80’s TV Musical Alice in Wonderland Comes to 54 Below: You Aren’t Going to Want to Miss This!
If you had the pleasure of growing up in the 80s, then you know that things were big, colorful, and full of the “cheese” factor. This was a good thing. Anything worth doing was worth over-doing. Made-for-TV movies were often epic and star-studded events, offering a parade of popular performers (past and present) in sprawling entertainments that amazed and delighted. Among these was the deliciously campy and endlessly melodic two-part television musical of Alice in Wonderland (1985) produced by Irwin Allen.
Irwin Allen is affectionately known as the “Master of Disaster” for producing two of Hollywood’s most-famous disaster films, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Both were enormously popular and featured casts brimming with old and new Hollywood talent. In the 80s, Allen turned to Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s tales: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass for inspiration, assembling a cast of screen, television and Broadway talents to play the myriad quirky characters in Carroll’s fantasy romp.
As if this two-nights of a thousand stars weren’t enough to capture the interest of the musical-loving child of the day, this was, after all, to be a musical and the score was just as enchanting. Grammy-winning composer/lyricist, comedian, and TV personality Steve Allen was chosen to write the score for Alice in Wonderland. Considering writing musicals was not exactly his first calling, Allen produced a score full of catchy, sometimes poignant gems, sparkling with wit, camp, and most importantly, melody. The real delight came from seeing them performed by the line-up of character actors, many from the Broadway musical community. “I Hate Dogs and Cats” sung by a mouse played by Sherman Hemsley (Purlie) and “You Are Old, Father William”, a rap ditty sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. (Golden Boy) as the Caterpillar. Then there is “There’s Something to Say for Hatred” sung by Martha Raye (Hello, Dolly!) and Imogene Coca (On the Twentieth Century), a divine celebration of crankiness as the two play the Duchess and the Cook, respectively. On the more-poignant side there is “Laugh” performed by Anthony Newley’s (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off) Mad Hatter, not to mention a spooky turn by Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat singing “There’s No Way Home.”
Arguably, the campiest and most-joyous numbers are “Off with Their Heads” sung by Jayne Meadows’ Queen of Hearts, full of over-the-top facial expressions and just the right dose of sarcasm. For my money (and yours) Alice in Wonderland enters the world of madcap exhilaration whenever the zany Carol Channing (Hello, Dolly!, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) is onscreen as the White Queen. Wide-eyed and cherry-nosed, Channing makes a feast out of her two big numbers: “Jam Tomorrow” and “Can You Do Addition?” (the latter a duet with Ann Jillian as the Red Queen). Also, quite lovely is “To the Looking Glass World” sung by Red Buttons as the White Rabbit.
It is fun to watch how these exaggerated character actors of yesteryear inhabit these mentally unstable characters of Carroll’s world. Their comedic styles and room-crowding personalities are a perfect match for the story. It is a shame that the stage and screen no longer seems to have a place for performers of this style. It’s a world seeking ingénues when we desperately could use more opportunities for the character actor.
Alice in Wonderland is a great deal of fun, fondly remembered by myself and many musical theatre fans who grew up in the 80s. This is why I am so excited that Feinstein’s/54 Below is giving us a concert of that 1980s made-for-TV Alice in Wonderland, under the direction of Robbie Rozelle. They are assembling some of theatre’s finest talents to revisit this score, one that plays over and over in my head. I urge you to take advantage of seeing one of the two performances on April 3, 2018 at 7:00 PM and 9:30 PM. Here is a link for tickets to this exciting event. Take the trip down the rabbit hole and don’t miss it. Who knows? You might find some exciting new audition material while falling in love with a great score.