A Giant Peach Ripens: Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Timothy Allen McDonald Freshen Up James for Seattle

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29 Nov 2013

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tony Award-nominated A Christmas Story songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Timothy Allen McDonald — along with the help of Seattle Children's Theatre artistic director Linda Hartzell — re-examine their musical James and the Giant Peach, about an orphan boy who discovers a magical world enclosed within a gigantic peach.

"Kids enjoy being challenged," said songwriter Pasek about the sophisticated and dark material by British novelist Roald Dahl that he and his collaborators adapted for the stage. "If it is scary, kids lean forward, and they want to know what happens, and it makes them engaged. As long as you don't cross the line to being something that's truly frightening, the fear of 'what's going to happen' is exciting. Playing into that — embracing that element that's in Dahl's work — is advantageous, especially in the theatre."

With James and the Giant Peach, which was given its developmental world premiere in 2010 at Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals, the boys had to balance the work's heavy themes — of a young child dealing with the death of his parents, suffering mental and physical abuse from his evil aunts and feeling as though there is nowhere to turn — with grace, ensuring that the musical would be suitable for young audiences and families.

"It's certainly changed — and hopefully evolved — since we [premiered] the show at Goodspeed," admitted Paul. "Obviously, that was the first time we'd ever seen the show in front of an audience, so we learned a lot just from that… Now, we sort of put [a different] lens on it and said, 'It needs to be a show that is going to be engaging a young audience — targeted for all ages,' so that effects how we tell the story, and we can do it in really imaginative ways."

Pasek, Paul and McDonald turned to the imagination of Seattle Children's Theatre and Hartzell, who directs the re-polished version of James, which officially opened Nov. 22. Hartzell and the creative team at SCT incorporated sophisticated puppetry and aerial work to bring the world within the Giant Peach to life.

"In James and the Giant Peach, there are two title characters," said McDonald. "There's James, and then we have this Giant Peach. The Giant Peach has to do all of these different things. It has to grow, it has to fall and roll, it has to go into the water and float, and then it also has to fall from the air, land on the top of the Empire State Building and then fall to the ground. How we were going to do that with this production was hours and hours and hours of discussion."

"As Tim said, those were all the things that needed to happen," added Hartzell. "As you're dealing with movement and space — not only traveling from location to location, but up in the air and to other realms — [we] just decided to use movement to tell a story."


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