TAMPA - Something in the final scenes of Broadway-bound "Wonderland -- A New Alice. A New Musical" was off.
Producers felt the dialogue didn't fully capture Alice's feelings about returning home after tumbling down the rabbit hole. They penned changes the next morning and tested it with the audience that night.
It's a rare but valuable luxury to retool a show outside the harsh spotlight of Broadway critics and blogging theater junkies. While headlines of injuries and cast changes have plagued the previews of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," Wonderland has evolved with little fanfare.
The $15 million musical is the first offering of the Broadway Genesis Project, born of Tampa's Straz Center for the Performing Arts, in a quest to create original material for Broadway. "Wonderland," which features a 25-member cast, the music of Tony-nominee Frank Wildhorn and costumes by Tony-winner Susan Hilferty, opens April 17 at New York City's Marquis Theatre.
"We started this initiative so we could become an incubator for important new work," said Judy Lisi, CEO of Straz Center. "We hope this can begin the process of Florida, Tampa, the Straz Center getting known, as a place where these new shows begin."
In the days before Broadway shows were multimillion-dollar undertakings with behemoth sets, producers regularly fine-tuned shows out of town before opening night. As that practice has become less financially viable, producers relied on previews in New York -- and that's given average audience members the power to blog their opinions and chronicle changes.
"You look at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark's first preview. It's unfair (critics) went after it. Of course things weren't going to work," Wonderland producer William Franzblau said. "Here we're away from the fray so we can change things...without the whole Internet lighting up the next day saying look what they did. There must be problems."
When Wildhorn first approached Lisi, he had four songs and a rough story line. She felt the modernized fairy tale's relatable plot would appeal to a wide demographic and helped birth it from concept to script to show. Wildhorn partnered with director Gregory Boyd and writer Jack Murphy to finish the show. Franzblau joined on to secure funding from private investors to take it to Broadway.
The Straz Center, with five theaters and a rehearsal hall, has 8,500 subscriptions -- one of the largest bases south of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The center also runs the Patel Conservatory with 50,000 students.
Straz spent about $4 million to produce the show when it premiered in Tampa in 2009. The center recouped almost half of the costs and hopes to generate funds for new shows if Wonderland is a hit on Broadway.
"So many shows go right into Broadway without having been tested. Sometimes without even a sensibility because they're New York-centric rather than something that's more expansive to our culture," Lisi said.
With Wonderland, Lisi says she found "a script that really speaks to people today, something they can really relate to, but also offered people something to take away."
Producers have deleted songs, nixed characters (including Humpty Dumpty) and recast lead roles. Kate Shindle ("Legally Blonde," Cabaret," and "Jekyll & Hyde") replaced Nikki Snelson ("Legally Blonde") as the Mad Hatter.
"Wonderland" is rich with Broadway veterans, but it's also attracted Florida transplants.
Wildhorn played high school football in Hollywood, Fla., and was a Fort Lauderdale lifeguard before taking off for California.
Janet Dacal, who plays Alice, also moved to Miami as a teen and started her career as a receptionist for Gloria and Emilio Estefan. She sang backup vocals for Estefan and John Secada before starring in the musical "In the Heights."
"It's really putting (Straz) on the map as far as developing shows outside of New York City," Dacal said.
Lisi says she's committed to getting "Wonderland" to "it's destination" before starting another project. Next time she wants a script that's "much more developed than what it was at this point. I don't want to go through that again."
To quote Alice, Lisa said birthing this show was a bit like doing "six impossible things before breakfast."
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