Jessica Stone Brings Water for Elephants to Breathtaking Life on Broadway

Aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, clowns, and a menagerie of dazzling animal puppets: These are just a handful of the electrifying elements in the new Broadway musical Water for Elephants. On top of all that, the show, which was recently declared a New York Times Critic’s Pick, boasts an achingly beautiful love story and memory play enacted on sets that include an enormous tent and spinning train cars. The real-life ringmaster for this ambitious adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel, which centers on a young man who loses everything before stumbling into a Depression-era traveling circus, is director Jessica Stone. A Tony nominee for helming last season’s Best Musical winner, Kimberly Akimbo, Stone artfully mixes high-flying moments with a universal story of finding happiness after pain. While prepping for opening night at the Imperial Theatre, Stone chatted with Broadway Direct about making Water for Elephants soar on Broadway.

Water for Elephants is both an exciting look at circus life in 1931 and the colorful tale of aspiring veterinarian Jacob Jankowski [played in younger and older versions by Grant Gustin and Gregg Edelman, respectively]. What drew you to direct a musical version of Sara Gruen’s novel?

I was very moved by Jacob as he’s older, thinking about the life he’s lived and the life he wants to live now. Those memories are set against the romantic idea of traveling through the countryside with the circus, a chosen family of people highly skilled at creating magic. Their bravery and showmanship are really compelling — I think we all would like to know what it feels like to fly through the air!

Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin in Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin in Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Did you understand the epic scope of the show when you started working on it?

I did and I didn’t. [Laughs.] I never thought of this as a giant show; I thought of it as a multitextured show. Creatively, the fact that it’s a memory play became my way into the aesthetic of the story. Jacob is remembering one of the most vibrant chapters of his life, and his memories are expressed through the language of the circus. It just so happens that those memories include acrobats and puppeteers and scaffolding and a train and a stampede … and an elephant.

Your production achieves a fabulous balance between the spectacular circus elements and Jacob’s human story alongside Marlena [Isabelle McCalla], the big-top star he finds himself drawn to.

Loss is the trigger for Jacob’s story, but joy is the thing he chooses. When you lose everything, will you be a person who can still see stars in the sky? Will you attack your nemesis, or will you save an elephant and fall in love?

How can a Broadway musical bring this story to life in a way that’s as compelling as a movie?

When you see somebody hurling through the air live on stage, it’s very different from seeing it on a screen. We can also play around with how events are presented. For example, when Jacob meets Marlena, he first falls in love with her skill in working with an animal in pain. In the movie, you would see a literal horse, but in the theatre, we can abstract that event and use puppetry and music and an aerialist to turn it into a circus act. Our puppets and animals are seen through the prism of Jacob’s memory.

Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

You’ve assembled an amazing cast of musical theater performers and circus pros. How have those two worlds come together?

Our mantra is “We are one company.” The people who sing and dance participate in some circus skills, and our circus corps sings and dances. There’s a level of humility and grace in our company because everybody is working a little bit outside their lane, everybody is able to shine on stage, and everybody takes care of one another.

Let’s brag a bit about your four leading actors, all of whom are perfectly cast and share great chemistry.

Grant Gustin made a name for himself on television [in The Flash and Glee], but he belongs to the theater. He has the most shimmering voice, he’s a beautiful dancer, and his willingness to explore Jacob’s vulnerability is so inspiring to watch. Izzy [McCalla] is another brave, willing actor — she’s doing a routine on a trapeze! — and she’s also a beautiful singer and dancer with a giant heart. Paul Alexander Nolan [as August, Marlena’s circus owner husband] is excellent at playing a baddie, but he’s a softy underneath, which is perfect for August. And Gregg Edelman [as Mr. Jankowski] is able to tap into the vulnerability of an older man who is not just reliving his past, but making a decision about his future. I adore them all.

What do you love about the show’s score [by seven members of the PigPen Theatre Co. collective] and book [by three-time Tony nominee Rick Elice]?

PigPen have created a score that feels influenced by music the circus would have picked up making its way across the country. You’ve got a little bit of New Orleans jazz, songs people are singing to each other while raising a tent, soaring ballads — it’s no small feat. Rick took the key details from Sara Gruen’s story and expanded them in a way that fits the theatrical landscape, which is a challenge in a musical with so many big events.

The cast of Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The cast of Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

What’s it been like to see the show come to life at the Imperial Theatre?

The thing that really pleases me is seeing kids in the audience. The other day, I watched this boy whose eyes lit up when we were talking about the elephant. I’ve been surprised that people actually scream at the end of Act One. I haven’t experienced that before, and I love it!

What do you hope audiences will feel when they see Water for Elephants?

I want our audiences to have a blast! I want them to feel moved in all the right ways — I want the energy to change in the room, I want them to gasp with delight, and I want them to care about our characters. I want them to forget about life and be immersed in this beautiful, joyful story.

Learn More About Water for Elephants