'Addams Family' is weird onstage, and that's the point

Charles Addams, the cartoonist whose "family" moved from the pages of The New Yorker to TV screens to Hollywood to Broadway, was not a man to overstate a point.

In one cartoon, Gomez, Morticia and the kids gaze out the window of their gloomy old mansion at a horrific storm. As a gentle smile plays on his lips, Gomez says it's "just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive."

These cartoons make their points swiftly. That's typical of cartoons by Addams (1912-1988). Even describing them feels ridiculously clumsy. They exist perfectly, and only, in their black-and-white moment.

This, observes Jerry Zaks, is exactly the problem with turning Addams cartoons into something else. A Broadway musical, for example.

The creators of the musical - which opens in Charlotte Tuesday at Ovens Auditorium - said from the beginning that the show would take its inspiration from the cartoons. It would not be based on the 1964-66 TV show that starred Carolyn Jones and John Astin, nor the 1991 movie that starred Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia, nor the other movies, TV shows and cartoons. (The TV show's catchy "snap, snap" theme song is, however, part of the Broadway score. It wasn't originally, but the audience insisted on it.)

But the cartoons provide something less specific than, for example, a story, explained Zaks, the production supervisor.

"Each cartoon is a single image," he said. "There's no story, no beginning, middle and end. But the cartoons inspire us to create a story. The people who made the movie faced the same challenge, except we faced it with singing and dancing."

Zaks, 65, got involved relatively late in "The Addams Family" game. A former actor, he played Kenickie in the original Broadway production of "Grease" and toured with Zero Mostel as the tailor in "Fiddler on the Roof."

In 1986, he won a Tony in direction for "The House of Blue Leaves." Since then, he's won four more, plus a host of other honors; his Broadway shows have ranged from "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" to "Sister Act."

So it makes sense that he was brought on as a "creative consultant" when it became clear, during Chicago tryouts, that the show was in trouble.

It had a talented team, including composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa ("The Wild Party") and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys"). The directors, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, remained. But, Zaks said, "there were too many moving parts."

The show was reworked substantially, a process that is still going on. Some New York reviews were harsh, but audiences embraced the show, which has continued to run since it opened in April 2010. A closing date has been set for the end of this year.

"The biggest change," Zaks said, "is that we have created a conflict between Morticia and Gomez that we did not originally have."

"The Addams Family" hinges on a venerable device. The child of an "unusual" family has fallen in love with the child of a "normal" family and just hopes the meeting of the parents will go well. Of course, there's no chance of that. In this case, the bride-to-be is the daughter, Wednesday, now about 20 years old. But her father is on her side - or wants to be. Therein lies a problem.

The latest version of the musical emphasizes one point above all: marital honesty.

"Gomez keeps a secret from his wife because he also wants to make his daughter happy," Zaks said.

"That's a profound situation, one most parents or married people can identify with. And it makes the relationship between Gomez and Morticia as important as anything in the show.

"Yes, their world is inverted. But unless we can relate to them as human beings, unless we can recognize ourselves in them, what have we got?"

Not a show, he suspects. Maybe not even enough for a one-line cartoon.