Beetlejuice choreographer Connor Gallagher aims to please diehard devotees of the film – and welcome new ones into the fold.
Connor Gallagher knew fans of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s over-the-top 1988 movie, would have high expectations of the musical adaptation.
But the choreographer also knew there’d be audience members who’d never seen the source material, and he had to wow them, too.
Burton’s sweet but outré story concerns Lydia Deetz, an unusual teenager who’s grieving her recently deceased mother while also trying to get her dad to pay attention to her. The comically demonic Beetlejuice serves as both character and narrator. He breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience and enlist us in his plans.
With music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, the musical also features a couple, Barbara and Adam Maitland, who fall to their deaths early in the show. Beetlejuice coerces them to haunt their former home’s new residents – the Deetz family. The Maitlands aren’t very scary, so they prove unsuccessful at haunting.
It’s that combination of (light-hearted) horror and comedy that has endeared Beetlejuice to fans for 35 years. It’s not everyone who can look at grief with a sense of humor, but Burton manages the feat.
THE MOVIE ON STEROIDS
“I wanted to tip our hat to fans and welcome those who are new to the story,” Gallagher said. “We had to hit all the moments that made the movie special and memorable for so many – but also expand it for a new medium.”
The musical is not a rehash of the movie. “Very often with films adapted for the stage, you see a version of the movie on stage,” he said. “Here, Act I sticks pretty closely to the movie, but Act II feels almost like a fan-fiction expansion of it.”
It’s the already oddball movie on steroids, Gallagher said. “That’s something people really enjoy about our show: It’s unexpected. It’s not what we traditionally see in a movie adaptation.”
Gallagher’s biggest challenge: Adapting the material in a way that spoke to as many people as possible. “This was a cult film – even when it first came out,” he said. “And it was only Tim Burton’s second film [after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure]; we were really just getting to know him as a filmmaker.”
The movie quickly became known for its “visual style and kookiness,” he said. The musical had to retain the kookiness while saying something new.
Accomplishing that took a coordinated effort. “We’re dealing with ghosts and paranormal activity and people who can shape-shift,” Gallagher said. “It required an uncommon level of collaboration among the illusion, puppet, costume, and lighting designers and me.”
Besides being inspired by Burton’s colorful lunacy, Gallagher leaned into the musical score.
“The score is so eclectic,” he said. “Part of that is because Beetlejuice the character has lived through many decades and eras of music. So many shows I do sit squarely in one specific style. But this show has elements of rap and ska; traditional old-school Broadway; and vaudeville-type music.
The variety gave Gallagher a big playground in which to create.
Something else about the show led Gallagher to an epiphany. “Because the show is built on the actors’ personalities, the comedy they bring to the piece inspired the work. If you saw Beetlejuice on Broadway or have seen any iteration of the show, it’s always going to be a little bit different depending on who’s playing the roles. The actors bring so much to the show.”
FROM A HAUNTED HOUSE TO THE NETHERWORLD
“There’s a large, eclectic bunch of performers who take you on this journey to a haunted house and the netherworld,” he said. “We go to a bunch of places and introduce different characters throughout. It’s constantly changing and morphing, and that makes the show really fun for a choreographer.”
It’s fun for the performers, too – which is not to say the dances are a cakewalk. Gallagher challenges performers with some manic maneuvers.
“That Beautiful Sound” at the top of Act II may be the biggest hurdle they face. “It’s a stamina challenge,” he said. “Beetlejuice has cloned himself, and all the Beetlejuices appear out of nowhere, and they have a giant house party with Lydia. It’s the first time Beetlejuice and Lydia really connect.”
“These Beetlejuices are almost like The Walking Dead,” he added. “They can bounce off walls. They’re walking on their hands and doing extremely challenging lifts and singing all at the same time. And that number just goes on and on.”
“I’m a dancer, as well,” he continued. “And I’ve been in many shows where there’s a chorus-line aspect to the dances. It’s all uniformity, about blending in as part of an ensemble.”
This is not that.
This is about standing out. Gallagher asks the actors to bring their own personalities to their roles. It’s a rare challenge, he said – one that requires comedic chops as well as dance expertise.
“Beetlejuice is sort of a hybrid of stand-up comedy and improvisation,” he added. “So even if you come to the show multiple times, it will be a little different every night. That’s really special. I’m excited for audiences to experience it.”
If you’re not a fan already, you likely will be after seeing what Gallagher and his creative co-conspirators have conjured.
Sep 5 – 17, 2023 • Buell Theatre