Years ago, rumblings of a Broadway musical adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s beloved children’s book, Tuck Everlasting, hit the theatre airwaves. There was almost a spotting in 2013, when the musical was set to premiere at Boston’s Colonial Theatre. But, that production was canceled, and audiences waited two more years until the show’s world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in January 2015. Over one year later, Tuck Everlasting finally lives on Broadway.
It’s common practice for musicals, nowadays, to take five or even ten years to transition from page to stage—though less common to wait one year between an out-of-town tryout and the Rialto. When director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who now has four shows on the Main Stem, first read the book, “I looked at it and thought, ‘There’s a lot of changing we need to do to make it a musical,’ but you know we want to keep the spirit of it,” he says.
“It’s visceral. It’s a largeness of emotion,” says book writer Claudia Shear of what makes Tuck right as a musical. “People who know the book might think of it as a small story, but it’s such a huge [piece] because it asks such big questions about living forever,” says book writer Tim Federle. “That begs to be sung.”
Federle and Shear are both first-time librettists, paired with Broadway newcomers composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen. The freshness of the team combined with the approach to the show explains why Nicholaw was the right fit to shepherd the project. Known for big productions numbers and elaborate design in shows like Something Rotten! and The Book of Mormon (also by Broadway newbies), this is clearly Nicholaw’s take on Tuck. “The intimacy is definitely there in the set, in the tone of the story,” he says. “But we have expanded it in that way because the story is sweet and minimalist, but the theme is sweeping. The theme of life and death, it calls for a little bit bigger when you’re singing about it.”
The piece aims to capture the essence of the novel, but Babbitt gave Shear a “free hand” when adapting it for the stage. “My respect and love for the book and for Natalie Babbitt is huge,” says Shear, but she wasn’t afraid to make the musical a new piece. “I made up characters that didn’t exist. I killed off people that were in the book. I changed the ending.”
Fear not, book-lovers. Tuck is a passion project for Miller and Tysen, who both fell in love with the story in the fourth grade and fought for the chance to be the team to musicalize this tale. They’ve juggled expanding the narrative and deepening the characters for Broadway without compromise to their artistic beliefs. “That was always the challenge,” says Tysen. “Is there a world where we can turn this into a big Broadway musical where we can have 20 people in the show even though the story itself has eight? How do you make that feel earned and honest…?”
Tysen and Miller discovered that honesty through lessons learned in the Atlanta try-out.
The opening sequence has been entirely re-worked. “Our biggest takeaway from Atlanta was that it took about 40 minutes for the audience to really latch into the piece and really start to connect the dots,” says Tysen. “We [went] back to the source material, read that first chapter and we’re like, ‘Oh, we just need to start everybody off on the same journey at the same day, meet all the characters and then go.’ It sets up the story, and it propels us in a way that we could never do before.”
“We had a lot of flashbacks when we were first writing it that it just didn’t work,” adds Nicholaw. “So we started telling it a little more linearly.” Plus, the show has organically added more dance.
Tysen and Miller have also written four new songs, and the team brought in Federle to assist with the book post-Atlanta. As a former Broadway performer turned children’s book author (Better Nate Than Never), Federle lent his eye to usher Tuck to Broadway this season. “In a way, it’s just bringing in a fresh perspective that your friends always bring to previews,” he says. “It’s a puzzle. It’s about saying what would happen if you took this ballad and put it in Act Two? And, hopefully, those things lift the musical to a new level.”
Federle’s inner performer helped him create the pace (“If the audience is going to be checking their Playbill—no offense—[during scenes] then we oughta just get to the next number.”) and his inner children’s author helped make “the adults feel a sense of deeply being touched, but also make the kids laugh.”
“It’s transformed so much,” says Michael Park, who plays Pa (Angus) Tuck. “It does feel like we’re doing a new show now.”
It’s been hard work for these actors as the characters has evolved with every iteration of the story—par for the course on an original musical. “I think the father role—Winnie being in mourning of her father and [me] becoming that kind of father figure to her, that changed a lot,” says Park. “It’s got a little beefier and we see Pa wake up more because of Winnie.”
Carolee Carmello was drawn to the project from the start. “I fell in love with the soul of the piece because it’s just a beautiful, life-affirming tale,” she says. As a mom herself, there is an essence of her in Ma (Mae) Tuck—whether it be the Atlanta version or today’s final product. “There were a couple of versions along the way where Mae kind of had this nervous breakdown,” she says. “It was really fun to play because there was something sort of desperate about it. It was a color of her that you didn’t see in the rest of the show, but I think [the team] felt, and probably rightly so, that it’s too much of a departure.” Still, she confesses, “There’s a song that I had that I really miss from that version.” (Bonus track?)
Though it’s been six years since the early readings, it seems Tuck arrives at the perfect time for Broadway and its actors. “When I first started this project, I was close to the age of Jesse, and I think things that came really easy to me were the sense of wide-eyed wonderment and feeling innocent and naïve to this world,” says Andrew Keenan-Bolger, a Broadway favorite who graduates to a major leading role with this show. “As I’ve gotten to age with [the role], there’s a whole other level…. I don’t think I would have been able to play this part six years ago when I started, certainly not to the level that I’m able to tap into this character now.”
“With every step and every speed bump the show only got better,” says Tysen. “At the end of the day we needed the time. We needed to figure this piece out.” When the show opens on April 25, the team will find out if they’ve done enough to make this show Everlasting.