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Bringing Willy Wonka to the stage is an exercise in pure imagination

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Capitol Theatre 2019
Photograph: Joan Marcus The original Broadway production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

It’s always tough to write new songs for a story that has beloved tunes attached to it, but that’s the task Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the musical team behind Hairspray) were charged with when they adapted Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the stage. Of course, audiences go into the theatre humming tunes from the successful 1971 film based on the book – including ‘Pure Imagination’ and ‘I’ve Got a Golden Ticket’, which both feature prominently in the stage show – but there’s one of Shaiman and Wittman’s new songs that stood out from the very start.

It’s called ‘It Must Be Believed to Be Seen’, and it’s sung by an enthusiastic Willy Wonka as he welcomes the young golden ticket holders to the wonders of his chocolate factory.

For veteran American director Jack O’Brien, who helmed the 2017 Broadway production and is directing the Sydney production this summer, there couldn’t be a more appropriate mantra for his work.

“That lyric really struck a chord with me, because that’s the core of what we do in the theatre – if we don’t believe it, we don’t see it,” he says.

“Theatre is basically, whether you like it or not, an exercise in faith. We are doing something in front of you that we want you, in some way, to be affected by, which also means that you must believe it.”

There’s plenty in the story of young Charlie’s life-changing trip to a chocolate factory that should affect its audience and capture their imaginations, whether that be the mysterious Oompa-Loompas (brought to the stage in thrillingly imaginative fashion), the candy creations that seem to stretch reality, or the dark and sticky fates that befall Charlie’s fellow golden ticket winners.

For O’Brien’s version, those child characters – Augustus Gloop, Mike Teavee, Violet Beauregarde and Veruca Salt – are all played by adult actors. There are a few reasons why: firstly, there are plenty of quickfire lyrics that require crystal clear enunciation, and O’Brien also wanted Charlie to be set apart as the only child on stage.

Photograph: Joan Marcus

But perhaps most important is how the casting allows O’Brien to expose these characters to Dahl’s darkest and most violent sequences without worrying an audience. In Veruca’s final scene, she ends up in a ballet with feisty squirrels who eventually tear her limb from limb in a simple but effective piece of stage magic.

“It’s terrible!” O’Brien says. “But of course the audience adores it and the kids are delirious. You think to yourself: what are you happy about? That we ripped a little girl apart? It’s pure Dahl in that respect.”

That chocolatey mix of the sugary sweet and dark bitterness is part of what drew Australian theatre favourite Tony Sheldon to play Grandpa Joe. Sheldon recently played Dahl in the workshop of a new musical based on the author’s life, and came to fall in love with his distinctive voice.

“I think they’re just rattling good yarns, and they’ve got that wonderful darkness to them, which I think is so appealing,” Sheldon says. “In all of his work, there’s that wonderful, slightly sinister area that leaves you discomforted and wondering what’s going to happen next.”

Sheldon initially auditioned for the role in the original Broadway production, but was pipped to the post by John Rubinstein (the original lead in Pippin). At the time, O’Brien said Sheldon’s was one of the best-prepared auditions he’d ever seen, and now he’ll get his shot at the role in the Australian production. But audiences shouldn’t necessarily expect Sheldon’s Grandpa Joe to be like any other.

“I’ve never seen the film, so I will have no choice but to take it off the page,” Sheldon says. “What I did in the audition seemed to please them, so I guess that’s what I’ll be doing.”

Something that surprised Sheldon while auditioning was that he – and the other cast members – were asked to use his Australian accent. Dahl is thought of as inextricably British (although the famous 1971 film featured mainly American actors) but O’Brien says this story is really set nowhere in particular and can be performed by anybody.

“I want this version to be not applied, but belong to the Australian theatrical community,” O’Brien says. “I think they should all have Australian accents, because why shouldn’t they? Why should you feel it’s a foreign show? Somebody else’s show?”

It’s a show that should not only belong to each new cast, but to the world’s theatre-makers as a whole, O’Brien says. There are clear parallels between Wonka’s creative endeavours – and how he passes on his legacy – and the world of make believe and endless possibilities that those working in the theatre operate.

“When he gives his factory to Charlie at the end of the show, it’s very moving in an odd way, and you don’t expect that. The boy perseveres and passes all the tests, and of course the one thing that Willy sees is the extraordinary originality – the fecundity of the boy’s imagination – that he loves imagining, he loves inventing.

“If you’re going to be in this kind of industry, you need a font of ideas upon which to depend.”

The lives of Charlie

Ever since Roald Dahl introduced Charlie and Willy Wonka to the world in his 1964 novel, directors and writers have been keen to adapt their story into different mediums.

1971: Gene Wilder takes on Wonka

For many generations, Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka thanks to his mysteriously charming but dangerous performance in the 1971 movie musical called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The film performed pretty well at the box office when it was released, but gained more popularity in the years following thanks to VHS and repeat TV screenings. It wasn’t a smooth ride to get there: Dahl was slated to write the screenplay but had a falling out with the producers and hated the final product.

2005: The top hat falls to Johnny Depp

Director Tim Burton took on a challenge in creating a new film version – after more than a decade of “development hell” – but his movie became a box office hit and won solid reviews. Johnny Depp, however, proved particularly divisive with his twisted, eccentric and somewhat lackadaisical performance as Wonka.

2010: The Golden Ticket comes to the stage

Wonka has always seemed like a larger-than-life figure, so it makes sense that he’d eventually lead an opera. After the last film version, Dahl’s wife, Felicity, co-commissioned The Golden Ticket, an operatic adaptation by American composer Peter Ash. It premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2010.

2013: West End Wonka

Just a few years later, director Sam Mendes turned the story into large-scale musical for London’s Drury Lane Theatre. It ran there for three and a half years, and was streamlined and reimagined for Broadway in 2017 – that’s the version that’s coming to Australia.

The future: A new cinematic adventure

It was revealed in 2016 that Warner Bros now has the cinematic rights to the Wonka character and will make a film telling a new story about the chocolatier. There’s no release date set, but British director Paul King (Paddington) has signed on.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Capitol Theatre from January 8, 2019. Check out what other major musicals are playing in Sydney.