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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: ‘For the Dublin production they said give us everything you have. And we did’

Broadway veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on the complex process of writing new songs for Bord Gáis Energy Theatre’s Christmas show

The story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is so widely loved and so familiar, six decades after Roald Dahl wrote his book, that everyone knows the fates of Charlie Bucket’s sweet-toothed companions when they visit Willy Wonka with their golden tickets. Augustus Gloop lands in the chocolate river, Veruca Salt falls down a garbage chute, Violet Beauregarde is turned into a blueberry, and Mike Teavee is shrunk to cathode-ray-tube dimensions.

Since then the tale has become two films and a scrumdiddlyumptious musical in the West End and on Broadway. At the start of December – just as a third film arrives in cinemas – a new production of the stage show lands in Dublin for its Irish premiere, as the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre’s Christmas family show.

The sugar-coated spectacle is following in some record-breaking footsteps. When Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in London a decade ago, under the direction of Sam Mendes, it took more money in a single week than any other theatre show in the city’s history, with a box-office haul of more than £1 million. And the success was more than financial: the show subsequently won two Laurence Olivier Awards.

Alongside kind-hearted Grandpa Joe and a more twinkling version of Willy Wonka than those played on screen by Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp (the former in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the latter in Tim Burton’s film of the book, from 2005), Charlie is played in the Dublin production by a rotating cast of young actors. His adventures as he travels through Wonka’s factory play out on an extravagant, junk-strewn, steampunk-influenced set – roboticised Oompa-Loompas move the show away from some of Dahl’s more questionable storytelling decisions – accompanied by such toe-tapping songs as the punkish When Veruca Says and The View from Here, an appropriately soaring number for a glass-elevator ride.

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Some of the music is from earlier productions; much of what Irish audiences will hear has been written by the Broadway veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The pair, whose film work includes the songs and score for Mary Poppins Returns – featuring their Oscar-nominated The Place Where Lost Things Go – were based in England while they worked on the original stage production. “Growing up, Dahl wasn’t part of my education. And I didn’t have a fondness for the movie,” Shaiman says, referring to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. “But we were in London for months, and the audience was very attuned to the books as opposed to the movies. They guided us.”

Shaiman’s feelings about that 1971 film – loved by many grown-up fans and routinely welcomed as a bank-holiday-television classic – may hint at the complicated process the pair had to embark on when they began to write new music for the stage show. Dahl disliked the movie and, despite its Oscar-nominated score, was no fan of its songs. “There’s a famous letter that you can find online that Roald Dahl wrote to the film-makers saying, ‘Well, now that the movie is open, can we get rid of those songs?’” Shaiman says. “We are fans of the songs. But the estate definitely said to us, ‘We want to start fresh.’ And Scott and I thought, well, since the Tim Burton movie was a big success and it didn’t have the songs, that shows people were accepting of change. We were wrong in that.”

He explains what he means. “We thought the best song we wrote for the show in England was a song called Simply Second Nature, which describes what it’s like to be an artist. But we foolishly put it in the spot where Pure Imagination is in the movie. The song would start and you could feel the audience deflate. And Scott and I love for an audience to be happy.”

Wittman evokes Fredo Corleone’s fateful boat trip in The Godfather II for what happened next: “We went out to Sam Mendes’ place in the country, and he took us for a walk. And he said everyone wants us to put Pure Imagination into the show.”

“We understood, but we knew that it was that one little crack that would then turn the show into something different than the one we started doing,” Shaiman says. “But you can’t deny, you know, the songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are gorgeous, and the nostalgia for them is so intense...

“When the show went to Broadway it was more than Fredo from The Godfather,” he adds, laughing. The changes they made for that production were “all three Godfather movies at once. We’ve kept revising. What’s happening in the production coming to Dublin is that they said, give us everything you have. And we did.”

By now Shaiman and Wittman are accustomed to the slings and arrows of their calling. The pair met in New York in the 1970s, when they were fixtures in the East Village scene, notably at Club 57, a hub for such artists as Keith Haring, Fab Five Freddy, Madonna, The B-52s, The Cramps, Cyndi Lauper, RuPaul and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their first musical collaboration, created on a whim, was a Barbie musical.

“I would liken it to Paris in the 1920s,” Wittman says. “No one had any money. We were just creating. There was no means to the end. It was a fearless environment – put it out there. If I had one thing that my young self should tell the old person, it’s not to be so frightened. That’s what I learned there. It was a great, great time in New York, even though the city was in a desperate way. But, creatively, it was quite wonderful.”

Shaiman has also composed music for such movies as When Harry Met Sally, Sister Act and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (for which he received a second Oscar nomination, for Blame Canada, which he wrote with Trey Parker). Wittman has directed concerts for such artists as Bette Midler and Dame Edna Everage.

They’ve enjoyed further success together as co-writers of Bombshell, a musical about Marilyn Monroe set within the NBC television show Smash. And now, following hot on the high heels of another Monroe-adjacent project, the multiple Tony award winner Some Like It Hot, Smash is going to Broadway.

“We didn’t really ever think that Smash would be a musical,” Shaiman says. “But now I can say it out loud: Smash is definitely coming to Broadway. We just had a very successful reading. We did a two-week session and got to rehearse for the cast. And they all seem very excited by it. We have great writers who took another swing at what it would be like to look at people creating a musical about Marilyn Monroe. Only this time our writers have taken a much more humorous look at it, which is something that was always lacking in the TV show. Because even when things are going horribly behind the scenes of a musical, you are with people that you are laughing with.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin from Tuesday December 5th to Sunday January 7th, 2024