I often observe, when people try to deride the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (usually in favor of its dire remake) by pointing out that Roald Dahl didn’t like it, that Dahl, even if he was the author of the source material, isn’t someone you should be taking advice on film criticism from: the man clearly didn’t understand film. This view is supported not only by his complete inability to understand that his gloriously insane plots were simply not acceptable when acted out on screen and had to be altered to keep from scarring little kids for life, but also by the fact that his one and only attempt at screenwriting turned out to be one of the all-time legends of bad kids’ movies.
Now, I know that there are people out there who like this film, but that’s usually because they saw it as kids and can’t separate their adult response from their childhood memories of swallowing this crap unthinkingly. I can think of a hundred reasons why they didn’t need to bring this thing to the stage (the incoherent mess of a plot, the embarrassingly lame humor), but the really fundamental one is that a stage musical is much more dependent on its music for success than a semi-musical kid’s movie, and while the film had a few good numbers (like the catchy “Me Ol’ Bamboo”, the clever anthem to human achievement “The Roses of Success”, and the beautiful lullaby “Hushabye Mountain”), on the whole, this score is the weakest that the Sherman Brothers ever wrote.
Granted, the stage version wisely cut the dull love ballad “Lovely Lonely Man”, but items like the cutesy “You Two”, the cloying “Truly Scrumptious”, the indescribable “You’re My Little Chuchi-Face”, or the incredibly annoying theme song aren’t any easier to take in the stage show than they were on film. The stage show actually exacerbates this problem by adding new songs that are, unbelievably, even _worse_ than the film score. The Childcatcher was the only one of the film’s villains to have any sense of menace, and they cast the great Richard O’Brien to play him in the London production, but even he can’t make his ridiculous solo “Kiddie-Widdie-Winkies” sound remotely threatening. It also takes the film’s best song, “Hushabye Mountain”, which is supposed to be a lullaby, and destroys it by blowing it up it into a big belted vocal showcase, apparently simply because famed belter Michael Ball was (unwisely) playing the lead in the London production.
Speaking of which, yet another reason why this didn’t need to be a stage show is that the film’s biggest redeeming feature is the performances by Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes in the leads, something that obviously wouldn’t carry over to the stage productions. The London production had a supporting cast stuffed with talent like O’Brien and Brian Blessed, but Michael Ball was horribly miscast in the Dick Van Dyke role, which was severely unsuited to his stentorian belt voice and called for comedic talent that Ball simply doesn’t have (for the record, I love Ball, but like most performers with an extremely distinctive style, he’s fairly easy to miscast). The Broadway cast list read like the b-list version of the London cast, with pop singer Jason Donovan in the lead and a bunch of minor British celebrities that no-one in America had ever heard of in the supporting roles. This show was a bad idea badly executed, and I would personally prefer to just forget it ever happened.