Composer Frank Wildhorn says he got the idea for Wonderland when he and his then-wife, pop singer Linda Eder, lived on the 38th floor of a building on Riverside Drive on the West Side of Manhattan.
"One of the elevators was never fixed,'' says Wildhorn, wearing a New York Mets cap and munching a bagel during a break in a morning rehearsal at a studio off Times Square in early December. "It got to be a joke with us, and I said that the elevator actually worked, but it just went all the way down under the city to Wonderland.''
Wildhorn's musical, inspired by the Lewis Carroll classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, has retained that original concept in telling the story of a contemporary New Yorker named Alice who goes down the rabbit hole (i.e., the elevator of her apartment building) to have a dreamlike adventure in a wild and crazy realm called Wonderland.
Wonderland was on and off the drawing board for more than a decade, as the prolific Wildhorn worked on other shows, but it finally premiered just over a year ago at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, as the first production in the center's Broadway Genesis Project. Thanks to Wildhorn's catchy, hook-laden score, a talented cast and flashy staging, it did great business at the box office in Tampa and a subsequent engagement in Houston. But the show needed a lot of changes if it ever would have a chance to succeed on Broadway, which was always the goal.
Now a revised Wonderland — with a new subtitle: A New Alice. A New Musical — returns to Tampa for 14 performances beginning Wednesday at the Straz Center. These are considered previews in advance of the Broadway production at the Marquis Theatre. There, it's scheduled to begin previews March 21 and then open April 17.
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"Coming out of Tampa and Houston, it became very clear that the story had to be totally about Alice,'' says Judy Lisi, president of the Straz Center, who has been intimately involved with Wonderland from the beginning and continues to be a key voice in the production.
"There were too many stories before. Once they got that fixed, it brought a lot of clarity. Basically, they got rid of the clutter.''
"They'' are director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy, longtime collaborators of Wildhorn who co-wrote the book for Wonderland. Since at least the summer of 2009, Boyd and Murphy have been wrestling with the stage adaptation of Carroll's classic, which they took over from the original book writer, Phoebe Hwang.
"The first time the material was handed to me and Jack it had about 15 different stories,'' says Boyd, artistic director of Houston's Alley Theatre, where Wonderland went after Tampa. "Now it's Alice's story and she's like an arrow all the way through. We like to say our story is inspired by and completely unfaithful to Lewis Carroll. His story is about a Victorian child and the power of her imaginary world. Ours is about a modern woman with a particular problem, the problem being that she is alienated from whatever her true source is, and she has to find that.''
Since Wonderland closed in Houston last February, Boyd and Murphy have done rewrites that led to the recasting of a major role, the Mad Hatter. Also recast were Chloe, Alice's 10-year-old daughter who runs away to Wonderland with her mother in pursuit, and the Caterpillar. The Jabberwock, a character with a big second-act number, was eliminated. Whole scenes have been added (a tea party in Wonderland) and subtracted (a cocktail party in New York). Wildhorn and Murphy wrote four new songs, and several were cut.
Of course, what was cut can always be restored. Don't Wanna Fall in Love, a bouncy argument song for Alice and her husband, Jack, was in the score in Tampa, out in Houston and now is back in again, but in a different place.
"We wanted to make the story move more swiftly,'' Boyd says of the rewrites. "What I didn't like about our earlier iteration was it took too long to get to Wonderland. Now I think it goes like a shot.''
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The casting of Janet Dacal, the Cuban-American redhead who plays Alice, has always been central to Wonderland. She is meant to be an offbeat, soulful alternative to the conventional heroine, vividly different from the iconic John Tenniel illustrations for Carroll's books and the blue-eyed blond of Disney animation, and even last year's Tim Burton movie with Johnny Depp. But there were too many times in the Tampa and Houston shows when Alice made a rather vague, unconvincing impression.
"Now it's a much more tour de force-y type of part,'' Boyd says of rewrites to the character of Alice, who is having a crisis involving her work, her husband and her daughter. "In any version of Alice in Wonderland, there is always the danger of Alice being this passive character who just reacts to all the eccentrics that she meets. Now she's always occupied, always dealing with something.''
For one thing, the show's creators have tailored the part to Dacal, who spent several months last year after Wonderland was finished playing Nina, the leading female role of In the Heights, the Broadway musical in which she first made a splash in a smaller part.
"A lot of the changes happened because we discovered in Janet all her strengths,'' Wildhorn says. "She's a wonderful comedian. She's kind of kooky, like Lucy (Lucille Ball). She dances great. When she smiles, it's a moment, a powerful thing. After Houston, we said, 'How can we create more moments for Janet?' ''
In Tampa and Houston, Dacal's Alice never really clicked with her nemesis in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, the hard-rocking, villainous aide to the Queen of Hearts. "The development of the Hatter — who she is and what she wants — has been a part of the process for years, trying to solve that,'' Wildhorn says.
So the Mad Hatter has been refashioned into something more Freudian, a character who represents the dark side of Alice. It's one reason why the Hatter, male in the Carroll books and other versions, is female in Wonderland.
"One way to look at it now is to say that everything in Wonderland is an extension of Alice, and the Hatter represents the less attractive parts of her personality, the more selfish, self-obsessed parts of her,'' Boyd says. "The whole role has been redone. Two of the show's new numbers are Hatter numbers.''
Nikki Snelson, who had been with the production since its first Actors Equity reading and gave a high-energy performance as the Hatter in Tampa and Houston, was dropped from the cast. "It was a wonderful experience for me, and I will forever be brokenhearted,'' Snelson said on a Broadway podcast, the Broken Leg, adding that she was told that the rewritten role no longer had much dancing, which is her forte.
The new Mad Hatter is Kate Shindle, who was Miss America in 1998 and has played Lucy, the prostitute in Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde. Unlike Snelson, Shindle is a tall, statuesque presence, standing at least 6 feet in heels, and her Hatter towers over the 5-foot-5 Dacal's Alice. Shindle (who played Vivienne, the haughty law student in the musical Legally Blonde) has a sleek, ice-princess vibe that contrasts with Dacal's warm, emotive style.
Alice's relationship with her daughter was also problematic. In Tampa and Houston, Chloe was played by a young adult actor, Julie Brooks, mainly for practical reasons, such as finances (to employ a child actor, along with the tutor and chaperone required under an Equity contract, is more expensive), but Brooks looked old enough to be Alice herself. Now the role is played by 11-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar, and that makes a big difference in the mother-daughter dynamics onstage.
"It's very easy to be more compassionate and connected when it's actually a child,'' says Dacal, bonding with Sonenclar in rehearsal, giving the girl a kiss on the top of her head at the end of one number. "Having a little one really plucks at the heartstrings.''
Even the color of Alice's dress has been changed. "There were some people who felt that I was trying to call on the ghost of Little Orphan Annie, with the red dress and Janet's red hair,'' says costume designer Susan Hilferty. "That never crossed my mind, but I've changed it to magenta.''
Dacal says that all the changes in her role are "fantastic. I feel that Alice's journey is more complete now. She starts out in a much more agitated, frustrated place, trying to juggle the pressures of a modern woman, and then grows in a more spiritual way.''
Wonderland's fate will largely depend on Dacal, but she doesn't seem fazed by the spotlight during a break from rehearsal to pose for a photograph under the Marquis marquee on Times Square.
"This is a dream come true,'' she says. "I love what I do. I certainly hope this will take me on to other projects and open doors that I haven't had the opportunity to go through before. I honestly can't complain.''
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Bill Franzblau came aboard as executive producer of Wonderland after seeing the show in Tampa. It has been his job to "coordinate all the elements'' that go into a Broadway musical and raise money for the production, which will cost as much as $16 million. "It's basically dialing for dollars,'' says Franzblau, a onetime manager of rock bands whose previous Broadway productions include hits (Say Goodnight, Gracie) and misses (a revival of American Buffalo).
A pivotal development came last summer when the Nederlander Organization became a lead producer of Wonderland after its executives saw a workshop performance in New York that incorporated many of the changes. The Marquis is one of nine Nederlander theaters on Broadway.
"The Nederlanders are not only landlords, they're investors, and that gives us a lot credibility,'' says Franzblau, who considers the 1,611-seat Marquis the ideal venue for Wonderland. "It's all about real estate, and I think we're in a prime location, especially for tourists. We have more foot traffic in front of our marquee than any theater.'' He cites a study that found 63 percent of last season's Broadway theatergoers were from outside the New York area.
Franzblau has worked with Wildhorn in the past, and he doesn't seem especially concerned that his musicals haven't always fared well in New York. In 1999, Wildhorn had three running at the same time on Broadway — Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War — but his most recent, Dracula, was a flop in 2004. Reviews of Wildhorn shows have sometimes been scathing.
"I certainly don't want to see bad reviews, but audience word of mouth is more important,'' Franzblau says. "Two shows last year, revivals of Ragtime and Finian's Rainbow, got great reviews, and neither of them survived. Wicked did not get great reviews, and it's still breaking sales records seven years later.''
Wildhorn is poised to have two new shows on Broadway, with not only Wonderland but also Bonnie & Clyde, his musical on the Depression-era outlaws that just finished a run at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. He says Bonnie & Clyde is slated to open in New York in August.
Wonderland is one of a half-dozen musicals premiering in the winter and spring, including Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which has become infamous for its vast budget ($65 million) and mishaps during previews. With music and lyrics by Bono and Edge of U2, and directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King), it opens Feb. 7.
"We've been kind of flying under the radar'' because of all the attention Spider-Man's problems have been receiving, says the Straz Center's Lisi, who sees Sister Act, adapted from the movie with a score by Glenn Slater and Alan Menken and opening April 20, as the principal competition for Wonderland. Both are being marketed as family shows, though Lisi prefers to describe Wonderland's appeal as "multigenerational.''
The performances in the Straz's Ferguson Hall will be "exactly what people will see on Broadway,'' says Franzblau, who thinks the opportunity to fine-tune things away from the hothouse atmosphere of Broadway is an important advantage. "It's a lot easier to tech something in Tampa than New York. In New York, if there's a mistake, the whole world knows about it.''
Wonderland is a high-tech affair, featuring extensive video and projection by Sven Ortel and automated lighting and scene changes. Much of the scenery was built at the Asolo in Sarasota and the rest in New York. Set designer Neil Patel says that having previews in Tampa and then more previews in New York before opening is a luxury because "you have a chance to make changes. The eight-week pause between Tampa and New York is going to be invaluable.''
On the fundraising front, Wonderland has received a boost from the Tampa Knights, a group of investors from the bay area organized by Straz trustees Hinks Shimberg and David Scher. "They have raised almost $3 million,'' says Lisi, who expects the previews this month to function as an effective platform to complete the budget. "We have a lot of big people coming to Tampa to see the show. If they like it and decide to invest, we'll have more than enough and have to cut it off.''
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There is a sad note to the Wonderland story. In November, Lisi's daughter, Rachel, died suddenly at 39. "It's so terrible, I can't even think about it. I miss her. I'm so glad I'm so busy,'' she says. She attended the last week of rehearsal in New York before the cast headed to Tampa on Dec. 17.
“Wonderland is about a mother and daughter,'' Lisi says. "So many of the lyrics now have become so much more significant. There's one line where Alice says about Chloe that 'I don't know where you begin and I end.' I heard that line before, but now I hear it in a completely different way.''
Rachel, a box office supervisor at the Straz, was slow to attend Wonderland in Tampa the first time around. "She didn't want to disappoint me if she didn't like it,'' Lisi says. "She came the last day and just loved it. She was always my truth teller.''
Lisi's playbill bio ends with a dedication: "To Rachel, my beloved daughter, your light will always shine.''
The Wonderland company reached out to Lisi in sympathy and support. She cherished hearing from Dacal and Darren Ritchie, who plays Jack. "I got a lovely e-mail from Darren and Janet who said they were going to sing to Rachel every night.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.