There are songs on the cutting room floor. For David Rossmer and Steve Rosen, writers of the book, music and lyrics of the musical “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation,” running at 5th Avenue Theatre through Oct. 2, a world premiere in Seattle is a crucial step in the musical’s trajectory. The hope and intention is for that journey to result in a Broadway run.
Rossmer and Rosen started working in earnest on “Broadway Vacation,” a musical based on the characters that rose to fame in the 1980s in the Chevy Chase-led “Vacation” film franchise, during their off-Broadway rock ’n’ roll romantic comedy, “The Other Josh Cohen,” in late 2018 and early 2019. The initial goal for the musical, now directed by Donna Feore, was for it to take the 5th Avenue stage in fall 2020, before COVID-19 delayed those plans. Fast forward to 2022, and the show is finally taking the stage in Seattle. While a Broadway venue and dates haven’t been announced, this Seattle run is a pivotal chance for the team to see the show fully produced before facing a New York audience, and it gives Seattle audiences a chance to add key contributions to the musical’s creative process.
“We learn so much about this show that gets created pretty much in a vacuum, the minute we hear someone laugh, not laugh, cough,” Rosen said during a conversation in early September, the week before preview performances began. “My hope is, by the time we finish [in Seattle], we will have learned enough from the few performances where we actually get to make changes to know where we stand with the show now.”
These sorts of pre-Broadway tryouts, as they’re usually called, are fairly common in the industry. Sometimes they happen in New York, like with “Hamilton” premiering off-Broadway at The Public Theater and dropping songs on its way to its eventual Broadway fame. Chicago has been a home for numerous Broadway hopefuls, including “Paradise Square” recently taking what it learned during a Chicago stint and improving before making the leap to Broadway. And, of course, 5th Avenue has its own history, with world premieres of “Aladdin,” “Shrek the Musical” and “The Wedding Singer” opening in Seattle prior to heading to the East Coast.
These out-of-town tryouts give the creative team a chance to find out what elements are in good shape and see what isn’t needed anymore. Feore added that the preview performances here in Seattle, during which the team could still make changes before its official opening night on Sept. 22, gave her a key chance to feel audience reactions and see what drew their attention. Was she giving the audience too much to look at? Was the pacing right to get the laughs where she wants them?
“New work is hard,” Feore said. “It’s scary, and it’s a risk.”
We spoke with the creative team as they prepared to open their brand-new musical in Seattle, giving us a peek behind the curtain of how a Broadway-hopeful musical comes together and what kind of changes are made in the process.
New story for the Griswolds
While “Broadway Vacation” centers the characters from the Warner Bros. “Vacation” franchise, Rossmer and Rosen emphasized that this is a brand-new story which takes those iconic characters and puts them into a new vacation adventure.
“We have to assume that there’s going to be people that know nothing about the Griswolds,” Rosen said. “The really fun part of this process is we were given the opportunity to take a title and a family that is beloved not only by the world, but specifically by us, and we got a chance to tell an entirely new story that we made up about this family’s summer vacation in the place where the two of us actually live and have spent the bulk of our lives.”
For the Griswolds, whose mishaps have been well documented on film, this trip to New York to see a Broadway show may be their last vacation. With daughter Audrey readying for college, Clark and Ellen are challenged with what happens to a family unit as the kids start to empty out of the nest. That family experience combined with the familiar feeling of being in a big city for the first time is one that the creators hope audiences will connect with.
Feore, a Canadian who grew up in Vancouver, B.C., adds the perspective of what it’s like to come from out of town and visit the Big Apple. But as the team spoke about the creative process behind this musical, the phrase that kept coming up was, “solving the puzzle.”
Ideas to solve the puzzle
The best idea wins. That’s Feore’s philosophy. It’s less of a “there are no bad ideas” environment and more of a situation where it’s OK to have a bad idea and OK to be honest with each other when an idea isn’t working. If something wasn’t clicking in rehearsals, Feore said, Rossmer and Rosen would go off, write, and in a day or so they’d be back with a new scene or song.
“They come back, they haven’t shaved and they look like they haven’t eaten,” Feore joked.
Sitting in briefly during an early September technical rehearsal, with Feore staging a second-act transition, even the actors would have moments where they’d turn to each other, reminding themselves of a lyric or rhythm change from the last time they worked on the song.
Every time a new version gets to the actors, it’s staged by Feore and the process starts again.
Rossmer recalled that the musical used to include a scene where Clark went to the hospital to retrieve something from an injured tourist. When the scene wasn’t right, a new version was written. This time, Clark found himself in the hospital bed instead.
“Suddenly, they were going to operate on Clark,” Rossmer said, “and all of these things delighted us while we wrote them, and we were so happy to turn them in. Then Donna would stage them brilliantly and we’d all go, ‘Nope, let’s try something else.’”
Feore recalled Rossmer and Rosen bringing in the scene and acting out each of the parts themselves. Then, a few hours after seeing it staged, it was time to get rid of the hospital props and try something completely new.
“This lonely blood pressure machine and stretcher sat in the rehearsal room,” Rossmer recalled. “I felt so bad for them.”
“In the corner,” added Feore.
“The land of misfit props,” quipped Rossmer.
Some ideas, however, click from the beginning. Rossmer called a late-show song sung by Ellen a “tent pole” for the show. In fact, it was a song that he said wound up being a way to sort of introduce the producers to how they’d be telling the Griswolds’ story overall.
“For the most part, it’s kind of stayed the same,” Rossmer said. “And that’s pretty rare and nice.”
The cast, led by Tony nominee Hunter Foster as Clark and Megan Reinking as Ellen, also played a part, with Rossmer and Rosen able to tailor lines specifically to fit the personalities and voices of their actors. Rossmer joked that seeing someone in costume, dressed like his Jewish grandmother, could be the spark that inspires a brand-new line.
Barreling toward an unknown future
On Sept. 14, the morning after the “Griswolds” first preview performance, Rossmer and Rosen were encouraged by the reaction from the first Seattle audience. Finally able to see the show with all of its technical elements in front of a full audience proved an ideal learning situation.
“Our minds just start racing,” Rosen said as they prepped for their Wednesday rehearsal. “We’re excited to roll up our sleeves and see what today brings.”
But even before that performance, they still had a list of tasks they were hoping to put in during the previous Sunday’s rehearsal, but they didn’t have enough hours in the day.
“Even though we may have made a bunch of changes on Sunday,” Rossmer said, “only half or a quarter of them can go in on Tuesday. And then today, they’ll still be working on changes from two days ago. Even then, we keep adding to the list.”
During previews, the last chance to make changes to the show before it becomes “frozen” on opening night — meaning no more changes until after the show concludes its Seattle run — Feore had her hit list. With the show fully together and orchestra in place, any changes to songs had to be accompanied by new orchestrations written and handed out to the musicians, and additional considerations needed to be made for any technical changes that might be needed. There’s a certain point, they explained, when if the change is so large that it might take a full day of rehearsal, it may need to be pushed down the line.
What’s tricky is that the show can change simply by the actors getting more comfortable performing it. Rossmer noted they may have notes about lines that aren’t working from two nights prior that become superfluous simply because those lines calcified in the actor’s body, becoming more effortless and natural when said.
“Then, there are other times where you say, ‘Wow, these actors are amazing and this line still isn’t working, so it’s the line’s fault,’” Rossmer said. “Every day, we have to ask ourselves those questions, ‘Do we let them have another shot at this particular moment, or do we try to help them on the page?’”
As an example, Rossmer and Rosen pointed to a particular non-Griswold character (who they didn’t want to spoil for readers) who becomes an important character in the story. They were working to balance exactly how much or how little time should be afforded to say goodbye to this character who isn’t part of the show’s central family. As they toyed with it, the preview audience’s reaction started to weigh in.
“Making changes in a vacuum when we’re just in a rehearsal room watching a moment over and over again, versus having that audience there to tell you how they’re feeling about it,” Rosen said, “it does inform us.”
As they headed into previews, Rossmer said it felt like they’d reached the top of the hill on a roller coaster, about to barrel toward opening night and an unknown future. There’s a hushed excitement around good changes, the tempo in rehearsals kicked up another notch. The end of the world premiere run in Seattle will be over soon, and there’s still much for the creatives to learn as they turn hopeful eyes toward the Broadway stages.
“Musicals are puzzles that rarely ever totally get finished,” Rosen said. “There’s always another thing to figure out.”