by Richelle Sutton, dramaturg
It’s not very often that productions get to work closely with the original writers, but we had a special opportunity to workshop this musical at Brigham Young University with Frank Wildhorn, the composer of Wonderland. Frank even came down to Provo for a week to work with the cast on the music and production. While he was here, I was able to pull him aside for an interview. Below is the full text of this interview.
Richelle Sutton (RS): We were wondering if you could elaborate a little more on the impetus of [the idea for Wonderland.]
Frank Wildhorn: Sure. You know, you never know where these things come from. This one has its own great story. I used to live on a big high rise, in the west side of New York in the city. And there was an elevator that was always out. Never worked. It was on the 47th floor or something like that and my kids used to ask me (this is when my kids were younger, the 90s) where does this go? Why is this always broken? So I would make up silly, stupid stories and one day I said, “Well actually, it goes to Wonderland. I don’t know how to get there, but it kind of goes underground and then it goes to the basement floor. There’s garden furniture, lingerie, clothes, and then you get to Wonderland.”And then the next morning at Atlantic Records. (I used to run a division of Atlantic Records) I thought, “Okay, Avril Lavigne as Alice. Bette Middler, or Aretha Franklin as the Queen of Hearts. Santana as El Gato, the Cheshire Cat. Luther Vandross, who I love, as the Caterpillar. I started casting it as a record, as I do in my life. And then one thing led to another and everybody around me said, “You know, go for it. This hasn’t been done. There isn’t a Wonderland kind of a thing.” And, of course, we made Wonderland a mom with a kid and we took a different tactic on getting in there. That’s how it started.
RS: That’s awesome. And we know that the Beatles songs and The Wizard of Oz, the Alice books themselves, they were big parts of this inspiration.
Frank: I think the Alice books is the place to start. But I would say my number one influence was the Beatles, Yellow Submarine and that art design, all the primary colors. It was just so colorful, so it was like Alice taking Lewis Carroll and making pop art out of it. Right? So something like “Lucy in the Sky” and all the imagery and metaphors in there would go great for that. I’m a big Tim Burton fan. So the whole Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands world especially, and Nightmare Before Christmas, right? My friend Caroline Thompson wrote. I thought “Well, that’s kind of the other side of the looking glass, that’s the dark side.” So like Tim Burton would be a cool way to go. And that means Danny Elfman as a composer. And a little Harry Potter – if you listen to the overture, I was definitely inspired by John Williams and his genius. And so it was really a combination of all of those things. You throw them into a pot and there you go.
RS: That’s really cool! Another thing; as far as we know, this is the first college production of the script.
Frank: It is indeed.
RS: What do you believe that the show is gaining by developing here at BYU?
Frank: Well, I think so much. First of all, it’s such an amazing experience for the kids. They’re put into a professional atmosphere from day one and there’s nothing in the world better than that. And they get a chance to work with me. I think that’s kind of invaluable for their careers and their memories. I think, because so many of the characters in the show are young or timeless, that [the show] lends itself to doing it in the college world. I have ambitions that, if the piece is successful, word will spread and it’ll become part of that world in the colleges, high schools, etc. We’ve already had so many requests for the material. Last year we did a big successful tour in England of Wonderland. We’ve also done it in Japan and next year in Germany. So it’s starting to find its legs around the world. I have, on top of that, this wonderful, strange relationship with BYU and Tim and Gayle (and my friend Jeff before that) and this is a continuation of this wonderful kind of adventure we’ve all been sharing for years now.
RS: What do you hope to see in this production here at BYU for Wonderland?
Frank: Well, I’m a songwriter. So my job always is to frame. I frame the artists. It’s not about me, it’s about the artists. I learned last night that we have this amazing cast of very young artists and I was blown away by the quality of not just their talent, but the way they’ve been taught. How prepared they were for me when I got here. Like today, I’ve been working with all the artists individually just doing subtle things and trying to build frames around their performances. I’m always excited to do that, especially with people I’ve never worked before, especially this young. So the whole the whole adventure has been a wonderful thing.
RS: Awesome, I love that. Thank you. There’s a lot of pop in your music, but in this script, there’s a lot of nods to a lot of different kinds of music, like “Go With the Flow”. It’s a very eclectic design. How does that fit into the dreamscape of Alice in Wonderland?
Frank: Well, the keyword is “dreamscape”. Once you enter into a dreamscape of anywhere, the rules are different. There are no rules, or the rules are whatever it is that dream happens to have. But once you enter the world of Wonderland – I mean to me, as a composer, very selfishly I said, “Okay, if I can do a show that’s going to be as eclectic as I can possibly be, it’s going to be here with these particular characters.” And so, with the different influences that I have myself, musically, and the characters and actors and singers that I was thinking of when I was writing the piece, it gave me an enormous amount of freedom that I probably have never had in any other piece that I’ve written. That’s a lot of fun. That’s a lot of selfish fun. And if you listen to the overture, there’s a lot of classical motifs in there, and a lot of cinema kind of stuff. It literally goes from there to pop rock to pop r&b, from the boy bands to the blues, to swing music, and other things. That’s just great to have the opportunity.
RS: Definitely! And it’s really fun to see all of those different nods to all these different types of songs.
Frank: Yeah. Also, I know I’ve done a lot of dark pieces. Danger and sexy, that kind of stuff. This is a joyful piece, there’s a joy in the whole adventure. It has to have a twinkle in its eye. In a way, it’s kind of what I’m hoping and I will always hope. Again, it gave me the opportunity to write with that kind of attitude and I hope that it comes across.
RS: What is your favorite part of the show, or favorite character, and why?
Frank: Well, it’s Alice because Alice is in the eye of the storm. Alice has to deal with enormous tough situations in her real life with real problems; real family problems, career problems, she was a successful writer, and she’s kind of lost the child in her. You do that when you’re a writer [and] you’re lost. In this adventure, she really loses her child – her real child. So by finding her real child, she gets to find the child in her. In fact, she couldn’t find her real child and solve the problems that she has in Wonderland without her own imagination and tapping into the child in her. By doing both we get to have the ending. The characters themselves are so bigger-than-life and so wacky and stuff, but she holds it all together. We need to care about her. She’s the rock. She’s the one that has the most at stake and she has to get it right or else. So we root for her.
RS: Right, I would definitely agree with that. Going again to the BYU audience – I think that part comes out a lot: finding your inner child. We kind of forget that.
Frank: The first little couplet that Jack Murphy wrote of the song “Finding Wonderland” is “we move too fast, we miss so much.” The whole show is in that because we take life for granted. We always are moving so fast, we’ve got to deal with the realities we deal with in this crazy, fragile world that we live in (especially these days in this country) and we miss a lot because of that. So, if there’s a lesson, it’s not to miss it. That Wonderland is in our own lives everyday. And if we can communicate that, especially to families, that’s a good thing. So I think there’s a layer of the show which I hope will come across and play very well.
RS: So if there was absolutely one thing that you wanted the audience to take away after they saw this piece at BYU, what would that be?
Frank: Exactly that: slow down a little bit, don’t miss so much, don’t take so much for granted, and try to find some Wonderland in every day of your life. That’s the very clear message of this show.
RS: Thank you so much.