Before you can say “Beetlejuice” three times, you might wonder how a high-stakes Broadway-bound musical will render the low-key effects and unpretentious style of Tim Burton’s 1988 cult-favorite haunted-house movie.
“It’s the first film where you really see his visual imprint,” says director Alex Timbers, in Washington getting “Beetlejuice” on its feet following his premiere of the new $28 million “Moulin Rouge” musical in Boston. “Do you try to make your own thing, or run toward it? We sort of did a little of both. We’ve tried to make the story itself as theatrical and emotional as possible. But, visually, we’ve tried to run toward Burton.”
“We’re both fans of Tim Burton,” set designer David Korins says of the visionary whose goth-comic range has extended from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and the first two “Batman” movies to “Edward Scissorhands” and the movie “Sweeney Todd.” “We wanted right away to say, ‘We get it, we know it, we love it, too’ — but also to make our own take on it.”
Timbers has been chewing for eight years on the challenge of making a musical of “Beetlejuice,” which starred Michael Keaton as a mischievous spook trying to help a recently deceased small-town couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) scare away gauche new tenants from New York (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones, with a dewy Winona Ryder as a teen so gloomy she can see the ghosts). The musical is finally onstage at the National Theatre, in previews and with its official opening Nov. 4. Broadway performances are scheduled to begin in the spring at the Winter Garden.
It’s a lavish proposition, reportedly a $21 million musical and a technological product that Timbers and Korins, explaining on the stage and then talking in a lobby upstairs about the project, say could not have been made five or 10 years ago. The bar is always rising for spectacle on Broadway, most recently with the magic of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (still running) and the elaborate cartoon vision of the underwater kids’ adventure “SpongeBob SquarePants” (closed in September). The ingredients “Beetlejuice” uses to whip up its eye candy include projections, puppets, illusions and special effects.
Yet, Timbers and Korins say, the show will cling to the “do-it-yourself” aesthetic of Burton’s movie, which featured stop-motion effects that, along with its deadpan wit, made the picture such a charmer. Their new technology mainly involves projections and lighting effects, not the physical structure, and not even the magic.
“A lot of it is illusions you would have seen in the vaudeville days — very simple, practical effects,” Timbers says of the show. “Jankiness” is the slangy, grungy word he uses to evoke the lowdown vibe.
There are three versions of the set’s haunted-house centerpiece — the simple original, the tasteless version overdecorated by the second couple and, ultimately, the version controlled by the demonic Beetlejuice. Yet the house is not something that flies onstage from multiple directions and assembles and reassembles before your eyes. Instead, it’s a single structure (redone three times) that rolls downstage on a wagon. “It’s kind of old-school in that way,” Timbers says.
“Very old-school,” echoes Korins, whose Broadway credits include the Revolutionary War-era “Hamilton” and the high-tech social-media-themed “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The house is also a canvas that Korins loads with tributes — “Easter eggs” paying homage not just to “Beetlejuice,” but to Burton’s body of work. He points to several elements of the house as possessed by Beetlejuice: The wallpaper, for instance, is black and flaking, dipped in sealants to give it a tar-like texture. A black chandelier has a vague batlike shape — an appropriate nod to the director of two “Batman” movies, but derived from a small carousel in the “Beetlejuice” film that briefly spins on the head of the gauche couple’s designer friend, Otho. Korins says he also picked up the shapes from the bow tie of Jack Skellington, the skeletal character from the 1992 animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which Burton wrote and produced.
The giant sandworm lurking in the netherworld around the house is embedded in the set’s walls — not the only time it’s seen in the show. “It’s a constant threat and pushing through the wall, breaking through,” Korins says. “It’s essentially like a boa constrictor. Beetlejuice has taken control of the house. He’s thinking about squeezing the life out of it.”
He points to a smaller detail, a lighting sconce that’s a menacing open jaw. “It’s modeled after the sandworm’s mouth, with little teeth,” Korins says.
Burton’s animated style is reflected in hand-drawn charcoal lines around the ceiling’s molding and in the white fabric of a couch that contains a hidden trampoline. (Korins won’t say why.) There are some direct appropriations, such as the monstrous, nine-tendrilled sculpture fashioned by Delia, the artsy half of the New York couple. “When this thing comes on stage, it actually gets entrance applause,” Korins says, the morning after the show’s third public performance.
Timbers gets philosophical as he talks about how rare it is for comedies to get what he calls “a ‘world creation’ treatment,” while noting that the show is not the kind of “immersive” experience that wraps itself around audiences. Korins says the do-it-yourself approach “holds true with the gags we pull off, and with the tricks. Everything is sort of hand-done.”
The tone of this “Beetlejuice,” with songs by Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, is being promoted as “ruder” and “raunchier” than the movie, which Timbers says is matched by the rough-edged set. (It’s PG-12: Parental discretion is advised, and 12 is the suggested age.) “There is a version, and it’s not hard to imagine, where the set is all LED walls or slick light boxes with pattern on it,” Timbers says. “But that texture and grit, and the danger and menace in the second act — that those deliver in a robust way is important. And as it relates to the netherworld, these are big, emotional ideas.”
Then again, Korins says, “a lot of the set function is less illusion than gags. Almost anything that happens magically is for a laugh.” He reckons the show features maybe 40 tricks — “but you really only highlight a certain number of them, because magic is fully embroidered into the whole storytelling,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘I’m going to tee it up: Here I go!’”
Like Timbers, Korins can imagine a different sort of “Beetlejuice” musical, a minimalistic, stripped-down affair in a black box theater and a set of just three chairs. That show probably wouldn’t be trying out at the National and heading for Broadway, although Korins points out that recent Tony Award winners have tended to be small musicals such as “The Band’s Visit” and “Fun Home.” “You don’t really know why things get to Broadway anymore,” he says.
“I know it seems like a lot of spectacle,” Timbers says. “But there’s the version we’ve chosen not to do, which is three times as big.’’
Beetlejuice, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect. Directed by Alex Timbers. Through Nov. 18 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $54-$114. 202-628-6161 or thenationaldc.org.