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Bring Back the Bioexorcist: Art and Commerce in the Modern Age




The fact that Beetlejuice the Musical is about a self-described “ghost zombie Jesus” truly is fitting (maybe minus the Jesus part). After all, this is one show that has risen from death or near-death more times than any other musical I can think of, and each time it’s seemingly been saved by the ever-changing landscape of internet culture and social media. I’ve described myself as a “recovering theatre kid” for a while, mostly due to my less-than-favorable experience with my high school theater department. But now as a real-life-professional-circus-performer-person, I’ve been gently reminded of the fact that musical theater was what sparked my passion for performing in the first place, and I truly wouldn’t be here without it. Darker, black-comedy style work has always intrigued me — in fact, The Addams Family Musical was the first thing that made me totally consumed with live performance. It’s no wonder that the 1980s cult classic tale of the bioexorcist made me perk up my ears toward Broadway once again.

I actually first heard of this show because of a YouTube Channel called “Wait in the Wings” headed by theater enthusiast Brendon Henderson. When I discovered him, he was telling the dramatic tale of Beetlejuice’s return to Broadway. Return? I thought, where did it go?? I’d been out of the theater-verse for some time, so I didn’t even know they’d turned the movie in to a musical. But dark themes? Strange 80s power ballads? Jazzy dance breaks by an undead demon trickster? I was in.

Naturally, given how interested I was in Henderson’s telling of Beetlejuice’s rebirth, I had to check out his first mini-documentary on the show’s origins and why it closed the first time. In the video “The Hectic History of Beetlejuice the Musical,” I learned that the show was headed by harmonious team of Eddie Perfect (composer) and Alex Timbers (director). Timbers is often considered a Broadway bad boy, and when he came into Beetlejuice, was just off the heels of directing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I remember this one to essentially be the Green Day musical American Idiot, but about a much less sympathetic protagonist. In contrast to his already-established counterpart, Perfect is an Australian composer who found his first big break in Beetlejuice. He had spent years in and around New York waiting for his moment, only to come ridiculously close without quite reaching the finish line a number of times. In a way, out-of-the-box perspective and winding career path was what made him the perfect fit. As Henderson put it, “He began to identify that Beetlejuice wasn’t a straight and narrow country road of a character, but rather was one that was filled with sharp turns and cul-de-sacs. Due to this, he couldn’t fit with just one musical style. In a sense, the way that Beetlejuice was able to span across different genres mirrored that of the zigzagging career path for Eddie Perfect,” (19:15 – 19:39). Furthermore, Perfect knew just how to connect with the angst of an edgy, teenage audience that would resonate specifically with the leading lady, Lydia. As Perfect said in an interview with Sheet Music Direct: “In my third and final year of study I wrote a song cycle for the first-year students based on their own experiences of tackling adulthood. It was that experience that changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life,” (2019).

When Beetlejuice opened on Broadway in April of 2019, it was met with largely mixed reviews. Frankly, it was a show for an audience much different from those attending (or critically reviewing) Broadway productions. Low attendance meant low income, and The Schubert Organization, who were landlords to shows at the Winter Garden Theater, had the chance to host a revival of The Music Man starring someone who may or may not have just recently portrayed the “greatest showman,” (Theater Mania 2019). Basically, Beetlejuice got Jackman’d.

Suddenly, though, the show started picking up steam in a way the team hadn’t anticipated: the short-form video/social media app TikTok. Presley Ryan, the then-16-year-old understudy for Lydia, started posting videos of herself following various trends on the app; she was doing dances, lip synching, and all that other Gen Z type stuff. She would also often post these videos from backstage in her costume. Pretty soon, folks took notice of Ryan and the show, and suddenly all things Beetlejuice had invaded the app. As Brendan Wetmore from Paper reported in 2019, “TikTokers everywhere have taken clips of songs from the Broadway musical…and started Beetlejuice-inspired trends of cosplays, duets, and general clownery.” Beetlejuice was really suited to this particular platform, too. As Wedmore continues, “The songs that have gone viral on TikTok thus far are earworm-y, sure, but they also lend themselves well to physical cues and micro-acting movements,” (2019).

Furthermore, EJ Dickson of Rolling Stone pointed out that the strong Gen-Z fan base that was exponentially rising thanks to TikTok was exactly who Beetlejuice was looking for all along. They write (2019):

“Beetlejuice is tailor-made to appeal to a Gen-Z audience. Beetlejuice…is sexually fluid and aggressively horny, with an antiestablishment streak a mile long. Lydia, the heroine… is a cynical teenage girl with a steampunk-inspired wardrobe whose approach toward the living world and its relentlessly clueless, middle-aged inhabitants could easily be summarized as ‘OK, boomer.’”


Alas, the Schubert Organization had made up their mind months before the newfound internet fame, and with Hugh Jackman’s immense bankability on the way, Beetlejuice had to go. It was set to close in June of 2020, but as we can all infer, it closed sooner than expected in March of that year without a ceremonious send-off.

In 2022, much like the demon himself, Beetlejuice was announced to be making a full return to the Great White Way. The cult following garnered by the show had only grown during the pandemic. Brent Lang of Variety explains how grandiose displays of affection from fans like Adam Lucas brought it back to life (2022):

“Sales of the cast recording surged and “Beetlejuice” afficionados engaged in elaborate displays of devotion: Lucas acted in and helped edit an online version of the show that was embraced and shared by the production and its cast. That gave Warner Bros., the musical’s backers, the confidence to push forward with remounting it at a new venue.”


The show performed its heart out for the die-hard fans, now at its new home in the Marquis Theater. But, sadly, it wouldn’t even have returned for a full year. Michael Paulson of the New York Times wrote that Beetlejuice would meet its end again, as many shows along Broadway would be closed due to “diminished tourism, fewer Manhattan office workers and an inflation-driven rise in production costs following the lengthy pandemic shutdown of theaters,” (2022). Beetlejuice gave its final performance on January 8th, 2023 to a thoroughly adoring crowd.

The good news is, this beetle is more like a cockroach with how difficult it is to truly stomp out. Beetlejuice is currently on tour across North America, and is in fact stopping in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood this coming July. A touring production may very well be a good thing for a show like this; not only is it freed from the financial stress currently being faced by resident shows in New York, but being mobile may actually bring it to the people who really connect with it and can’t afford to pick up and fly to Manhattan.

It’s truly fascinating to me how much goes into the life and death of a Broadway show. Show business is a business, after all, and if something isn’t making money, it won’t stick around for long. Yet here we are, in the age of the internet, where fans from all over the world are discovering, falling in love with, and ultimately saving a production all within the span of not even two years. There’s a lot we can say about modern entertainment culture that isn’t so flattering, but the power of fans really is a force to be reckoned with. I guess all you’ve got to do is say their name three times.


 

Works Cited


Dickson, EJ. “Can Tiktok Save ‘Beetlejuice,’ the Broadway Musical?” Rolling Stone, 19 Apr. 2022, www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/beetlejuice-broadway-musical-tiktok-trend-920184/.

Henderson , Brendan. “The Hectic History of Beetlejuice the Musical.” YouTube, 22 Apr. 2020, youtu.be/0Dmcq-HuBJg.


“Inside the Music of Broadway Hit Beetlejuice with Eddie Perfect.” Sheet Music Direct Blog, blog.sheetmusicdirect.com/2019/11/beetlejuice-eddie-perfect-interview.html. Accessed 24 May 2023.


Lang, Brent. “Left for Dead, ‘Beetlejuice: The Musical’ Scores a Big Broadway Resurrection.” Variety, 20 Apr. 2022, variety.com/2022/legit/news/beetlejuice-the-musical-broadway-return-1235237431/.


Paulson, Michael. “‘Beetlejuice’ to Close on Broadway.” The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/09/20/theater/beetlejuice-broadway-closing.html.


Wetmore, Brendan. “‘Beetlejuice’ on Broadway Is Breaking TikTok.” PAPER Magazine, 4 Oct. 2019, www.papermag.com/beetlejuice-broadway-tiktok-trend-1-2640689936.html#rebelltitem5.

“Why Is Beetlejuice Being Evicted from Its Broadway Home?”TheaterMania, 27 Mar. 2023, www.theatermania.com/news/why-is-beetlejuice-being-evicted-from-its-broadway-home_90301/.

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