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

By Michael Gioia
November 29, 2013

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."

A scene from the show
Photo by Chris Bennion Photo

Throughout the two-act musical — in which James discovers a magical potion that makes an ordinary peach grow to an extraordinary size — as the Peach and its inhabitants grow, so do the puppets.

"Seeing it live is really exciting," said McDonald. "The interesting thing about James and the Giant Peach is that you're a ways into [the story] before you meet the [enlarged versions of the] characters that you're going to [spend time] with for most of the show. By introducing the insects one at a time as the show progresses, we hope that then audiences will have a little backstory, so when they become these anthropomorphized [creatures] — somewhere between a human and an insect — they have backstories, and you think, 'Oh! That's the ladybug from the first scene.' It seems like it's going to be pretty awesomely magical."

"I think the story itself is so peculiar [and] fascinating to the audience that you've accomplished [incorporating the darker themes of Roald Dahl's work] through the fact that you've got six-foot human beings playing earthworms and centipedes and speaking with this child," said Paul. "You've got a child on stage with a bunch of insects!"

The show continues in an extended engagement at Seattle Children's Theatre through Jan. 12, 2014, with hopes that James and his Giant Peach will travel around the States.

"Our hope and dream is to see this show go out into theatres, especially since we are — as we said — creating this show for young audiences," said Paul. "The plan is for all those young audiences to see the show and hopefully get a chance to talk about it with their family or their parents and teachers. Our goal is just that this production is the launching pad for this show…"

"Seattle Children's Theatre is a fantastic place to have the show premiere," added Pasek. "I don't think that we have designs to make it a Broadway show, but I think that anything that exists within the realm of Theatre for Young Audiences — whether that is a theatre in New York that caters to that audience or anywhere in the country, we'd be very excited… Right now, we're really just focused on making the best show possible in Seattle."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

Watch the cast of James and the Giant Peach in rehearsal: