With a busload of catchphrases and a cultural impact as estimable as Ralph Kramden’s waistline, “The Honeymooners” was bound to be a musical adaptation someday. Now, after a yearslong development process, this stage show will have its opening on Sunday, Oct. 8.
“The Honeymooners,” in its best-known incarnation as a CBS series, starred Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows (playing the Kramdens) and Art Carney and Joyce Randolph (as their neighbors, Ed and Trixie Norton), a pair of blue-collar couples with big dreams that perpetually elude them.
The simple dynamics it depicted – the relationship between a man and his wife, and between that man and his best friend – are fundamentals that the cast and creators of the “Honeymooners” musical hope to duplicate.
“There are two main love stories in this show,” Mr. McGrath said in an interview. “And that is the love story between Ralph and Alice, and the love story between Ralph and Ed.” (He quickly added that he was repeating an insight originally made by his real-life wife, Toni DiBuono.)
The “Honeymooners” musical, which also stars Michael Mastro and Laura Bell Bundy as Ed and Trixie, has its share of winking references to the original sitcom. Even Mr. McGrath and Ms. Kritzer’s brief number suggests the TV show’s opening credits, in which New York is lit by a full moon bearing Mr. Gleason’s face.
But as the musical is refined for its world premiere – and a hoped-for Broadway transfer – the people behind it must consider whether it can be more than just a re-enactment of an old TV show, and what this venerated property might have to say to a modern audience.
“I’m not looking for imitation – I’m looking for celebration,” John Rando, the director of “The Honeymooners,” explained. “What we’ve made, I believe, is respectful of what was already there, but is also mindful of a contemporary worldview.”
Though many have tried, sitcoms haven’t often been successfully adapted into straight-faced musicals. A “Happy Days” stage show, with a book by the series creator Garry Marshall, played a few regional productions (including at Paper Mill in 2007) and a national tour but never Broadway. “The Addams Family,” a musical adapted from the macabre Charles Addams cartoons that also tried to leverage nostalgia for the 1960s sitcom, was buried on Broadway but has toured widely.
With a book by the TV writers Dusty Kay (“Roseanne”) and Bill Nuss (“Pacific Blue”), music by Stephen Weiner and lyrics by Peter Mills, “The Honeymooners” tells a new story that would not have felt out of place on the original sitcom.
Ever in search of their golden ticket, Ralph and Ed learn of a competition to compose a jingle for Faciamatta Mazzeroni cheese. (When Ralph says that no one eats more of it than he does, Ed replies that no one eats more of anything than he does.)
Working together, the pair not only win the jingle-writing contest but also land new jobs at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, putting them on a path to what they hope are better lives for themselves and their spouses.
Mr. Rando, who won a Tony Award for “Urinetown” and directed the 2014 revival of “On the Town,” said this narrative was meant to celebrate “the working-class generation that put the country on its feet after World War II, and the couples who struggled to make it all work.”
The project has been in the works since at least 2011, when Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”) was attached to direct and Jim Belushi was slated to play Ralph.
Mr. McGrath, a Tony winner for “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” said that when he was approached for the lead role, it irresistibly conjured up a childhood spent watching “Honeymooners” reruns with his father.
Though Mr. Gleason’s portrayal of Ralph could be brusque, Mr. McGrath said his version tries to find a sympathetic side underneath the bombast and the fat suit.
“Whenever he goes berserk, blows his stack or says the wrong thing, he learns a lesson, and it’s usually Alice that teaches it to him,” Mr. McGrath said.
Ms. Kritzer, who has previously performed in the Broadway adaptations of “Legally Blonde” (with Ms. Bundy) and “A Catered Affair,” said the challenge of playing Alice was realizing the full potential of a character who, in her era, was not allowed to be much more than an apron-clad housewife.
Ms. Kritzer said she and Ms. Bundy were vocal about wanting story lines that would let Alice and Trixie have aspirations of their own but “not modernize it too much.”
“We have to show it as it was,” she said, “but also bring forth the strong woman – the stronger woman – behind every man.”
That request, Ms. Kritzer said, was satisfied in part by a new musical number, called “A Woman’s Work,” which was added to the show after a recent workshop.
“It’s very much a pro-feminist statement,” Ms. Kritzer said of the song, “about women of the time and how they’re not just at home darning socks and cleaning kitchens.”
She added, “It’s very clear – Alice could have done other things.”
As “The Honeymooners” begins its first performances in front of paying audiences, Mr. Rando said he and his colleagues are still trying to find a balance between the comedy that audiences expect and the romance that a musical can provide.
“You’re always thinking, how can we be funnier?” he said. “But you realize that the money is in the love between Alice and Ralph. I mean, it’s called ‘The Honeymooners’! We should all be so lucky to be as in love with each other, and to understand each other’s foibles as they do.”
There is no guarantee that any abiding affection for the TV show will translate into critical or commercial success for the musical. A “Honeymooners” movie, which was set in the present day and starred Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps, was a box-office dud in 2005.
If done right, “The Honeymooners” could have a life beyond its limited monthlong run at Paper Mill.
The theater has provided a launching pad for Broadway musicals like “Newsies,” “Bandstand” and “A Bronx Tale,” and Jeffrey Finn, the lead producer of “The Honeymooners,” has also produced recent Broadway shows like “An Act of God” and this year’s revival of “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Still, Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, sought to temper expectations that “The Honeymooners” was being groomed for a similar transfer.
“Could it go to New York or somewhere else?” Mr. Hoebee said. “Maybe, but that’s never our focus.”
At the moment, Mr. McGrath and Ms. Kritzer were focused on fine-tuning their performances to resemble their TV alter egos as best they could.
Mr. McGrath said he had been attempting to style his hair to mimic Mr. Gleason’s greased-up coif without much success.
“I’m trying to get that look, but it falls,” he said. “I just look like a mad scientist.”
But there was only so far that they were willing to go in order to mimic “The Honeymooners.” Reflecting on the scene they had been rehearsing, Ms. Kritzer asked him, “I was thinking, are they going to put your face on the moon?”
Mr. McGrath answered with un-Kramden-like modesty. “I’d rather not,” he said. “I think mine belongs on Mars.”