Frank Wildhorn calls himself an ex-jock who writes tunes.
"There are these guys in New York who say they're a theater composer, and everything else is kind of below that,'' Wildhorn says. "I'm the opposite. I'm a songwriter. If you needed a song tonight, I'd write you a song.''
As for the jock part, Wildhorn, who turns 51 today, played football for Hollywood Hills High School in South Florida. "That's my real passion,'' he says. "I loved football.''
All this is typical Wildhorn, interviewed one morning over a breakfast bagel. He's a beefy, bearded guy casually dressed in Tommy Bahama sport shirt, track pants and a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers ball cap. Always smiling, he is supremely confident about his gifts, as befits a man who started out as a pop songwriter and has composed giant hits such as Where Do Broken Hearts Go for Whitney Houston and This Is the Moment from his first Broadway musical, Jekyll & Hyde.
Wildhorn's new musical, Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure, is being produced by the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. It premieres in the center's Ferguson Hall on Saturday and runs for a month.
The genial Wildhorn can be a touch defensive about the New York theater establishment, or at least New York theater critics. Despite his success there — in 1999 he had three musicals running at the same time on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War — his shows have received no Tony Awards, and the reviews have often been scathing.
The New York Times, Wildhorn's particular bete noire, dismissed Jekyll & Hyde as ''this plastic monster assembly kit of a musical'' and the score of The Civil War as "one bland current of generic pop.''
"I had a lot of shows around the same time, so I was constantly in the bull's-eye,'' Wildhorn says. "But as Leslie Bricusse (lyricist for Jekyll & Hyde) says, 'Be a duck. Let the water run off your back,' and in Leslie's case, buy another Chagall.''
Jekyll & Hyde, a cult favorite that ran almost four years, did not recoup its investment on Broadway, but it has made a fortune in productions around the world. Wildhorn's other shows have also been moneymakers away from Broadway, including a spate of musicals on romantic themes, such as Carmen; The Count of Monte Crisco; Rudolf: The Last Kiss; and Cyrano de Bergerac, which have been produced in Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Japan.
Now Wildhorn is back with Wonderland. After its run in Tampa, it transfers to the Alley Theatre in Houston for another month. The hope is that it will eventually land on Broadway or do a national tour.
Judging from the catchy, hook-laden songs on the Wonderland concept album released this month, Wildhorn has written a pure pop score, more like the bubblegum rock of Hairspray and Legally Blonde than the pop opera of Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
"This particular show lets me go back to my roots in the 1980s, when my bread was buttered by the pop industry,'' he says. "If a song wasn't infectious, it wasn't going to do anything.''
• • •
Wonderland is based on Lewis Carroll's two iconic books from Victorian England, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The idea of doing a musical on them was kicked around by Wildhorn and his colleagues for years.
"I remember somebody giving me a book on the artwork of Alice about 1996, and that's when the idea first came in,'' says Wildhorn. "The initial idea was that Alice hasn't been to Wonderland in a couple hundred years, so Wonderland is a mess, and they've got to get her back to fix it.''
He figured the story would free him to write a more eclectic score than most musicals have. "Because Wonderland is a phantasmagorical place, you can make your own rules as you go along. That gives me an opportunity to write in all kinds of styles of music but still be part of a tapestry. That's very rare. If you're in a certain place and time, as you are in most musicals, you're locked into one style.''
The appeal of adapting Carroll's stories is obvious from a commercial standpoint. Not only are they in the public domain but they are utterly familiar and beloved. "They're the most quoted literature, they tell us, besides the Bible and Shakespeare,'' director Gregory Boyd says. "Down the rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser. Off with their heads. Six impossible things before breakfast. All those phrases known by everybody.''
Of course, there is no shortage of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland adaptations, from the 1951 Disney animated film to ballets and operas to an album of music by Tom Waits for a play called Alice to Tim Burton's movie coming out in March. Boyd has seen a lot of them through the years. "At a certain point it becomes un-useful to look at the various versions,'' he says. "It's always useful to go back to Lewis Carroll.''
Boyd is a longtime collaborator with Wildhorn. In 1990, he directed the original production of Jekyll & Hyde at the Alley in Houston, where he has been artistic director for 20 years. Chronic theatergoers in the Tampa Bay area will recall Svengali, the Wildhorn musical that Boyd directed at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota in 1991.
Wonderland is a contemporary take on the Carroll stories — Alice is a children's book author in 21st century Manhattan — but its creators take pains to distinguish it from the source material. "It's inspired by Alice in Wonderland. It's dreaming of Alice in Wonderland. It's sort of ending up where Alice in Wonderland drove it. But it's not Alice in Wonderland,'' says Boyd, also co-author, with Jack Murphy, of the musical's book.
For example, Wonderland does not include nearly all of the crazy characters Alice encounters in the Carroll books. "Humpty Dumpty used to be in it, but he's not anymore. He slowed us down too much. He was too negative a character,'' Boyd says.
Google "Alice in Wonderland'' or "Lewis Carroll,'' and you will turn up sites that explore the books and their spinoffs from every conceivable angle. Alice fans are passionate. Boyd acknowledges that his production risks bringing down their wrath.
"I think for people who know the books well, even though they may be appalled that we're not doing the book, there are enough quotes or moments from the book that they will be delighted,'' he says.
• • •
One thing that sets Wonderland apart from other treatments of the Carroll books is its heroine. She is played by Janet Dacal, a willowy Cuban-American with curly red hair. Her appearance is a far cry from the usual blond, blue-eyed Alice.
"When you see her, you're not going to be misled as an audience member, because Janet doesn't look like a conventional Alice,'' says book co-author Murphy, also the show's lyricist. "Her very presence says something different. This is not your mother's Alice in Wonderland.''
Wildhorn and company considered other Broadway ingenues for the role — Lauren Kennedy and Brandi Burkhardt were both connected to the project — but they were knocked out by Dacal's audition last spring. At the time, she was playing Carla, the ditzy hairdresser's assistant in In the Heights on Broadway.
"We just fell in love with her,'' Boyd says. "She's a true triple threat, a great dancer, a great singer and a very winning personality. She has a modern young woman's sensibility.''
Dacal's potential as a dancer was important, since Wonderland choreographer Marguerite Derricks is one of the show's leading assets. Her credits range from flashy Gap ads to the Austin Powers movies to the recent remake of Fame.
"I was inspired by Cyd Charisse for Janet's character,'' Derricks says. "I had all these big ideas, but I didn't know what she could do. Then she blew us all away with her dancing.''
Dacal went to Coral Park Senior High School in Miami and has a communications degree from Florida International University. Before heading to New York to work in the theater, she was a backup singer for Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada and Luis Enrique in Miami.
Wildhorn likes to shape his shows to the talent. His ex-wife, Linda Eder, played the prostitute Lucy in Jekyll & Hyde, and until they divorced about five years ago, he often called her his muse. He describes Dacal's singing style as "something like Nora Jones meets Donny Hathaway.''
"Janet is a more rhythmic singer than people I've had before, and I took advantage of that in writing for her. There are songs I changed rhythmically and harmonically to suit what she does best. What intervals she likes singing, what her money notes are. When Janet sings a lyric, there's something behind it.''
"I'm so grateful to Frank, because he's adamant about me being me,'' says Dacal, whose favorite song in the show is Once More I Can See. "It's such a blessing to work with somebody who believes in you so much and gives you the flexibility to do your thing. It's mind-blowing that somebody trusts you so much.''
• • •
Wonderland has gone through countless changes during rehearsals, many focused on improving the book. Asked how many revisions of the book have been made, Wildhorn laughs. "What number we're saying we're on has actually become a joke, there have been so many. But you know what? Every show is like that. The book is an evolving thing. It always is.''
The book was originally conceived and written by Phoebe Hwang, but she was dropped from the job in May, to be replaced by Murphy and Boyd. "One of the problems was that when you start trying to embrace all these eccentric characters that Alice meets, the story gets lost,'' Murphy says. "This has to be a story about Alice finding herself.''
Alice in the Wildhorn musical is a New York woman in her 30s on the verge of a breakdown. Her career is floundering, her marriage is failing and she fears she is losing her 10-year-old daughter. Somehow, in pursuit of her daughter, she winds up in Wonderland beneath Manhattan, reached via elevator. There, people in her real life turn up as Carroll's characters, not unlike Dorothy's people from Kansas in The Wizard of Oz.
All this requires a tricky transformation that Wildhorn, Murphy and Boyd have labored to streamline in the show's opening. "The scene started as 23 pages long; now it's 12,'' Wildhorn says. "Every one of my shows, the openings have taken a long time to get right.''
"Getting to Wonderland has always been the hardest part of this musical,'' costume designer Susan Hilferty says.
The first song in the show, Alice's defining Worst Day of My Life, was about the last one written by Wildhorn and Murphy. "We always knew that song needed to be there, we just didn't have it until late,'' Boyd says.
Such is the nature of musical theater, which cherishes its tales of songs that became classics after getting churned out in late-night rewrite sessions. The only constant is change in the first staging of a new musical. "When we did Jekyll & Hyde in Houston, we did 62 performances, and no one of them was the same as another,'' Boyd says. "That could also be the case with Wonderland.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.