Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell is bringing black-and-white Boop! The Betty Boop Musical into a world of color at the CIBC Theatre this winter.
It's a pre-Broadway world premiere for the musical starring Jasmine Amy Rogers as Betty Boop, a cartoon character created by Max Fleischerwith help from various animators.
Mitchell has a long history in stage work that began with Jekyll & Hyde and most recently led him to Pretty Woman: The Musical. His stellar talents have earned him Tony Awards for Best Choreography for La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots.
The busy Boop creator gave Windy City Times readers a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show while taking a break for lunch.
Windy City Times: This is our fourth interview together and I am excited to talk to you about this new project.
Jerry Mitchell: Boop!
WCT: I have not done many four-time interviews on the same subject. Kristin Chenoweth is another one that I interviewed four times in the past.
JM: Kristin and I did our first Broadway show together, when I choreographed You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. She won a Tony Award for "My New Philosophy" and Roger Bart won a Tony Award for that show as well, with the song "Supper Club."
WCT: During The Betty Boop press conference you talked about your humble beginnings in Paw Paw, Michigan. Is there something you would still like to accomplish in your career?
JM: I would love to just keep working in musical theater. It has always been such a joy, and I am so grateful to be here in the CIBC Theatre. This is the fifth time I have been in this town creating a new musical.
Age teaches you a lot of lessons. One is that I can't control the outcome of the show. I make the best show I can possibly make, but the audience will decide if it is good or not. Audiences change with the wind because of what is happening in the world.
What do they want to see? What kind of entertainment are they interested in? Part of the reason I got excited about this show was to work with Bill Haber, the producer who originally asked me. We had worked together on a Nora Ephron play called Imaginary Friends, with Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones. The songs were by Marvin Hamlisch and I, of course, did the dances. Jack O'Brien, my dear collaborator for over a decade, directed it.
Bill was doing Spamalot at the time and asked me to choreograph that. I was hired by Mike Nichols, but of course, I couldn't do it because I was doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and they were both heading to the same season of Broadway.
Casey Nicholaw was still a dancer and had presented some dances for the DanceBreak, which is a showcase for young dancers to strut their stuff. People will see it and hire them as choreographers. Bill asked me who to get, and I suggested that Mike meet with Casey Nicholaw because he would be a perfect choreographer for Spamalot. The rest is history!
That is the kind of producer that Bill is. When he asked me to get on board with this, I listened to the music and I met with David Foster and Susan Birkenhead at the time. I got immediately to work with Bob Martin, who wrote the book. That was just before the pandemic.
WCT: So you picked everything back up after the pandemic settled down?
JM: Bill had the rights to the Betty Boop musical for over 25 years. He eventually came to me, but I wanted a new book and story.
WCT: Is Betty chased around by men like in the cartoon?
JM: It is part of the story and is part of the script, but how she handles it is interesting. She decides by the end that things will be different in the future. She is not askingshe is telling them that.
WCT: The song "Where I Wanna Be" is a show-stopping number, isn't it?
JM: It is the "Everybody Say Yeah" from Kinky Boots moment, the "So Much Better" moment from Legally Blonde and the "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" moment from Hairspray.
The first time I heard that song I knew that is how I would close the first act and I hate first acts that end on a dud. It is a Jerry Mitchell first-act closing song if I have ever heard one. I like the audience going, "Wow, let's go get a drink and come back!" [laughs]
WCT: Jasmine is going to need an intermission rest after that powerful song.
JM: Jasmine I found right out of school and she was in a show with me called Becoming Nancy. We were out of town and we wrote a solo song for her character that the audience went nuts for. I watched the power of her come to life before my eyes.
She was originally cast in another role and I changed that role to a much younger kid, a fifteen-year-old, which is being played by Angelica Hale. Jasmine was out on tour with Mean Girls when we were searching for Betty Boop. We brought her in and she came back many times and then owned the role. She won it fair and square. She works hard and is focused.
I can't say enough about how phenomenal she is. I am so proud of her.
WCT: How did the puppetry part evolve?
JM: When I do a musical and read the script, I am always looking for who I might cast. People pop into my head. Part of Betty's story is Pudgy her dog. I thought I would go to Bill Berloni who did Bruiser Woods for me in Legally Blonde.. I would need to find a real dog who is white and black and then train the dog to do the tricks in the show.
I would have to plan that a year ahead. Bill would find a rescue dog and then he would begin working with him.
I thought about Phillip Huber who I had worked with here in this theater called That's Christmas and had created marionettes. The dog could be a marionette that comes to the real world. Phillip created a Pudgy for me.
WCT: I saw The Last Dragon in the movie theater in 1985, so I was happy to hear Faith Prince is in this show.
JM: Oh, she had crazy hair in that. Have you seen her onstage before?
JM: She won a Tony Award for playing Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. Faith and I worked together for Jerome Robbins' Broadway and that is where we first met. I had to teach a dance class every day for three hours before rehearsals and she was in it. We go way back!
WCT: Is your partner in Boop?
JM: Yes, Ricky Schroeder. He plays a small role as the assistant director in the Fleischer Studios black and white world.
WCT: So you are both staying in Chicago for the holidays?
JM: We will be here until Christmas Eve. One of the reasons I love coming to Chicago is the audience is my final scene partner. I watch how they respond to the show and I take cues from them about things that work and don't work. That is one of my favorite things about being here, so I stayed through the whole period. We will continue to work even after the show opens and I look at reviews to see what I can make better.
Kinky Boots was very different from the first show as opposed to the last show. Every time I come here, the ending shows get better than the earlier shows. I learned that craft from Jack O'Brien, when we did Hairspray out of town in Seattle. We worked every day on that show to make it better, even after a great opening night.
As they say, "There is a very short distance between good and great." You can't get to great unless you continue to work in my opinion.
WCT: What would you like people to take away from this particular project?
JM: Love. There is so much cynicism and contempt in the world. I wanted to do a musical about love. If you don't find that and make that the priority in my life then you are living in black and white.
WCT: Is there one artist you would like to work with but haven't yet?
JM: Not that I can think of. There are lots of people that I have worked with in the past and want to work with again. It would be about finding the right vehicle for them. Many of them have gone on to become movie and television stars, so it is all about timing.
WCT: What's up for you after Boop?
JM: After this, I go to London for a workshop on The Devil Wears Prada with Elton John, a whole new cast and a new team of designers. I saw the show here and came to lend support. A month and a half later I met with Elton and he asked me to do the show with him. I asked for some new songs and he agreed so I will be off to the UK soon to work on that!
Boop! The Betty Boop Musical dances the night away currently at the CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe Street, until December 24, 2023.
"Boop-oop-a-doop" over to BroadwayinChicago.com for tickets and more information.