How the ‘Beetlejuice’ musical beat bad reviews and became a Gen Z hit

Justin Collette (center) and the touring company of "Beetlejuice," which arrives Aug. 15 in San Diego.
(Matthew Murphy)

When “Beetlejuice” opened on Broadway in 2019, it received numerous negative reviews from major publications.

“Absolutely exhausting,” wrote the New York Times. “Dismal and gross,” noted the New York Post. The “most cacophonous and ill-conceived musical of the season — in fact, for several seasons,” said the Chicago Tribune. It earned eight Tony nominations but won none.

Usually, this lack of enthusiasm from notable theater critics and Tony voters can swiftly shutter a stage show, no matter how beloved its source material. But the adaptation of the Tim Burton horror comedy organically fostered a devout fan base in younger theatergoers on TikTok, and went on to break box office records and even reverse its closing notice with a months-long post-COVID-19 pandemic run.

The production also put on an unconventional Tonys musical performance and regularly hosted costume contests, virtually and in person.

At performances on Broadway and now on a national tour that arrives in San Diego Aug. 15, these fans show up in black-and-white striped suits and bright green hair or fitted red dresses and “Miss Argentina” sashes.

That fervid fan base has helped make the first San Diego visit of “Beetlejuice” a smash. At the end of July, a check of remaining tickets for sale on Ticketmaster showed only a couple dozen left for each performance with the best orchestra seats priced at $350 apiece.

So how did “Beetlejuice” pull off the rarity of coming back from near-death and becoming one of the most popular musical properties among younger theatergoers, an elusive demographic for many new shows?

A thorough dissection of the musical yields its winning strategy: Its storytelling sacrifices nostalgia for the new, specifically in ways that align with Gen Z. It’s a risk for a screen-to-stage adaptation to not cater to the same audience that applauded its source material when it debuted; yet because of the authenticity and precision of its creative choices, it continues to pay off, especially at a time when the American theater is in crisis.

Isabella Esler as Lydia in the national touring production of "Beetlejuice."
Isabella Esler as Lydia in the national touring production of “Beetlejuice.”
(Matthew Murphy)

The show practically announces this bold plan the moment the curtain rises, revealing a teenage girl at a funeral. Unlike the 1988 film, which centers on a suburban couple who want to stay in their home after their sudden death, the musical — with a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King — focuses on Lydia Deetz, the daughter of the family that then moves into the house.

This Lydia resonates with younger audiences not because she drops hollow buzz words but rather because she is wholly realized as a Gen Z protagonist: clever, socially aware, reasonably nihilistic and emotionally honest. And in comparison to her father, his girlfriend and numerous other characters, Lydia is pragmatic, clear-eyed and merely misunderstood, a feeling any younger theatergoer likely knows well.

Fans of the film might be perplexed by the narrative’s reframing around Lydia, since the role on-screen, played by Winona Ryder, was more of a supporting part with a quirky curiosity about death. Onstage, her obsession with the afterlife is insightfully tied to the recent death of her mother — a pivot that makes Lydia the impetus for the story’s momentous events (the movie’s iconic “Day-O” dinner takeover is now her idea, and she chooses to say Beetlejuice’s name for her own gain) as well as its emotional heart.

The show’s only ballads explore the depths of her overwhelming grief; in the touring production, Isabella Esler performs them both with palpable vulnerability, filling the otherwise empty stage with Lydia’s frustrations about mourning her mother alone while her father refuses to acknowledge the loss.

“Holy crap ... such a bold departure from the original source material!” Beetlejuice shouts of the show’s Lydia focus.

The titular demon, famously played by Michael Keaton for only around 15 minutes of the movie, is given lots more stage time as the charismatic narrator of the musical. By making this joke at the very top of the show, he immediately declares its comedic sensibilities — meta, profane and refreshingly irreverent about its esteemed IP — and doubles down with an opening number packed with jabs about the universal inevitably of dying, the musical theater canon and the theater setting itself: “I do this bull— like eight times a week. So just relax, you’ll be fine, drink your 50 dollar wine and take a breath, welcome to a show about death.”

Beetlejuice, played on tour by a tireless Justin Collette, sings this song with a gravelly voice and a devilish smile, occasionally flipping off the audience and simulating snorting a massive amount of cocaine. As directed by Alex Timbers, his character’s sheer volume of jokes per minute throughout the musical — some of which involve a cheer squad, a gospel choir and a faux game show — are fired off at a steady clip akin to Keaton’s fast-talking dialogue onscreen. It’s a pace to which the Internet age is accustomed, even while delivered amid strobe lights, fog machines and sand-worm puppetry.

Musically, “Beetlejuice” might initially seem frenetic because its overall sound pulls from so many disparate genres. But a closer listen to Eddie Perfect’s music and lyrics reveal that, beyond the film’s signature Harry Belafonte songs “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line (Shake Señora),” both of which are ensemble-wide act-closers onstage, the show’s songs are classified by the character performing them.

For example, Lydia’s angsty anthems echo the grunge and pop-punk hits of the ’90s and the aughts, while Beetlejuice’s tunes are more reminiscent of ’70s and ’80s rock songs. And Miss Argentina leads a lively tango in the Netherworld, featuring cameos by the movie’s other memorable undead characters. That the score is a composite of multiple, distinct genres also nods to how Gen Z listeners’ tastes tend to be more diverse and wide-ranging.

Theatermakers of upcoming screen-to-stage adaptations, especially those beloved by a different generation, should consider prioritizing a younger one, as “Beetlejuice” did. It might just save that show from the brink of death.

‘Beetlejuice: The Musical’

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 15 and 16. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17. 8 p.m. Aug. 18. 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 19. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 20

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown

Tickets: $69 and up


Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.