Following sold out seasons across the globe, the multi Grammy and Drama Desk Award nominated WONDERLAND receives its UK and European première in a brand new British production which plays here from 31 July – 5 August 2017.
It stars Wendi Peters (Coronation Street’s Cilla Battersby) as the Queen Of Hearts and leading musical theatre star Dave Willetts as the White Rabbit.
Based on the 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, this musical It was a story that for composer Frank Wildhorn started with a broken elevator in the building in which he lived. Back in rehearsals, we caught up with Frank and some of the cast and creative team:
“In the late 90s, I was fortunate enough to have three shows on Broadway - Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Civil War and so I was living in the Upper West side, in a big high-rise building. I have two sons, and the elevator up to our home was always broken and I was running out of stories to tell my kids about why they couldn’t fix the elevator. For some reason I told them that if anyone did manage to get on it, and take it all the way down, through Macy’s department store, you eventually got to Wonderland…
A good idea for a musical?
“I have always started every project by making a record, even my musicals start off as records, I’m a record guy. With Wonderland, I started to piece it together in my mind and I had envisaged Avril Lavigne as Alice, Bette Midler was the Queen Of Hearts and Luther Vandross was the Caterpillar - that helped me make a start. What happened in the time of putting it together was that Time Warner and AOL merged, which is considered the biggest business disaster in America. The stocks dropped considerably and so Time Warner had to sell off all their music. There wasn’t an option for me to do my crazy thing and make records anymore, so I just set about making Wonderland straight into a musical.”
The process of writing a musical for Frank Wildhorn is one that is perhaps very different to other composers. “If there were ten Broadway composers in a room, me being one of them, 9 of them would work one way and I work completely differently. I’m a self-taught musician… I don’t read, I just read the chords and for me, it’s all from the heart. So much of my history is working with black singers, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson. For me, the process is that I write the song, the great singer comes to me at the piano and we turn it into something together. With other composers, you may not get given that process and you’d have to sing it as its written – or else! I was always taught that collaboration was the best thing to do. I know the artists enjoy and appreciate that and you get the best results from them. You have to surround yourself with good people and the cast of Wonderland are just that.”
Frank is currently collaborating with the show’s UK production team to get the best out of the show for its audiences on the tour. Changes are still being considered before the rehearsals begin in December 2016 to the benefit of UK audiences and the original story. Director Lotte Wakeham explains: “The Broadway production was set half in New York and half in Wonderland. Now, for the UK tour, we’re going back to the original story and it will be UK based, with the relevant look and sound. We’re still making some changes to the script and we’re excited about it. Since the source material is so quirky and quintessentially British, this version of the show will be exactly that too!”
Grace Smart, the costume designer for Wonderland is also working to match director Lotte’s vision; “I’ve been looking at a lot of the UK’s eccentric celebrities so that we can keep the British feel yet keep true to the original story. I have been inspired by the original illustrations and other incarnations of the story since but I’ve also tried to give it a fresh angle too.”
The cast are also able to add their own interpretation of the characters and are invited to be just as creative as the ‘Creative Team’ working on the physical production side of the show. Wendi Peters plays the Queen Of Hearts: “My job as an actress is to be creative. I don’t like doing anything for too long – I played Cilla Battersby in Coronation Street for four years, the longest time I’ve ever worked on the same role. I loved it but it got to that point where I wasn’t doing anything different and I knew I needed to create something new and get back out there to do theatre again, where I’d learnt my craft. I just love the process of reading something off the page and thinking through how I’m going to best tell the story.”
“In the case of Wonderland we’ve got nothing really to copy and that’s lovely. I don’t think that any actor should ever copy what’s been before, but of course if the material’s out there you’re going to have a sneaky look at what’s been done previously. Apart from a performance by the Broadway cast at the Tony Awards there’s little else online and I love that because I can think through the character myself and be my best interpretation of the role and hopefully bring something new to it.”
“With the Queen Of Hearts, there are so many different versions of her. The one that always stands out for me is the Disney film and that’s probably the image that springs to mind for most people. There will be a little bit of myself in the character and I think that for any actor, to play the role truthfully there must be a little bit of their own self in the character. I don’t take anything too seriously so hopefully the audience will find it a lot of fun. It’s always fun to play the baddie, but you must find something within them that does make people like them a little bit. I’d like to think that there will be a little bit of all my comedy heroes in my Queen Of Hearts. I love Molly Sugden, Peggy Mount and Patricia Routledge who played Hyacinth ‘Bouquet’ Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances – you can’t help but love Hyacinth, she’s a monster but part you that says ‘oh isn’t she wonderful!’”
Equally, for Dave Willetts who plays the White Rabbit, rehearsals are an enjoyable time to develop and create characters. “The most exciting part of any show for me is the rehearsal period. The creativity of developing your characters and trying something together as a team is great. Some musicals are set in stone and have been that way for years, you’re told the way they’re done and that’s the way you perform them but Wonderland allows us to be creative, we can make mistakes and develop the piece – this won’t be a revival of any kind, it’s essentially a new creation and Frank is allowing us all to be part of that. What’s great about Frank is that within his work he actually writes stories. The songs allow the actor-side of the performers to tell the story. The songs in Wonderland that we’re currently learning allow us, as a cast to tell the story, and act through song and that’s so lovely.”
Dave will be finding the child within himself during rehearsals, and for Frank Wildhorn that plays a big part in the show. “The opening lyrics of my song ‘Finding Wonderland’ are ‘we move too fast; we miss so much’ and it’s true - there is a Wonderland in our lives if we could only take a breath and notice it. It all starts with the child within us all and I think it’s very important that Alice doesn’t lose that. In this particular adventure, she has to rescue her own child and in doing so, she rediscovers the child within herself. I sincerely hope that comes across and that audiences feel that too.”
In her direction, Lotte Wakeham is focusing on putting Alice’s relationship with her daughter at the forefront of the story. “We see a grown-up version of Alice and she has a daughter in this version. It’s very much about the mother/daughter relationship, they go on a huge adventure through the looking glass into Wonderland. There’s lots of well-known characters such as the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar and the Mad Hatter. Frank’s taken the original Lewis Carrol story and done something really exciting with it. In the original, Alice doesn’t do very much – she’s essentially a tourist in Wonderland and we’ve looked at how we can make the heroine of our show go on a great, energizing adventure with her daughter and with the audience.”
A fresh new take on the vision of Wonderland is exciting for set designer Andrew Riley: “It’s about looking at what has been done before and thinking about what we can bring to the whole ‘Alice In Wonderland’ world. It’s a very episodic story, she goes to a lot of locations and it’s about creating a contemporary visual that people will recognise today but also I don’t want to give too much away because when people do see it, there’ll be a lot of surprises.”
For Lucie Pankhurst the show is proving to be a delight to choreograph. “We’ve got some wonderful dancers and I really mean that. We auditioned in London and there is a lot of talent there. They all have beautiful voices too so they can do it all. I’m hoping to cover lots of dance styles to keep telling the story – Wonderland is like Christmas for a choreographer!”
No matter what part they play in the creation of the production, everyone from the designers, to the producers and the cast are all working to tell the story in the best way possible. It’s made easier by Frank Wildhorn’s music. Wendi Peters remembers the moment she first heard the song she’ll be singing in the show. “Frank’s songs tell a story. I consider myself as an actor who can sing and it’s an actor’s dream to have a song that has a beginning and middle and an end – you can really tell the entire story and feel like you’ve completed something. When I first heard the Wonderland score, I just fell completely in love with it. It’s quirky, it’s witty and when I got to the Queen Of Hearts’ song ‘Off With Their Heads’ I just thought ‘yes’, I need to do this – it’s a privilege.”
Frank Wildhorn considers there to be two types of music. “The two types of music are great and not so great. The whole idea is to listen to everything as much as you can. Whatever you’re interested in, always be a student, keep learning. I find that my biggest successes are those where whatever community I’m writing for become proprietary of it. I hope the audiences in the UK take Wonderland as theirs, it’s their show.”
WONDERLAND is now on sale for performances between 31 July – 5 August 2017.