PROVO — By the numbers, “Wonderland” was a flop.
As a lead in the Broadway musical, Danny Stiles wasn’t oblivious.
“You check the Playbill sales totals and the percentages. You can see when you're not selling as well as you should be,” said Stiles, a Brigham Young University theater graduate.
Despite what he saw online, Stiles remained optimistic. The Broadway producers had encouraged the cast, telling them they would work hard to keep the show running. And then a couple of days later, the bad news came: The show would be closing at the end of the week.
Frank Wildhorn’s “Wonderland” — a telling of “Alice in Wonderland” that places Lewis Carroll’s story in present-day New York — ran on Broadway from April 17, 2011, through May 15, 2011, for a total of 33 performances.
It was a flop, but Stiles was on top of the world. “Wonderland” had given him his first Broadway credit, and from there, he landed roles in Broadway productions of Alan Menken’s “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith” — all within a year. The latter’s shelf life was much like “Wonderland,” but again, Stiles rose above the criticism.
“I may have been in two Broadway flops — but I was in two Broadway flops!” he said.
“Being on Broadway had been a dream of mine for years and years. … A Broadway career that started at 40, for a show that didn’t last … long. But it happened. (I) got there. … I had my own bow, I had my own storyline," he said. "Regardless of where (‘Wonderland’) went from there, that was a personal moment for me that was really special.”
It’s been almost eight years since his Broadway debut, and now Stiles will revisit “Wonderland” — this time as a spectator — when his alma mater BYU premieres its revamped take on Wildhorn’s fantastical production Jan. 24-Feb. 2.
If it goes well, the production could go on to become a regional theater piece. But beyond that, could BYU's reworking of the musical be enough to put it back on Broadway?
"We'll see what we've got at BYU, and then we'll go from there,” said Wildhorn, who will be in attendance for opening night, along with Stiles.
‘It’s all up to BYU’
“There are many wonders in ‘Wonderland,’ chief among them: Who thought this musical was ready for Broadway?”
Wildhorn doesn’t pay his critics much mind, but to that opening sentence of the Associated Press review of “Wonderland,” he does have a response: His musical wasn’t ready.
“‘Wonderland’ was set to go into Broadway in a much smaller theater at a later time. And unfortunately what happened, given just the way Broadway works, is a much larger theater than I wanted to be in opened up early and the schedule got changed and we had to kind of rush in,” Wildhorn said. “I like my stuff in smaller theaters that have an intimacy, (and) I wish that we were more set up and ready to go financially (in terms of) advertising and marketing.
“(But) I say in the same breath, I am also very grateful that the theater owners gave me a chance to come into Broadway with it. … Broadway gave it the life that it now has around the world.”
Now BYU's Department of Theatre and Media Arts is about to breathe new life into the production. Wildhorn didn’t hesitate to hand his musical over to BYU students for a theatrical overhaul. In his eyes, the university’s theater department proved its worth with the successful U.S. premiere of his musical “The Count of Monte Cristo” in 2015.
Wildhorn — well-known for composing Whitney Houston’s hit song “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and musicals like “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel” — visited the university last fall, when the students began workshopping “Wonderland.”
“It’s amazing, this wonderful relationship I seem to have with my music, my work and the Utah audiences,” he said, noting “Scarlet Pimpernel’s” popularity in Utah. “It’s been going on for a while now and I’m just so grateful for it, and I hope it continues on.”
Wildhorn hopes BYU’s revamping of “Wonderland” will find the same success “Monte Cristo” did four years ago.
“It’s all up to BYU. BYU’s an amazing school and the music (and) theater departments are fantastic,” he said. “The talent there is incredible. … I can’t wait to see what (they’ve) come up with.”
It hasn't been an easy journey. In addition to creating their own set and costumes, director Tim Threlfall estimates BYU has changed around 100 lines of the “Wonderland” script. Studying “Wonderland” took Threlfall and his students down the rabbit hole: They weren’t just working with one script — they had a conglomeration of scripts from the production’s pre-Broadway workshops and performances in Tampa, Florida, and Houston from 2009-2011, and a U.K. script from its post-Broadway run in 2017.
It was a lot to absorb, but for Threlfall, one thing was clear: The Broadway script, ushered in by Broadway producers, did not do the story justice.
“The Broadway (script) was really reliant upon a lot of bells and whistles, but I don’t think it told as good of a story,” Threlfall said. “With (the pre-Broadway scripts), you can follow the story of (grown-up) Alice, who’s down on her luck. … She finds herself in Wonderland and it restores her childhood dreams and it restores her creativity. … And it restores her family as well. There’s redemption in it and there’s the resurrection of a family. It’s more potent I think than the one they did on Broadway — and much more appropriate for our Utah audience and for our BYU audience.”
The Broadway business
To this day, Stiles can’t help but wonder if the outcome of "Wonderland" on Broadway would have been different had Broadway producers gone with an earlier script — a story he had grown to love after auditioning for Wildhorn and getting cast on the spot.
“I understood that maybe we were trying to attack it more on a commercial level (with) the Broadway script,” he said. “(But an earlier script) could’ve worked.”
But script speculations aside, “Wonderland” was against some tough odds from the get-go. The production premiered during the same time as “The Book of Mormon” musical — a show Stiles lumped with what he called other “cash machines” like “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“(Those shows) become part of the staple of the fabric there, so it becomes a little bit more difficult for smaller projects that are lesser-known to succeed,” he said. “That’s a big lesson that I learned about Broadway: It’s not just about having a great product — it’s a business. … The show has to be in place when the theater is available. That takes away your time to perfect things, to work on things.”
According to Threlfall, it takes about 10 years for the average Broadway musical to open on Broadway. That process sometimes speeds up when it’s a well-known composer.
“Frank … is one of only two composers who's had three Broadway musicals running simultaneously,” he said. “But he’s also had his share of ones that haven’t been hits and 'Wonderland' was certainly one of those. … Sometimes that 10-year process … might seem forever, but the kinks get worked out and the story gets told better by the time it gets there.”
Although its Broadway run was short-lived, in the eyes of the people involved, “Wonderland” had its successes. According to Threlfall, Wildhorn’s infectious pop-rock music alone should’ve been enough to keep the production running well past its early expiration. And each night, when Stiles took his bow on the Broadway stage, he could feel the love of supporters.
“We connected to a lot of people. We had a fan base that came to see the show as much as they could,” Stiles said. “We had a beautiful show … and we had a great family there. We really loved each other. So when all those things are going that way and you believe and you’re so close to the project, it’s hard to see why other people don’t embrace it as much as you do or see the value in it the way that you see it.”Comment on this story
As BYU prepares to stage its reworking of “Wonderland,” Threlfall and his cast hope people will see the value in it and believe in it as much as those who performed it 33 times on Broadway did — and as much as Wildhorn still does.
“I’m a person who wakes up and I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Wildhorn said. “(‘Wonderland’) has this life, and I’m very proud of that.”
If you go …
What: BYU presents “Wonderland”
When: Jan. 24-Feb. 2, dates and times vary
Where: de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU, Provo
How much: $18-$26