BWW Previews: BYU Continues Rare Partnership with Frank Wildhorn, Staging Unique Version of WONDERLAND
BYU has developed a distinctive partnership with Frank Wildhorn.
First, students premiered the first full-scale production of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. And now indicating the composer's generosity, Wildhorn has allowed the theater department to stage WONDERLAND -- without the customary limit to the 2011 Broadway script. And he has traveled to Provo, Utah, to assist with the staging.
Despite his previous successes in New York City -- Wildhorn holds the accolade of three shows running simultaneously on Broadway, with JEKYLL & HYDE, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL and THE CIVIL WAR -- WONDERLAND closed after a rare one-month run.
New York Times' Charles Isherwood perhaps best summarized views of WONDERLAND, calling the show "peppily inspirational" and the book "displaying flashes of fresh humor ... but with a convoluted story line."
What is most praised is the score, reviewed as "terrific pop, overflowing with insanely catchy hooks, toe-tapping rock and swelling choruses that you couldn't get out of your head if you wanted to. Of the 15 songs from the show, at least half of them sound like hit singles, and they don't need any theatrical context."
BWW interview Director Tim Threlfall, BYU professor and head of the Music Dance Theatre program.
Remind us how BYU's association with Frank Wildhorn came about.
Through the booking by Jeff Martin [former BYU Arts Manager] of "Frank & Friends," I believe. We then had dinner with Frank, and he discovered all of his Broadway shows had a BYU alum in them. He pitched some of his new shows to us, and we were receptive to mounting THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.
Why did you select WONDERLAND for production?
1. Frank gave us permission to workshop the script ... which is an exceptional opportunity for the students.
2. The score has fantastic pop/rock songs, and we try to alternate the vocal genre of the music in our main stage productions, with INTO THE WOODS last year and WONDERLAND this year.
3. The roles are not bound by age. Really any age could play any of the roles and that is terrific. We even have a student playing Alice's daughter Chloe, even though she and the actor playing Alice are only a few years apart in age.
4. The ensemble in the show is actively engaged and very busy. We look for ensemble pieces that service a lot of students. Most of the ensemble actually have more stage time than many of the leads.
5. We like bringing something new to Utah, and that is not always easy with other theaters that have a much larger subscription base and longer runs. They are just more lucrative for the creators.
Tell us about the revisions that have been made to your staging since the show's Broadway premiere.
Unless you happened to be in Tampa about 10 years ago, you will not have seen this script for WONDERLAND on stage. It was the pre-Broadway libretto that was pretty much scrapped before the show moved to Broadway in 2011. I looked at the Broadway script, the pre-Broadway script and the pretty heavily re-written UK tour script, and I really thought the pre-Broadway script told the best story. It also has a storyline/theme of the reunification of a family ... and I thought that would resonate more with our Utah audience and the BYU community than the other scripts.
Our staging of the show is fairly simple actually, with a set that gives a strong nod to the Victorian setting of Lewis Carroll's books. But the costumes are pretty outrageous. I told Erin Bjorn our designer that I wanted über hipster, and she really delivered. The makeup and hair is also pretty out there and will be a lot of fun.
What excites you most about directing WONDERLAND?
We have five different choreographers for WONDERLAND! I've never done that before in a show I've directed and I'm pretty old! There is so much dance, we thought it would be a great opportunity for faculty in the Dance Department here at BYU. We have four BYU faculty choreographers, two are full-time professors and two are adjunct professors. We also brought in a younger rising star choreographer from NYC named Nick Palmquist. Nick did three of the numbers when he was with us for about a week early in the rehearsal process.
I have really appreciated the freedom as a director to shape this production as needed. Every actor and members of the creative team have really had the opportunity to leave their mark on this production. It is so great for young actors to not have seen a show before working on it and not really have any of the roles identified with famous performers. They can really bring themselves to the roles they are playing.
How does it benefit students to have direct contact with the composer as the production is staged?
We sang through the show for Frank when her was here and he gave us very particular information about what inspired each song and how he thought each should be interpreted. It was so helpful. I'm going to print a copy of his notes to the cast this week and give them to the actors just to remind them of what he said.
Anything else you'd like to add?
It's just such a great opportunity for students during their college career to have contact with a working Broadway composer. Frank has been wonderful and generous with his time and talents. I think he really likes spending time with creative and talented young people ... something those of us in academic theater can sometimes take for granted.