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Water for Elephants‘ Journey from Bestseller to New Broadway Musical

Novelist Sara Gruen bursts into delighted laughter when asked if she imagined her worldwide bestseller Water for Elephants as a Broadway musical. “Never in my life!” she exclaims. “I’ve never had anything to do with the theater, so I was blown away by the idea.” Placing her trust in a creative team that included writer Rick Elice, a three-time Tony Award nominee for the Broadway hits Jersey Boys and Peter and the Starcatcher, Gruen is thrilled that her tale of a traveling circus in 1931 is delighting audiences at the Imperial Theatre, with Variety declaring the new musical “Spellbinding entertainment… Water for Elephants could be the greatest show on Broadway.” “It’s been an absolute joy, the most surreal and magical experience, to see all these moving parts come together.”

When Gruen mentions “moving parts,” she’s not exaggerating: Water for Elephants blends puppetry, circus arts, and classic Broadway storytelling in a new musical about Jacob Jankowski (played by TV favorite Grant Gustin), a veterinary student who loses his family and home in the throes of the Depression before finding a new life caring for animals on a circus train. The show features thrills, surprises, and romance, structured as a memory play narrated more than 50 years later by an aging Jacob (four-time Tony nominee Gregg Edelman).

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

Unlike Gruen, Elice immediately saw the theatrical possibilities in Water for Elephants. “It’s a ‘picaresque’ story, which is to say that the characters travel from place to place, and interesting things happen to them along the way,” he explains. “It’s also a big, juicy romance, which is fun to musicalize, and an unexpected coming-of-age story set in very particular world — the circus — that is exotic. Overall, it’s what people in England would call ‘a ripping yarn,’ emotionally surprising and shocking and, in the end, moving.”

With such a huge canvas, Elice and his collaborators had to pick and choose among Gruen’s characters and storylines, and the author was delighted with the result. “It was clear from the beginning that these were incredibly talented, creative people,” she says. “Rick captured all the key points and key emotions and key feelings, all the places where the story swells, where there are crescendos, where you want people to feel something. He just got it.”

Marissa Rosen, Gregg Edelman, Taylor Colleton, Sara Gettelfinger, Joe De Paul, and Stan Brown in Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Marissa Rosen, Gregg Edelman, Taylor Colleton, Sara Gettelfinger, Joe De Paul, and Stan Brown in Water for Elephants. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Describing a joyful meeting of the minds, Elice says that Gruen “has always been 100 percent supportive of what we were doing and the way we were doing it. She was fascinated to see how events can be depicted onstage in an imaginative rather than a literal way, which is part of the fun for audiences. Most important to Sara was that the story would pack an emotional punch and capture a feeling of place and time that felt true to the novel.”

Gruen speaks modestly about the achievement of her book, which has sold more than 10 million copies. Inspired by vintage photos of traveling circuses in the 1920s and ’30s, Water for Elephants “almost didn’t get published” before a sharp-eyed editor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about 200 miles from the author’s home in Asheville, snapped it up. “I thought I was writing a Depression-era story, but mostly it’s about love,” she says, “how we should treat each other and how we should treat animals.”

On stage, the animals are portrayed in various levels of abstraction, and circus elements become a thrilling part of the storytelling. “There’s a magical realism to the story on a stage that you can’t get away with in a movie,” Gruen says. “With the music and the staging and the crowd, it becomes a living thing.”

Speaking of music, Elice tapped the seven-member PigPen Theatre Co. collective to compose the Water for Elephants score after seeing their 2012 Off-Broadway musical The Old Man and the Old Moon. The result, he says, is part bluegrass troubadour songs, part big Broadway showstoppers. One highlight, both musically and acrobatically, is “Easy,” a moving song in which leading lady Marlena (Isabelle McCalla) soothes an injured horse (portrayed by aerialist Antoine Boissereau), with the horse’s response represented by percussive sounds. “The first time I saw that, my heart was in my mouth,” says Gruen.

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.

Audiences of all ages echo the novelist’s stunned reaction to the high-flying staging by Tony-nominated director Jessica Stone, circus designer and co-choreographer Shana Carroll, and co-choreographer Jesse Robb. “If I was a kid going to the theatre for the first time, I would watch the first 45 minutes of this show and think, ‘This is what I have to do for the rest of my life,’” Elice says with a laugh. “There’s drama, there’s music, there’s pathos, there’s romance, there’s danger. People are flying over your head. It’s like, ‘What the heck is going to happen?’”

Anchoring the production’s many amazing moments is the saga of young and old Jacob, a character described by Elice as “a perfect stand-in for all of us. He is a solitary figure who takes a risk in order to feel part of something larger than himself. I think everyone can relate to that: We’re all searching for a place to belong, for a chosen family who will help us with our heavy loads. ‘Water for elephants’ is a metaphor for the burden we carry as humans, a burden made easier when we carry it with others. It’s hard not to be touched by those universal issues of wanting to belong and wanting to achieve and wanting to be respected and wanting to find a home.”

When audiences see the Broadway version of her novel, Gruen wants them to be reminded of the importance of connection. “We need to care about others not because we are expecting a reward for it, but just because it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “This is a story about the power of love.”

Learn More About Water for Elephants