Democracy Dies in Darkness

Theater & Dance

Forget the cliches. The director behind the new ‘Beetlejuice’ musical is known for breaking the rules.

September 5, 2018 at 9:00 AM

Director Alex Timbers. (Morris Mac Matzen/Stage Entertainment)

NEW YORK — What advanced form of Homo sapiens directs one massive new musical with their right hand and another with their left? For a better understanding of this rarest of theatrical breeds, please gather around for a closer inspection of the artistically ambidextrous specimen known as Alex Timbers.

There Timbers was in Boston earlier this summer, assembling the immense (and as things turned out, critically acclaimed) Broadway tryout of the stage version of “Moulin Rouge!,” reported to cost an eye-popping $28 million. And now, barely three weeks after that behemoth had its official opening, here Timbers was, shuttling between rehearsal rooms in midtown Manhattan, overseeing the initial stages of the multimillion-dollar musical adaptation of a second potential giant, “Beetlejuice,” which begins a world-premiere run at Washington’s National Theatre on Oct. 14.

Related: [Musical version of ‘Beetlejuice’ to debut at D.C.’s National Theatre]

It wasn’t so much the timing chosen by Timbers — who turned 40 last month and previously shepherded offbeat hit plays and musicals such as “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Here Lies Love” — as the timing choosing him. “Moulin Rouge” took five years to go from drawing board to the stage of the refurbished Colonial Theatre in Boston. “Beetlejuice,” based on the 1988 Tim Burton film that starred Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, has been in the works with Timbers in charge for eight years. And it so happened the two projects, with two sets of producers, gelled at the same time.

That’s showbiz, at least as it is experienced by a man with an extremely fast metabolism. Although he admits to having been “super fried” by the end of “Moulin Rouge!” — which is expected to move to Broadway during the 2019-2020 season — Timbers seemed freshly recharged on this weekday in late August. Alex Brightman, who starred in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of Rock” on Broadway and has been cast as the spectral trickster Betelgeuse, had just walked out of the studio on Eighth Avenue as Timbers excitedly pulled out renderings of David Korins’s set designs for the show.

Tony Award nominee Alex Brightman has been cast as the spectral trickster Betelgeuse. (Darren Cox/SpotCo/)
Sophia Anne Caruso will star as Lydia in “Beetlejuice.” (Darren Cox/SpotCo/)

“Everything I work on becomes a passion project,” Timbers said as he described the vision for the adaptation, with music by Eddie Perfect and a book by Anthony King, erstwhile artistic director of the comedy collective Upright Citizens Brigade, and former New York magazine drama critic Scott Brown. Passion was easy to come by in the case of “Beetlejuice,” a movie Timbers long loved, about a haunted house and the yearnings of its inhabitants from two dimensions: the netherworld and the mortal one. “I felt everything in its DNA was right for this medium,” he said.

The test of that notion places Timbers back on a perch to which he’s now growing familiar, as the point person of a big-deal show with lots of hope and money riding on it. Born in New York and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Timbers went to Yale, where he majored in theater studies and film, and developed a gift for irreverent inventiveness: On graduation weekend, he staged a “Brechtian” version of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” that winked at some of its more sexist aspects. After college, he and two fellow Yalies, Aaron Lemon-Strauss and Jennifer Rogien, founded the giddily modernist theater troupe Les Freres Corbusier, which created the hilarious “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant.” Later came “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which was directed by Timbers and went on to a Broadway run.

With a burgeoning reputation for exploding the cliches of musical theater, he made another career leap at off-Broadway’s Public Theater in 2013 with the exhilarating “Here Lies Love,” with a story set to David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s music, about Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Because of its kinetic format — the audience moves around a disco-like space with the musical’s events — it has yet to find a suitable space on Broadway. The only major disappointment on his résumé is the lumbering Broadway musical version of “Rocky,” which closed after six months in 2014.

He’s since come back strong, directing Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s comedy hit “Oh, Hello” on Broadway and riding a new wave of expectation with the Boston reviews of “Moulin Rouge!” Will “Beetlejuice” scare up more excitement? It was his notion, he said, to build the nexus of the “Beetlejuice” musical more strongly around Betelgeuse and Lydia, the emo teenager (played here by Sophia Anne Caruso) who moves into the house that he haunts. “They carry each other and carry the audience,” Timbers said. “You’ve got a girl who wishes she was dead and a demon who wishes he was alive.”

Timbers glanced again at the images by Korins of the set for the house, which will metamorphose throughout the musical, and pronounced himself pleased to be enmeshed in yet another big lift.

 “ ‘Beetlejuice’ feels like a completely different challenge than anything I’ve done before,” he said. “And I am always thinking, ‘What do I want to see on a stage in this version that would delight me?’ ”

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Peter Marks joined The Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Previously, he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.

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