They Adapted ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ and Their Personal Beliefs
Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick “could spend hours discussing the psychology” of growing up the sons of a Louisiana pastor and ending up in show business.
Wayne, 60, the older brother, made this remark with all due seriousness, during a break from polishing a musical version of the 1993 comedy “Mrs. Doubtfire” ahead of its Dec. 5 opening at the Stephen Sondheim Theater. That will be nearly 21 months after the show closed three performances into previews, shuttered by the pandemic.
Karey, 56, is more talkative, but the brothers complete each other’s sentences with the rapport of siblings who began recording pretend radio shows as kids. Over two hours in a hotel lobby in Manhattan, he and Karey recounted their religious Southern upbringing, their early careers and how they went from singing in Southern Baptist churches to writing Broadway musicals.
And yet, as they shared colorful anecdotes, one could draw parallels between their own professional and personal evolutions, and the changes they’ve made to their source material for “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“The sensibilities of the world we live in today are different than 1993 as we relate to all kinds of things,” Karey said. For example, the show’s producer Kevin McCollum interjected, “a man in a dress.”
Three decades ago, Robin Williams raked in box office receipts by donning fake boobs and plaid skirts. As Daniel Hillard, Williams played a newly divorced father so desperate to spend time with his children he disguised himself as a Scottish nanny and became a housekeeper for his ex-wife.
With help from John O’Farrell, a British satirist and co-writer of the book, the stage version of “Mrs. Doubtfire” has been updated to reflect the cellphone era, greater racial diversity and our 21st-century understanding of gender. The adaptation was seven years in the making, and along the way, further changes were necessary in the wake of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, O’Farrell said.
In the film, Sally Field portrayed the ex-wife, an imperious interior designer prattling on about Regency-style tables and Flemish tapestries. The musical finds her character, Miranda (Jenn Gambatese), designing sleek orange-and-pink athleisure wear for women who “work hard and then work out.”
With Rob McClure, who plays Daniel, sitting next to her onstage, Miranda plays a confessional piano ballad, called “Let Go,” about her unfulfilling marriage. That spotlight moment supplants a less sympathetic number, “I’m Done,” which was cut after the 2019 Seattle tryout. Reviews for that production were mixed, though McClure’s performance was roundly praised.
To better contextualize the man-in-a-dress schtick, the costume designer Catherine Zuber helped create the contrasting character of Andre, Daniel’s gender nonconforming brother-in-law (played by J. Harrison Ghee, who took over Billy Porter’s role in “Kinky Boots”).
Andre wears flowy caftans as fashion rather than a joke. And he saves the day by distracting a court-appointed social worker who shows up at Daniel’s ramshackle apartment.
McClure, meanwhile, changes in and out of his Doubtfire costume and winds up with a pie in his face, reprising an iconic image from the film. “This is all going to end badly. You do know that, right?” Andre deadpans after the ordeal.
Championing families and fatherhood is what drew the Kirkpatricks to the “Doubtfire” story.
Their first Broadway musical, the 2015 show “Something Rotten!,” about an Elizabethan theater troupe struggling to compete with Shakespeare’s Globe, was completely original.
They had hoped their second would be too, but McCollum persuaded them to choose from a library of 20th Century Fox films he’d been hired to work on. The team settled on “Mrs. Doubtfire” because “we could relate to this story of a dad who would do anything to be with his kids,” Karey said. (Collectively, the three writers and their producer are fathers to 10 children.)
The Kirkpatricks’ own father was a Southern Baptist music minister later called to the pulpit himself. He moved the family from Alexandria, La. to Baton Rouge to lead a nondenominational church.
Household routines included hymn singing, piano practicing and no cursing. To this day, their mother will voice her displeasure with one of the brothers’ projects with a single word: “Language.”
“I used to write everything knowing our parents would read it, and not swear or do anything offensive,” Karey said. “I had to liberate myself from that.”
Wayne added, “Growing up in that environment, there was so much taboo.” But thankfully, their parents had long been supportive of their artistic interests, even dressing theiryoung sons in matching outfits to perform patriotic numbers like “Yankee Doodle.” As adolescents, they took guitar lessons at Bible camp and came home begging for a Sears catalog guitar.
As soon as Wayne learned how to change chords, he was transcribing songs and writing his own. Karey craved the spotlight more, acting in shows at their arts magnet high school. Yet he said he sensed that his older brother was the greater musical talent.
“At age 18, I decided I was going to be his manager,” Karey recalled. His chance to play impresario came in 1983, when as a freshman studying music business at Belmont University in Nashville, he was assigned to interview someone from the industry. He picked Amy Grant, the first solo Christian music recording artist to have an album certified gold.
“But I had ulterior motives,” he said. He had a crush on Grant and wanted to promote Wayne, so after the interview, he invited the secretary from Grant’s office to lunch and slipped her a three-song cassette.
Sure enough, Grant’s manager called. He liked the songs. Were there more?
Karey returned with another tape. The manager called again, and this time he said, “Can I meet your brother?”
“I’m not a self promoter,” Wayne said, admitting that were it not for his loquacious brother, the duo might never have embarked on their parallel careers. Karey soon dropped out of Belmont to pursue acting. By 1993, the year “Mrs. Doubtfire” came out, Wayne had written more than 200 contemporary Christian songs, including multiple chart toppers for Grant (like “Good for Me” and “Every Heartbeat”) and Michael W. Smith (“Place in this World” and “Go West Young Man”).
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But both brothers were about to make significant pivots. Karey moved to California, studied filmmaking and wrote family films like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Chicken Run.” Wayne began producing and writing for country music acts like Little Big Town. His catalog also includes the Grammy-winning single “Change the World,” recorded by Eric Clapton.
All the while, whenever the brothers were together and a piano was available, they’d play songs from a project they called “That Shakespeare Musical.”
In 1996, they were in New York to celebrate the opening of Karey’s film “James and the Giant Peach.” A friend from Karey’s Disney World acting days asked if they wanted to see a tech rehearsal from a show he was producing. “Sure,” they said.
“We went to the Nederlander Theater and sat down and it was ‘Rent,’” Karey recalled.
The Disney World friend? That’s McCollum. After marveling at Jonathan Larson’s work over dinner, Wayne and Karey mentioned their idea for a show. McCollum said he’d “love to see what they came up with.”
“Fifteen years later,” Wayne said, “we showed him ‘Something Rotten!,’” which ended up scoring 10 Tony nominations. Not bad for a pair of first-time theater writers on their third careers. (In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley said the “rambunctious” show “wallows in the puerile puns, giggly double-entendres, lip-smacking bad taste and goofy pastiche numbers often found in college revues.”)
Wayne understands why people who know his early work are so mystified, and perhaps even disappointed, that he left Christian music. In fact, he said that 20-something Wayne, an evangelical who wrote a hit teen abstinence anthem, would be surprised that 30 years later, he has created a musical that explores divorce, sexual identity and gay adoption.
What happened? “You grow as a person and become more open to other people’s ideas,” he said. “That’s all part of the journey.”
The Kirkpatricks have not only gravitated away from the Christian music business, they’ve also left organized religion. Karey describes his secular career goal as writing material that “puts good messages out into the world.” Wayne said he no longer identifies as a Christian. “I consider myself a seeker,” he said.
The one constant from the brothers’ early Nashville lives is Amy Grant, who was among those friends who listened to songs from “Something Rotten!” while the show was in progress.
“Wayne never writes a throwaway lyric,” she said.
Unfortunately Grant will miss her friends’ second Broadway opening; she and Smith will be off on a nine-city holiday tour. “All is Well,” a song Smith calls the most beautiful Wayne ever wrote, will be the focal point of each night.
Echoes of scripture and piano-driven hymns still show up in the brothers music, and remains evident in the closing number for “Doubtfire,” when the entire cast gathers onstage to sing a slightly tweaked quote from Psalm 23: “Goodness will surely follow us,” goes the refrain. “As long as there is love.”