Tony Nominee Spotlight: Alex Brightman on Getting 'Real Laughs' in 'Beetlejuice'

Matthew Murphy
Alex Brightman and Sophia Anne Caruso in BEETLEJUICE.

Since wowing Broadway audiences with his Tony-nominated turn in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock in 2015, Alex Brightman has gone on to rock out in a different way: He's currently turning in a manically entertaining portrayal of the title character in other mega-movie-musical-adaptation, Beetlejuice.

The production, up for eight Tony awards, helped Brightman secure his second nomination for leading actor in a musical, but he's keeping a down-to-earth perspective on things before the big night. Ahead of what could be a pivotal weekend in his career, Brightman spoke to Billboard about developing his take on another iconic character, going for genuine laughs and his hectic schedule on Tony Sunday. “It’s 80% a working day.”

How did you find out about your nomination?

I was sleeping on my couch, because I was sick and I didn’t want to get my wife sick. So I was having a restless night’s sleep and woke up when my wife was leaving for work. It was 15 minutes until the nominations, and I figured if I woke up in time for them I’d watch them, and if I slept through them then I’m sure someone would let me know what happened. But I wound up watching the live stream on Facebook with one eye open.

Right away I heard my name -- but I was alone, and just said "No shit!" to myself. When the other nominations began coming in, I started getting all amped up. It was really exciting for our show. We knew we had a weird and absurd show and we knew that people were liking it, we just didn’t know how much since we had just opened. This was a really nice validation. 

So how does Tony Sunday work? Do you have a show that day?

We wake up that morning super early to go to Radio City Music Hall around 6 a.m. in full makeup and costume and do a full dress rehearsal, which I don’t think a lot of people know. We do all the camera blocking and rehearse all the numbers. Then, I go back to the theater and we have a matinee that day. Then I’ll take a shower, get out of makeup, put on normal clothes, do the red carpet, and put it all on again for the opening number because I’m in it. After our performance of our opening number during the show, I’ll go back into the audience for the rest of the evening. If you’re nominated or performing or both, the performing is very fun -- but it’s 80% a working day. 

Your title role is a tricky balancing act: You’re the master of ceremonies, you sing, you dance, and you have to be funny. In the wrong hands, this character could turn into something of a caricature. How do you even starting building the shape of your take on Beetlejuice?

You touched on the idea of real laughs, which was a goal. There are a lot of "funny" shows, but a lot of those funny shows don’t have real, genuine laughter. So the first step was to make sure we were all going for the same tone, and the tone of this show is genuinely funny, irreverent comedy. The script was a big part of it, and being able to have the script for three years and be a part of its development really helped identify the tone. As far as character work goes, my wheelhouse is creating characters. 

Did the shadow of Michael Keaton influence or intimidate you? 

I don’t mind that there’s source material. I think it’s helpful, but I also don’t think it’d be wise for anybody to carbon copy anything. I think adaptations by nature need to have a point of view, so if you’re just going to do the movie on stage there’d be no point. So my first step was to make sure I had a character I could relate to. 

My take on it was that this is a guy who’s never been seen, so I started there, and the comedy came from a grounded place. When I thought about it, Beetlejuice is invisible and there’s plenty of people who have felt invisible, including me in my own life. So starting there made him human, and that’s something that made him more likable than the Michael Keaton version.

Between starring in School of Rock and Beetlejuice, you went from one Broadway musical based on a beloved movie to another musical based on another beloved movie. What were the challenges or upsides of taking on these two iconic roles? 

It’s really just happenstance that these two projects have big, iconic movie source material. I’m flattered if people think I choose these projects. But I audition my ass off. [Laughs.] What I love about it is that you have name recognition and a built-in audience, which is really nice when you’re trying to sell a show. I would happily do the show for nobody, but it really helps when there’s an audience. However, once you get people in the seats, you have to make good on that sort of promise that you’re not going to screw with the thing that people have loved for so long.

That was a big discussion for Beetlejuice, especially because it’s so culty and has been admired for years -- people do not want their baby messed with. We made sure to have 10 or 11 things from the movie, from lines or images to motifs, so fans would feel safe in knowing that we love it too. We have our own take on it, but we wanted to make sure the Beetlejuice purists were also taken care of. I call it giving people the chicken soup before you give them the chili. 

With just two months of Beetlejuice on Broadway behind you, you’ve already had some notable people check it out. 

We’ve had Katy Perry and the Jonas Brothers. I was most excited about Sophie Turner; I’m an enormous Game of Thrones fan so it was cool to meet the Lady of Winterfell after our show. Just the other night we had Adam Scott, who I’m also an enormous fan of. If I can take some sort of career path in film and TV, that’d be a great one. I’m not in it for the special guests, but it’s a nice perk that when they come back and chat, I’m the guy they chat with. It’s really lovely.  

Broadway