Alice in Wildhorn-Land


Alice doesn't live here anymore.

She's escrowed her abode in the rabbit's hole for a tonier time in Mad-hattan, earning bows in the bowels of the Marriott Marquis Theatre on Broadway, attending tea parties that would have Michele Bachmann breaking open the scones and cream.

It's actually all smoke and mirrors and looking glasses peering back at Lewis Carroll's classic children's books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and taking a dipsy-doodle of a delightful spin on them in "Wonderland", with a book by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy (also the lyricist), and music by Frank Wildhorn.

"Alice" in Wildhorn-land is a great place to be, with a mix of music abetting the mischief where rabbits run roughshod, and El Gato is cheesier than Cheshire — but a cat of nine tales nevertheless.

It is all done with a modern-day dimension — Alice is a grown separated mom with an attachment to splitting headaches and a depressed daughter all holed up in an eighth-floor walk-up apartment that wears them down — without losing the Carroll cavalcade of characters.

And just what's in that tea that makes them all so chamomile-crazy?

Certainly composer Wildhorn is a perfect match for this wild bunch that would have confounded even Sam Peckinpah. In a way, Wildhorn has elevated the theme naturally; after all, it all started with a broken elevator.

He and his then-wife, Linda Eder, were living in a Manhattan complex where the elevator was always more down than up. And, says Wildhorn, he figured that if it ever worked, it would descend express right into Wonderland.

Just where he is now.

Guess the elevator's been fixed since?

"That was a long time ago," laughs Wildhorn of those early days of the millennium.

He's had a million ups since; the man who brought "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" to Broadway is no composer of mere pop-ups: His shows, notably those staged internationally, have years-long runs.

If his shows are for the ages — "I wrote 'Wonderland' for ages 8 to 80; I started writing it for my son, when he was 8, and by the time I ended, I was actually writing it for my mother" — will "Wonderland" be yet another Wildhorn wonder when it opens on April 17?

The orchestration is of stirring strings and good reeds; but then, the stories were a great read. "I remember my mother and grandmother reading them to me when I was about 6," says the native New Yorker, who starts "all my projects" as recording devices before they ever make it to the stage. "I research projects and start hearing voices of the characters." And what they told him here made him "curiouser and curiouser."

"I felt with 'Alice,' I would have total freedom to use all my musical vocabulary."

"A" is for Alice: A pop music composer before he scored on Broadway, Wildhorn's is an eclectic beat.

Clearly, klezmer clings to his passions and heritage. "Listen to 'The Tea Party,' " he says of the Jewish-tinged gem that is "Polish-Russian klezmeresque," in a scene where tea leaves its characters sipping and carping amid wailing clarinets.

It all comes "from being raised with an Eastern European" Jewish sensitivity, claims the University of Southern California grad, where a scholarship is handed out in his name. His own scholar ship sets sail from a Jewish heritage rooted in a Romanian father and Russian mother.

Not bad for a piano man who picked out tunes originally for one key reason: to pick up girls. "I did too well in that area," says the twice-divorced dad of two, once married to his works' leading lady, Linda Eder.

His career has in a way been either/or: Either he accepts the trashing from critics that seems to come with each opening or he just basks in the bliss of audiences wrapping themselves in his transcendent tracks.

The critic crush? "A lot has to do with my not coming up through the New York ranks," he says of the so-called theatrical intelligentsia whose eyes pop out writing about Wildhorn's pop-oriented scores. "I think one day, 'Jekyll & Hyde' " — as good a metaphor for his public/critical reception — "will be talked about in an important way."

It's not just the rejection but the dismissive rants he objects to — critics seemed to stage an uncivil war against "The Civil War" when it ran on Broadway with "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel": Hey, critics, Wildhorn retorts, without retreat, "I'm a mensch, a good guy."

No need to wonder "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" if he does feel hurt; the answer is all the way to the bank, which is where Whitney Houston's No. 1 version took Wildhorn when it broke internationally in 1988.

Breaking with the darker side of his other shows — "Wonderland" is his first family-friendly musical offering — Wildhorn is going with musical guns blazing.

But then, that kind of effort will suit him as well for his next major project, which has already triggered Broadway-bound buzz.

And that is? "Bonnie & Clyde," notes the composer of pop songs with a bullet.


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