While Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were hoping for a golden ticket with their new musical based on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not everything has turned out as well as expected in Willy Wonka-land, with the show drawing mixed reviews from London critics and unfavourable comparisons with the beloved but almost universally overpraised film musical, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The original cast recording of the musical has just been released and what follows here is an in-depth, track-by-track discussion of the original cast recording, focusing on what the score has to offer. I have not seen the show in its West End production, so I shall be basing my overview on what is represented on the recording, working with a synopsis to gain some sense of the dramaturgical contributions made by the music and lyrics to the show.

Those who do not know the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at all should be able to make sense of things as this analysis continues, but you might find it useful to read the original book by Roald Dahl or watch one of the two films, either Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to familiarise yourself with the story. Although some of the specifics differ from version to version, you’ll get the gist of what’s going on as the main thrust of the story is generally the same. Here is what you need to know to get started: the show tells the story of a little boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in the UK with his family, who are not very well off. When famous chocolatier, Willy Wonka, launches a competition for five children to visit his factory, Charlie’s life is changed forever.

You will notice a series of numbers in blocks at the bottom of this article. These can be used to navigate between the different sections of this review.

1. “Opening”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opens with a musical motif that seems destined to appear in the trailers of splashy fantasy films, but which will actually turn out to be the melody for the singing of Willy Wonka’s name when the children all arrive at the chocolate factory near the end of the first act. The short scene that follows is underscored with a music box styled waltz variation on the melody for “A Little Me”, one of the songs in the second act. In that scene, a tramp speaks to Charlie about the way that people litter, setting up the number which will introduce and establish Charlie to the audience in just a few moments. The tramp is played by Douglas Hodge, so one must conclude that he is meant to be Willy Wonka in disguise, which implies that Willy Wonka has been watching Charlie for some time with the idea of him taking over the factory. This idea – one not taken from the book – is reinforced later on during the first act, but is it an effective one? If Willy Wonka has pre-selected Charlie to take over the factory because he already knows his character because of incidents like this, then why go through the exercise that makes up the narrative of the story at all? Because it’s – as the show says later on – ‘simply second nature’ for him to make life interesting? That’s not a good enough reason to water down the dramatic tension of the plot right at the start nor is it a great moment of character definition, only serving to make the slightly creepy Willy Wonka appear a little bit more sadistic than he already is and not leaving Charlie anywhere to develop as a character, because he doesn’t prove his worth to take over the chocolate factory during the show, but is completely ready right at the start.

2. “Almost Perfect”

“Almost Perfect” is a song used to introduce Charlie to the audience and define the character in terms of the way that he views the world. It is his imaginative approach to things that catches Willy Wonka’s eye and this song spins the old saying that one man’s trash is another’s treasure to show how Charlie (sung on the recording with über-cute vocals by Jack Costello) sees things.

The song follows a typical AABA structure, which can be broken down as follows:

  • A B C D (Two verses with a variation in line 4 of the second verse and a chorus, with an extension)
  • A B C D (Two verses and a chorus, with the extension being instrumental this time)
  • E (A bridge, working with the same meter used for the verse)
  • A B C D (Two verses, with the second one developed, and extension used as a button)

Shaiman and Wittman play fairly freely with the structure, popping in extra syllables as it suits them, which makes the true developments and variations on the structure less noticeable and thus less effective as a medium for storytelling. In other words, the structure of the song as a scene is compromised by their lack of meticulous craftsmanship in this song. Some of their distracting deviations include the addition of the word “but” at the end of line 2 in the first B section and that of “it’s” at the start of the second C section.

In the second ABCD chunk, the A and B verses are varied. This indicates a growth in the complexity of the imaginative games Charlie is playing with the rubbish in the dump. He has moved on from being practical, to using the odds and ends he has found in symbolic ways. The first variation occurs in the second line of the A section and it is a pity that structural variation isn’t carried through into the second line of the B section as this is an effective storytelling technique. The second variation is a build in the line leading into the C section, an accumulation of syllables that supports Charlie’s growing excitement.

The bridge makes use of a similar metrical pattern to the verses, but employs a new melody that pushes Charlie’s symbolic games into full on imaginative role-play as he imagines the ending to the ‘book with missing pages’. It’s at this point where Shaiman and Wittman introduce the idea of chocolate in a song lyric for the first time, as a kind of measure for Charlie’s ultimate happiness. This builds up to the idea used in the final ABCD chunk, where Wonka chocolate bars appear falling from the stars. There’s something a little forced about all these mentions of chocolate, just as the idea of a roving sweet stall in a rubbish dump and the focus on chocolate wrappers amongst all the other waste in the dump were in the first scene, an indicated rather than organic piece of storytelling.

The final verse incorporates one of the things that bothers me quite a bit when Charlie sings that ‘Mr Wonka shall decree every candy shall be free.’ American lyricists tend to think that British people say shall instead of will. The rule is not that simple and can be summed up in the little chant, ‘I shall, we shall, all the rest will.’ So Oscar Hammerstein had it right when he wrote ‘shall we dance’ and ‘shall we fly’, but then errs with ‘shall you be my new romance’. Shaiman and Wittman make that same mistake here. A counterargument for this criticism is that characters don’t necessarily have to speak or sing using correct grammar, which is absolutely correct, with the proviso that a character’s diction is an important tool for characterisation. Having a character use incorrect grammar is as much a choice as using correct grammar. In both of these cases the choice of words is to help define or deepen the audience’s sense of the character’s nationality, so it is an error for me. (And “Wonka will” would sing better than ‘Wonka shall’ too!)

While we’re on the subject of diction, I must raise the question of whether the word ‘connoisseur’ a little earlier in the song is too complex a word for young Charlie or whether it’s just a handy word to use as an internal rhyme for ‘pure’. Come to think of it, is the word ‘pure’ appropriate to describe sweets? I’ve never heard anyone judge the quality of candy by its purity.

The final chorus and uses a variation to bring Charlie’s role play to a climax and then pull him out of it when the whistle blows, smartly reversing the ‘how d’ja do’ and ‘goodbye’. This takes Charlie home to the one-room shack where he lives with his parents and grandparents on a diet of cabbage soup.

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