“I myself am strange and unusual.”
This is the stylishly offbeat line that Lydia Deetz says when she first meets the recently deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland, in both the film and new stage musical adaptation of Beetlejuice. The Maitlands are a normal and happily married couple—they also happen to be ghosts that only Lydia can see and interact with for the majority of the story.
“Strange and unusual” has become a mantra amongst Beetlejuice fans, and a ghost couple is hardly the strangest and most unusual thing the story has to offer. The 1988 film, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice and Winona Ryder as Lydia, catapulted and cemented Burton’s dark, cartoon-y, and dreamlike aesthetic into pop culture. Beetlejuice tells the story of the Maitlands, a married couple who die together and are trapped in their house as ghosts when the Deetz’s, a family comprised of neglectful father Charles, uptight stepmother Delia, and goth teen daughter Lydia move in and begin renovating the house, much to the Matilands’s horror. The couple, who cannot be seen by mortals and are terrible at haunting their own house, decide to hire “Betelgeuse”, a demon con man, to scare away the new residents - though not without some good old fashioned chaos brought from the afterlife.
Ghosts aren’t the only thing Lydia is capable of seeing that others cannot—her clueless family, the sickly sweet and fake pretences of adult relationships, and the frustration of no one listening to her are all things that the audience feels strongly when seen through Lydia’s eyes. But as cool and catchy as the “strange and unusual” line sounds, Lydia says it to express her intense loneliness and how her ability to relate to ghosts is much easier than relating to humans, something that the musical adaptation of Beetlejuice delved into even more than the movie. And on stage, Lydia’s been given a lot more grief—and spunk.
Beetlejuice’s creepy, larger than life spirit has now been brought to the Great White Way in 2019. The musical, with a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King and music by Eddie Perfect, is a spooky, warped magic show in a whimsical haunted house, a perfect setting for a live musical. As a human concoction of equal parts theatre kid, Tim Burton lover, and Winona Ryder fan, the mere idea of a Beetlejuice musical had me thrilled. The movie had become a Halloween night staple for me, and I adore the melancholic yet heartfelt character of Winona Ryder’s Lydia, whom I’ve dressed up as for Halloween twice, and Michael Keaton’s sleazy and hilarious Beetlejuice, who is played by the remarkable Alex Brightman on stage. The idea of Burton’s work on stage just always made sense to me, and I saw those dreams realized when I saw the show at the beginning of May, a few weeks after its Broadway debut on April 25 at the Winter Garden Theatre. (Also, as part of the 2018/2019 Broadway season in which nearly 15 million people attended, making it the highest grossing season in Broadway history, I’m crossing my fingers that this show leaps from New York City to a tour bus and comes to Toronto.)
A show about death jam-packed with life, Beetlejuice the musical truly was an adaptation instead of an exact replica of the film, incorporating several new plot and character elements and even some influences from the early ‘90s Beetlejuice cartoon television series. A true Beetlejuice junkie can see the show and walk out of the theatre surprised. For me, it’s difficult to prefer any adaptation over the movie, but I had a great time with the musical. It’s a visual feast that’s fun on the ears, tugs at your heartstrings, and makes you want to dance along with the ghosts and corpses on stage. But while the giant sandworms, corpses with shrunken heads, and demons possessing people to break out into song and dance all remain the same from film to stage, I was most struck by how much more agency Lydia was given, and how she was able to cry, scream, and take her rightful position as a grieving girl.
Lydia Deetz, our goth teen protagonist who seeks solace in her ghost friends and who reluctantly agrees to help bring the scamming Beetlejuice into the mortal world, is a character a lot of young girls can identify with, regardless of whether they’re goth or think about death an exceptional amount. She is angry, passionate, and filled to the brim with things she wants to say even though she is invisible to the people in her life. In the film, it isn’t explicitly said why Lydia is so unhappy and obsessed with death—perhaps it’s because she and her family move house, or because she doesn’t get along with her snooty stepmother, or because she’s a goth in the late ’80s, a subculture that was mocked and even feared at that time. Perhaps there is no one reason and it’s merely a personality quirk—a teenager fascinated by death is nothing new to report about. But the musical points a big flashing arrow to her sorrow—her mother has died and her family is having a difficult time coping.
It’s unclear what happened to Lydia’s mother in the film. She could be dead, or she simply could have separated from her husband and is no longer in her daughter’s life. The musical shows us the effects that a parental figure dying can have on their child, as well as their spouse. While Lydia’s father wants to move on as quickly as possible, plaster on a permanent smile on his face, and berates his daughter for dwelling on her mother’s death, Lydia understands grief. It cannot be rushed and it manifests differently in everyone. She and her rage and grief end up being the true hero of the show.
“It also focuses on a young person dealing with grief, which you don’t see very often,” said Sophia Anne Caruso, the actress gracing the Winter Garden stage as Lydia in an interview for Broadway.com. “People don’t really pay attention to young people who are grieving. They don’t think that we grieve.”
Lydia is a character blanketed by grief and moodiness, but it’s clear she is bubbling with enthusiasm and wonder beneath. With musicals, we have the opportunity to hear exactly what characters are thinking and feeling when they can narrate it with song. Her solos “Dead Mom” and “Home” are powerhouses that bring the audience right into her angst and heartbreak. The rage Lydia feels at having lost her mother at such a young age fuels her, and the adults in her life want to repress it. Lydia screams at her father, disobeys what she is told by the Maitlands and sometimes makes bad decisions, and even takes pleasure in scaring innocent people with Beetlejuice. And who can blame her when the most important person in her life has been ripped away from her, and everyone’s response is for her to “hurry up, get happy”? Though she is the youngest character, she is the most emotionally mature, more willing to look grief right in the face and confront it, unlike her father.
Emotional women in media are often made to be manic, or the butt of the joke, or something not worth being taken seriously. This isn’t excluded from reality—most, if not all women can likely pull several stories out of their back pockets about times they were told their emotions would get in the way of accomplishing something, or how menstruation makes us insane, or to “smile, sweetheart!” When Regina George in Mean Girls lets out a lengthy scream and cuts up a picture of herself to put in the burn book, or hits another girl in the face with a lacrosse stick, it is our cue to laugh, because seeing a teen girl so enraged and dealing with her anger in violent ways is funny. When we see a wife nagging her incompetent husband on just about any primetime sitcom with a laugh track, it is our cue to groan along with the husband and sympathize with his annoyance. Not to pick exclusively on Mean Girls—it’s not the only film that has used a girl’s anger for laughs, and it is a comedy that has more to accurately say on female relationships than most teen comedies of the early 2000s—although, I do fully intend to pick on sitcoms. But it’s not common to come across female rage in which it is beneficial to the story or the growth of a character. We laugh at how neurotic female emotions can be. We provoke rage and point and laugh at the meltdown.
In Beetlejuice the musical, Lydia’s rage not only helps heal herself, but others in her life. Her father Charles responds to his wife’s death by shielding himself with toxic masculinity, believing he needs to be the strong man of the house for his daughter and encouraging her to just get over it, mostly for his own sake in order to bury the pain. It takes a trip to the netherworld, being possessed by demons, and his daughter’s ability to be so in touch with her grief that frees him and allows him to fully accept his own grief and heal properly. The anger and sadness of one girl saves the day and mends her family’s broken pieces into not what it was before, but something new and strong.
It’s what I love about Burton—he understands the dark and sad parts of a child’s mind, shows their frustrations through their eyes, and still make the world colourful and fun. Scott Brown and Anthony King doubled down on this and made it even more prominent for the stage. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen a story look at a girl’s pain and validate it, say, “I see you, and I will not laugh or roll my eyes at what you feel.”
No matter what medium she exists in, whether it be film, animation, or stage, Lydia Deetz is a symbol of the outcast girl whose weirdness is an asset and whose sadness eventually morphs into strength. Beetlejuice the musical tells girls to be angry—it’s often the first step in healing.
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