Interview: Sara Gruen and Rick Elice Talk About the Inspiration and Evolution of the New Musical Water for Elephants

The show, based on Gruen’s novel, runs on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre.

The Broadway cast of Water for Elephants.
(© Sophy Holland)

“Just join the circus like you wanted to,” P.T. Barnum implores in the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum. A young man named Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who has just suffered a tragedy, does just that in Sara Gruen’s best-selling 2006 novel Water for Elephants.

Now, almost two decades after the novel’s publication, it has been adapted into a Broadway musical, directed by Jessica Stone and featuring a score by PigPen Theatre Co. Grant Gustin, Isabella McCalla, Gregg Edelman, and a host of real-life circus performers star at the Imperial Theatre.

TheaterMania recently spoke with Gruen and the show’s librettist, three-time Tony Award nominee Rick Elice, about the challenges of musicalizing the novel, what they learned from their pre-Broadway tryout in Atlanta, and what message audiences might take away from the show.

Rick Elice has adapted the book of Water for Elephants from Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel.
{images provided by the production)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What made you each want to run away to the circus, as it were?

Sara Gruen: The book came to me in bits and pieces. I came across this vintage circus photo by Edward J. Kelty, and I realized I had a setting where anything could happen. I just dove in and never looked back. In the end, I realized I could pull 100 stories out of that photo.

Rick Elice: In 2015, I was approached by producer Peter Schneider, who came to me with the novel, which I had read as part of a book club and had talked about a lot in get-togethers. I had just been through a very difficult personal experience [the death of husband Roger Rees], and I was thinking about how to keep going. And because the novel deals with this main character who is going through loss — both as an old man and a young man — I thought this was the perfect show for someone at my stage of life.

Did either of you have any misgivings about musicalizing the novel?

Rick: Not really. I thought the theatrical collective PigPen was well suited to be our collaborators, even if it’s unusual to have seven composer-lyricists. So, we went to Sara and told her how we wanted to do the show, what could be included from the book, what couldn’t be included, and what had to be conflated. Luckily, she was so enthusiastic about how we were going to do it and so game to our theatrical ideas. Then we took it to Jessica Stone, who we wanted to direct, and she had some early ideas on how to develop the piece. And there has been no looking back since.

How much has the musical changed between Atlanta and NYC?

Rick: When we were told that we were coming to Broadway and that we got the one theater, the Imperial, where we could physically do the show, we knew how much work we had to do. Mostly, it was about sharpening the story and making it more muscular. We also changed some numbers and did some recasting. People from Atlanta will probably think it’s better here, but they may not know why.

Sara, what message do you want audiences to take home from the show?

Sara: I never want to tell people want to think; but this is a story about love and compassion and caring for other people. That’s my takeaway.

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