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Checking In With Rick Elice, Book Writer for “Water for Elephants”

The new Broadway musical Water for Elephants is a Depression-era love triangle set against the backdrop of a traveling circus. After losing what matters most, a young man jumps a moving train unsure and finds both employment and danger, as seen through the eyes of his older self. Three-time Tony nominee Rick Elice has adapted the show from Sara Gruen’s novel working alongside director Jessica Stone and complimenting a score by the acclaimed PigPen Theatre Co.

Garden State Journal spoke with Elice about his process in transferring the novel from page to stage

At what point did you come into the process of the show?

Eight years ago, in the summer of 2016, Peter Schneider and Jennifer Costello asked me if I’d be interested in adapting Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants, as a musical. A few years earlier, I’d adapted another novel, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Peter and the Starcatcher, into a play. That experience was a very happy one, and I thought I could bring some of what I learned on that project to this one. It’s an interesting challenge – taking a wildly popular, wide-ranging 300-page novel that you could read over a week or a month or a year, and figuring out how to present it to an audience in a single two-hour sitting. You must honor the novel, certainly, but you can’t present it all, not in two hours. So how would you do it? What’s your organizing principle? Which events do you keep, which do you re-order? Which characters do you conflate, which do you eliminate? And, the most important question: If it’s a musical that you’re writing, how does this story sing? The answer to that question was my first pitch to the producers. I said I’d be very keen to take on this project if I could do it with Pig Pen Theater Co, a collective of seven guys whose work I was kind of obsessed with.

What drew you to Water for Elephants? Had you read the novel, or perhaps even seen the movie?

I was part of a book club, and had read the novel a handful of years before Peter and Jen asked me to adapt it.  In part because, in another life, I’d done some advertising for Big Apple Circus and Ringling Bros, I felt the hand of the author reaching out from the pages and grabbing me. It’s a Depression-era story, and Sara deftly draws the curtain back on the American Dream, revealing the mud beneath the magic. She crafts a world where everything is up for grabs, and nothing is what it seems.  A rickety train houses an entire traveling circus. A stunning white steed is secretly lame.  A young student is passed off as a veterinarian. A solid marriage is in fact foundering.  An animal called “the dumbest creature on God’s green earth” turns out to be much wiser than anyone can imagine. And an old man who’s lost everything might be on the verge of finding another chance at life.

Can you speak about the approach you took to adapting the material?

As a musical, Water for Elephants gets to do something unusual – giving us two parallel coming-of-age stories for the same character at two different times in his life. As a memory play, we leaned into the fickle, dream-like, fragmented nature of recollection – in other words, the inherent theatricality of memory.  We wanted each aspect of the musical – songs, sets, costumes, lights, projections, circus feats, choreography – to actively take part in the telling of our story, showing us over and over that life is more compelling, more challenging, more joyful, more meaningful, indeed more memorable (it’s a memory play, after all) when we are part of something larger than ourselves.

The musical speaks and sings directly to all of us who, like the novel’s characters, are searching for family, trying to find home. There on stage, behind all the wonderful songs and the stunning spectacle, are many smaller, special moments of people learning to trust and care for each other.  Or stated in a more circus-centric way: You can’t leap into space, literally or metaphorically, without absolutely trusting that someone will be there to catch you.

Were there elements you felt you had to strip for the stage?

Sure. Let’s call it verisimilitude. It’s not feasible, or even practical, to try to put a real train on stage, or have real animals that start a real stampede. It’s not feasible, or even practical, to have real sawdust on the ground, or real tents being raised, or real crowds being barked into shows. This is obviously true about real abuse, violence, accidental death, murder – all elements crucial to Sara’s novel. The great writer Aaron Sorkin says art isn’t about what actually happened. It’s not a factual presentation. Theater isn’t a literal medium like movies. In a movie, you’d better damn well have real horses and lions and monkeys. And you’d better have an elephant. In fact, you probably have several. One whose eyes are especially expressive. One whose trunk is especially powerful. And another tall enough for the full-body long shots. In the theater, you won’t have an elephant. What you have is a great story and compelling characters, and the most important part of any theatrical equation, the audience’s imagination.

How do you write for a show that includes aerial and puppetry elements?

Very carefully. Because Water for Elephants is a memory play, we’re able to take a bit of license with what we show and what we imply. The aerial work, for example, is abstracted – so an acrobat soaring thirty feet above the stage can represent the healthy soul of an injured animal. The audience sees both things: an amazing feat of skill, and an emotionally gripping metaphor. The way we reveal our title character, Rosie the elephant, happens in stages. If, after fifty years, you’re remembering an animal’s eyes the first time you saw them, you might only imagine her eyes. The first affectionate embrace might only conjure the image of her trunk wrapping around you. When and why the entire animal is revealed is one of the show’s great moments, but we had to earn that moment in our story-telling.

What was the greatest challenge in writing the show?

There’s a risk to this kind of theatre – “story theatre,” as it’s called. Do we include enough? Did we exclude too much? Are we asking too much of the audience? But it’s my favorite kind of theatre, because I love the interactive part of it.

And sure, that kind of risk is challenging to write. By which I mean, the seven Pig Pen guys and me talking, arguing and coaxing Sara Gruen’s story into existence as a piece of theater. But let’s be honest – when the company of actors and our director, Jessica Stone, and our choreographers, Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (Shana’s also responsible for our circus design), have to bring it from the page to the stage – plotting and planning how, when and why our castmembers fly through the air, climbing and hurtling and tumbling, over and over, without a net – it’s a whole different kind of challenge.  Because suddenly real people are taking real risks before your eyes.  I mean, real, palpable risks.  Including our two lead actors, performing on a trapeze. The audience knows that literally anything might happen. And it’s that risk that raises the stakes in Water for Elephants; it raises them to the level of life and death. It’s powerful and it’s beautiful and I’ve never seen anything like it before.

What themes of the show resonate with you the most?

The protagonist of our story, one Jacob Jankowski – well, two Jacob Jankowskis, actually, as young Jacob’s story is told decades later by old Jacob – is a great stand-in for the rest of us.  He’s a solitary figure who’s lost everything when he jumps that train. We all know what that’s like – to “jump a train” – to take a risk in order to belong somewhere, to be part of something, to find home.  “What’s your home?” our show asks. It might be a football team or a secretarial pool or a poker night or a think tank or a garage band or, yes, even a circus troupe.

And these groups become second families. And family is like iron. Sometimes the bonds are stronger than with our real families. Sometimes we take them for granted and screw them up.  So while our show tells the story of this particular group of circus people, it’s hard not to be touched by those eternal issues of wanting to belong, wanting to be valued, wanting to be loved, wanting to find home. That’s often very moving, it’s often very funny. I guess that’s why it’s a main theme for me; it’s what I’m drawn to as a writer, and as a thinking, feeling person. I may be quite different from these characters, but I recognize what happens to them, what they go through and how they handle it, because I’ve gone through my version of it. I’m still going through it. I think we all are.

For more information on Water for Elephants, go here.