Of all the cult films I think have gotten the post-musical treatment, I think Beetlejuice makes the most sense to me. Probably because of how Tim Burton used music on one what was easily one of my favorite scores/soundtracks of the 80s. When I heard the film was getting turned into a musical produced by Warner Brothers, I was cautiously optimistic, but sadly I had missed the Broadway run. The musical had a well received, but rather brief run due to the disruption of COVID and ran on Broadway from April 25, 2019 to January 8, 2023. Luckily for me the show went on a US tour, which is where I caught “The show about Death” in Philadelphia at our very own Academy of Music, where the show will be running until June 11th.
While the basic skeleton of the story from the film is still there. A wholesome couple dies, who then naively hire “the world’s leading bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice, to help out when a new family moves into their home and soon realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew with Beetlejuice’s antics. Where Beetlejuice wisely differentiates itself is by swapping primary protagonists from the Maitlands, to Lydia Deetz (Isabella Esler). The musical essentially focuses on Lydia dealing with her grief and her trying to process the death of her mother, which for my money delivers one of the most heartwarming and morose numbers in the play ever “Dead Mom”. The show starts off at her mother’s funeral and that is what drives her character, who in this iteration actually makes it to the nether realm. That switch was a smart move, because the Maitlands story-wise really weren’t all that interesting and Beetlejuice; well a chaotic evil protagonist is probably going to lose some patrons once things get nuts.
While this version has been updated for a more contemporary sensibility, it’s done so while letting Beetlejuice drop a few more F-Bombs than his previous PG counterparts. Thinking about it now, it’s kind of wild that they got the F-word in a PG movie to begin with, but this was the 80s. Beetlejuice also breaks the fourth wall here and there, yes like Deadpool, while dealing out some very relevant jokes that felt clearly hot swappable depending on current events. It’s not an easy role, but one that’s flawlessly executed by Justin Collette. Lydia here though clearly shines with not only her comedic chops and her chemistry with Beetlejuice that was reminiscent of the 80s cartoon, but the more tender moments with her doting father (Jesse Sharp) and Lydia’s new wave life coach Delia (Kate Marilley) – who here is not married to her father, just yet.
The musical numbers here are tongue and cheek as you’d expect. Aside from “Dead Mom” and the Harry Belafonte tunes, the highlights for me had to be “That Beautiful Sound” a sound about scaring the life out of someone, “The Whole Being Dead Thing” the shows them and a song that has the ghost with the most getting us acclimated to the world we are about to enter. Also I have to mention “Creepy Old Guy” probably the funniest and most inappropriate song about a May, December relationship you will ever hear. The ensemble here is super charming and downright hilarious at times to the point I am pretty sure I missed more than a few things, because I was laughing at something else. As for the staging, it’s VERY Burton-esque and does a fantastic job at keeping the world as open as they can, while making it work on stage. The show does do some interesting things background-wise and interlude-wise using animated video projections that feel very authentic to the film and Burton’s art style and there is also a badass giant sandworm who doesn’t get enough stage time.
I hate to say it, I kind of liked the musical about as much as the film, even though it does offer up a redemption to Beetlejuice. But it does so at the cost of allowing all the other characters to have more developed arcs and not simply Lydia, who here feels less like a sketch of a goth kid and more like someone who is struggling with dealing with something rather than going through her Smiths phase. It’s the kind of breadth and depth that actually improved the source material by taking the themes and characters that might have been there the whole time, or just glazed over and building on them and allowing them room to grow – along with some damn catchy tunes. Beetlejuice is a damn near perfect adaptation, it manages to keep the chaotic spirit of the film intact, while adding some real heart. The show is current on tour and tickets are actually pretty reasonable, and you can get more info here.