Composers Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman on How 'Smash,' Carl Sagan and Trump Influenced Their 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

Patrick Randak/NBC
Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have a knack for musicalizing the larger-than-life: Consider their beloved scores for Broadway’s Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, plus (of course) Bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe show-within-a-show seen in the cult-favorite, now-defunct NBC series Smash.

So when the Tony- and Grammy-winning composers were tapped by Warner Bros. to bring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the stage, they accepted the challenge. Their version of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s classic, which premiered in London in 2013, tips its hat to 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (starring Gene Wilder) by incorporating several songs from that iconic film (including “Pure Imagination") but also employing a mélange of musical styles – including pop, techno and classical – throughout the rest of the new score.

Though the London production was a success, Shaiman and Scott Wittman “re-imagined” many aspects of Charlie before the show opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April — adding a new ballad, “The View From Here,” and giving many characters topical makeovers. The show's physical original Broadway cast recording is now out on Sony Music; Shaiman and Wittman spoke with Billboard about the unlikely influences behind their musical, and why they think Dahl would approve of their dark take on his novel.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been successfully adapted twice, first in 1971 and once again in 2005, by Tim Burton. Why did you want to put your own spin on the story?

Shaiman: It’s a rich story full of crazy characters with a great lesson, so it was a no-brainer. When Warner Bros. came to us, they said they didn’t want to use songs from the original film. Since Tim Burton’s movie had been successful, we felt people were willing to accept a new version. 

In the end, however, you included “Pure Imagination,” “The Candy Man” and other songs from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Shaiman: We did the show first in England, which grew up on the book. But when we got to America, we realized we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our face by not giving people the songs they expected to hear at certain points.

Wittman: We admired Gene Wilder’s performance, which we’ve paid homage to. I think we’re proud of the fact the two scores can coexist. They feel like one voice.

Each of the five children is distinguished by a different style of music. How did you match each character with a genre?

Wittman: We wanted Veruca to be a ballerina, because we thought it would be fun to add a dance element to the show. Mike Teavee felt techno. Violet Beauregarde is always popping gum, so pop felt like a great vocabulary for her, and so on.

Mrs. Teavee’s song, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?,” includes some subtle digs at American politics… 

Shaiman: Some audiences pick up on it, and others don’t. We tried to make sure it didn’t go too far, and become only about our current situation. It’s a great American trope that anyone can grow up to be president.

The show now climaxes with “The View From Here.” How did that song come about?

Shaiman: In England, “Pure Imagination” was in that spot, but it didn’t say much of anything. We kept saying, “Oh man, let us write the song for that spot,” but there was no way we were going to cut “Pure Imagination.” But when it was time for Broadway, we said, “We want that spot!”

Wittman: It’s inspired by Carl Sagan’s book, The Pale Blue Dot, which is about looking down at Earth from space.

How did Christian Borle [who plays Wonka] influence the song?

Wittman: As we were writing the show, we were also working on Smash. We’d write a song for Charlie, and we’d say, "Christian, could you come down and demo this for us?” So he was the first person to sing a lot of the material and a huge influence.

Your version taps into the darkness of Dahl’s story in a way that neither of the films do — each of the bratty kids’ demises are a bit more severe.

Shaiman: Originally, the kids were shown to have survived. We loved the idea that Charlie would figure out how to make use of these kids’ personalities for good in his factory. Augustus Gloop would’ve been a taste-tester and Veruca Salt would’ve been in charge of sales. Luckily, [“The View From Here”] was landing well in previews, so everyone felt we should get the curtain down. We liked making it more vicious. We’re pleasantly surprised to not get any complaints from parents!