Preview: Wonderland the Musical

When Frank Wildhorn's plan to make an album of Wonderland foundered, he turned it into a hit show instead. Kelly Apter talks to the composer about the UK tour, which starts in Edinburgh this week, while former Coronation Street star Wendi Peters explains the appeal of playing the Queen of Hearts
The cast of Wonderland the Musical. Picture: ContributedThe cast of Wonderland the Musical. Picture: Contributed
The cast of Wonderland the Musical. Picture: Contributed

It all started with a broken elevator,” says Frank Wildhorn with a smile, recalling the time he told his young children the lift in their New York apartment building travelled all the way down to Wonderland – if only it was working.

Today, the American composer’s re-working of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is a hit musical – but it took a circuitous route to get there.

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“I’m a record guy,” explains Wildhorn, “and for many years I ran a division of Atlantic Records, so my projects always started as records. My other musicals Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel began that way, so I thought let’s do Wonderland as a record.”

Frank Wildhorn. Picture: ContributedFrank Wildhorn. Picture: Contributed
Frank Wildhorn. Picture: Contributed

It became one of the greatest recording projects that never was. Avril Lavigne was lined up to sing the part of Alice, Bette Midler was the Queen of Hearts and Luther Vandross the Caterpillar. “But while I was working on it, Time Warner and AOL merged – which is considered the biggest disaster in American business – and Atlantic Records wouldn’t allow me to do my crazy projects anymore. So I said well, if I can’t make a record, I’ll make a show – and that’s what we did.”

The recording world’s loss was theatre’s gain, and Wonderland opened in Florida in 2009, moving to Broadway in 2011. Originally set in New York, the show has returned to its literary roots and is now “quintessentially British”, according to the creative team Wildhorn has assembled for the show’s UK tour.

Whereas Alice is more of a bystander in Carroll’s original, in this re-imagining she takes centre stage. Now an adult with a child of her own, Alice goes on a journey to Wonderland to save her daughter – and learns an important lesson about her own life along the way.

“It’s about the child within us all,” says Wildhorn. “And as the lyrics in the title song Wonderland say, sometimes we move too fast and we miss so much. There is a wonderland in all our lives, if we can just take a breath and notice it.

Frank Wildhorn. Picture: ContributedFrank Wildhorn. Picture: Contributed
Frank Wildhorn. Picture: Contributed

“I think it’s very important that by rescuing her own child, Alice discovers the child within herself. I hope that comes across, because for me that has always been the germ of this show.”

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Avril Lavigne may no longer be in the frame for Alice, but most venues on the UK tour will play host to acclaimed West End star Kerry Ellis in the lead role. For Wildhorn, the songwriter behind Whitney Houston hit, Where Do Broken Hearts Go, working with skilled artists has always been a key component of his creative process.

“If you put ten Broadway composers on a project, nine of them would go one way and I’d go the other,” he laughs. “So much of my history is working with great musicians – Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Natalie Cole, Peabo Bryson – and so my process is I write a song, that great singer comes to me at the piano and then we make what it’s going to be. That’s the opposite to other musicals, where you have to sing it exactly as it was written or you’ll get sued.

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“I think artists love that collaboration because I give them a lot more freedom. And when you’re working with great artists – like the guys in Wonderland – good things happen.”

Joining Ellis on the stage is Wendi Peters, best known for her long-running role as Cilla Battersby in Coronation Street. For Wonderland she’ll be puckering up her lips and sharpening her claws to play the Queen of Hearts. And watching Peters sing Wildhorn’s song Off With Their Heads at Manchester’s Palace Theatre during a pre-tour concert, Weatherfield feels very far away.

“Coronation Street is the longest thing I ever did,” says Peters. “I was in it for four years, and it got to the point where I thought I’m doing the same thing day in, day out – I need to get back out there and be creative.”

Wonderland provided Peters with the perfect vehicle, because although some aspects of the show have been tried and tested, both the script and some of Wildhorn’s songs have been re-worked for British audiences.

“I just love the process of seeing something on the page and thinking it through,” she says. “And it’s lovely that we have nothing really to copy – which as an actor you shouldn’t do anyway, but you can guarantee if you take on a role another actor has played, you’re going to have a sneaky look to see what’s there.

“But other than a couple of clips from Tony Awards, there’s nothing from Wonderland for us to look at, which I love because hopefully I can bring something new to it.”

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Although Peters calls herself “an actor who sings” rather than a singer, she can certainly belt out a tune. And since Wildhorn isn’t known for holding back the drama in his songs, they suit each other just fine.

“Frank’s songs tell a story,” says Peters, “and it’s an actor’s dream to have a song that has a beginning, middle and end that you can complete. When I first heard the Wonderland score I fell completely in love with it – it’s quirky, witty, and when I got to Off With Their Heads I thought it was just brilliant.”

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Despite the less than benevolent intent of that song, it’s impossible not to like Peters as she delivers it. But then after four years as Cilla Battersby, she’s no stranger to playing characters who are so bad they’re good.

“It’s always fun to play the baddie, but I think you have to find something within them that makes people like them a bit too,” says Peters. “My comedy heroes are people like Patricia Routledge, Molly Sugden and Peggy Mount, so I try to bring a little of those women into this. If you think about when Routledge played Hyacinth Bucket – she’s a monster but there’s a part of you that thinks she’s wonderful. So hopefully I can bring all those things together and the Queen of Hearts will be loved as well as hated.” n

• Wonderland the Musical is at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 20-28 January; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 16-20 May; and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 3-8 July,