.
AK: Yeah, that was the interesting thing. The first time I saw him I thought, “Oh, he’s not actually competing with Michael Keaton. He’s competing with everyone who has ever dressed up like Beetlejuice for Halloween. That was why it’s like, “Oh, we need our own look, to separate him from all of that.” Because you don’t want to choose Beetlejuice and think like “Oh, it’s my co-worker, Eddie.”
SB: Yeah, “We did that last year. Ours was better.” It has to be a new take.
AK: A lot of that is also our costume designer William Ivey Long, who made these great suits. They went back to Tim Burton’s early sketches. They went deep into the Tim Burton archives for both set and costume design.
DC: He had such a foot in the original iconic design but brought it someplace new. I’m sure you are tired of answering this question: What has the response been from Tim Burton, have you heard anything?
AK: He has not seen the show, as far as I know.
DC: He’s on the Dumbo promotion circuit?
AK: That’s right. He’s been in London and he was making Dumbo. He definitely knows of it and he has given his blessing.
DC: Very cool.
AK: I would like to sit right beside him.
SB: That would be so comfortable. That would be great. You do that and I’ll hide.
DC: So what’s next for you guys? Ghostbusters the Musical?
SB: That’s right. We are not legally allowed to discuss Ghostbusters.
AK: The Marshmallow man explodes onto the audience.
DC: That would be cool.
SB: It would be really cool.
DC: Cover everybody in actual marshmallow fluff.
SB: It’s gonna be really expensive so the rest of it will be very minimalist. The Ghostbusters will be at a table in metal chairs…
DC: It’s like a one-room play with all the Ghostbusters just talking.
AK: It’s just people coming into the firehouse going “That was crazy.”
SB: “What ho? The ghost specter outside? Tell me what happened!”
DC: I can totally see it! Yeah, so what are you guys actually working on next?
AK: For theater right now, we have a couple things in the pipeline but nothing that’s ready to announce. Then we are both doing television. Right now I am working on a show for Comedy Central with comedian Rory Scovel, that will be on next year.
DC: Oh, cool.
SB: I’m working on Castle Rock on Hulu. And I got a book out.
DC: Oh, wow.
SB: Yeah, it’s a variety novel called XL about a really short kid. For all you readers, I’m not short. Very tall. Very tall person. I had to dig deep for this novel. Yeah, so it’s a novel about a short kid who grows from 4″11 to 7″0 feet in a year. Yeah, there’s that and Castle Rock.
DC: Last question. Any parting advice for people who want to do similar things to what you guys do? Who want to write and get creatively involved with production, either on the stage or on the screen?
AK: I think, for me the thing would be writing. If you finish anything, you’ve done more than 90 percent of people who tried to write. Take solace and happiness in that, which means also, finish it. Even if it’s terrible, finish it.
SB: Especially if it’s terrible. You can’t fix it if it’s not finished.
AK: That’s the biggest thing. Then I also think, find a group of people whose sensibility you like, and you can share things with. Because it’s such a lonely thing. It’s so isolating that you just need people that you can trust. If you can find your circle of friends, your circle of peers that you have that with, I think those are the keys to getting better.
SB: Yeah, people to fail with, people to feel comfortable failing with. Failing again and again and again. And enjoying that.
DC: I heard that’s a huge part of it, having a mastermind. Like when George Lucas was writing Star Wars, his best friends were Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and Brian De Palma.
AK: That’s right.
DC: They would all read his scripts and they would all kind of mold it into what we now know as Star Wars.
AK: That’s right. They can get together and go like, “No, don’t do that. I don’t think you should.” Fight about it and all that. All those things, you just need that feedback and you need those people that you trust. Because that also keeps you going.
SB: Once you know them and you understand their sensibility and you work together enough to understand that their voices are in your head a little bit. When you try something new, you can ask yourself, “Oh, I know Anthony would hate this. This is something he would hate. Why?” Then you decide, “Is it because it’s not just his thing? Or, “Is it because it’s bad and it won’t just pass the test?”
SB: Having a lot of people like that is tremendously helpful.
SB: Otherwise, you are on your own, and what you will do is, either just talk to yourself, or you will shut yourself down.
AK: That’s right.
SB: Because you sense something is wrong, but you can’t articulate what it is. You are afraid of what it is. Once you articulate what’s wrong, everything gets a lot less scary. It’s writing and thinking, “Something’s wrong with this but I don’t know what it is.” Then you eventually just stop. You just bail out and never get a draft.
DC: Right. Versus if you had a group of people. Those writing buddies have to be hard to find, no?
AK: Yeah, it can be, I was lucky enough to get involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and find people through that. I think whether it’s just taking a writing class and trying to find people that way… I think writing class just gives you deadlines to make you write. But you also meet people that are interested in the same thing and it might take you a while to find people but, like Scott said, finding people to fail with, I think is the key to all creative art.
SB: It is just the best thing in the world. It does take a while to find. There’s a lot of trial and error, but any communities of artists, sometimes even if they are adjacent communities. You might find writers in an acting class, if you wanted, or in a comedy class, or playing music with them. I mean, finding people that are creative and supportive and weeding out the odd underminer is very important.
DC: Great. Awesome. Well, on that note, guys, this was a real pleasure.
AK: Thank you so much.
DC: Huge congratulations on Beetlejuice. It’s so awesome. I’m so blown away and thank you for such a great time at the theatre. I’m definitely going to go see it again, multiple times.