Few Broadway shows can claim as many ties to children’s literature as Tuck Everlasting: The Musical can. Based on the classic 1975 novel by Natalie Babbitt, it has been adapted for the stage with a libretto by Claudia Shear and author Tim Federle (Better Nate Than Ever). The musical’s star, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, also writes middle-grade novels: the second book in Keenan-Bolger’s Jack and Louisa series, Act Two (Grosset and Dunlap), released in February.
The production, which begins previews March 31 and officially opens on April 26 at Manhattan’s Broadhurst Theatre, has been nearly a decade in the making.
“When I first heard the idea proposed – some seven or eight years ago – I was uneasy,” Babbitt told PW via e-mail. “But then, as I met the people who were involved, and they all agreed that they wanted to keep the essence of the story intact, it was exciting to watch them add the elements of a live musical.” Babbitt saw the show during its pre-Broadway run at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in 2015.
The idea to adapt Tuck into a musical started with lyricist Nathan Tysen who, like millions of other kids, read the book in elementary school. The novel celebrated 40 years in print last year and has sold four million copies. There have been two film versions: a 1981 film directed by Frederick King Keller, and a Disney remake in 2002.
As readers know, the story is set in the 19th- century and revolves around 11-year-old Winnie Foster, portrayed in the musical by newcomer Sarah Charles Lewis as a free-spirited but overprotected only child, whose home backs up to a wood that her widowed mother has forbidden her to roam. In a fit of pique, she escapes there, encountering Jesse Tuck (Keenan-Bolger), the youngest member of his family, who is either 17 or somewhere north of 100, depending on how you count. Nearly 90 years earlier, Jesse, his brother, and parents fatefully drank from a spring in the Foster family’s woods, inadvertently becoming immortal.
Claudia Shear, who wrote the libretto for the show’s Atlanta run, had not read Babbitt’s novel before being asked to adapt it for the stage. She was impressed.
“It’s quite profound,” Shear says. “As a writer, [the book] gives you so much texture to work with.” Still, purists are forewarned: Shear had to add characters and elements to make the novel work on stage.
A key addition opens up the action of the mostly interior story by setting a new scene at an outdoor carnival: the villainous Man in the Yellow Suit is working there, running the “Guess Your Age” booth, when Jesse Tuck wanders by with Winnie on his arm. Shear gave the constable a Barney Fife-like deputy, and made the constable more dimwitted and less of an authority figure. “My constable is not the constable of the book but he grew organically from the text,” Shear said. “It works the other way, too. The best moment or bit of dialogue I come up with may become a lyric. Whatever best serves the story is what you’re after. I give the straw to the composer; he spins it into gold.”
Perhaps the biggest change is in tone, not plot – many moments are played for laughs. There’s a humorous sensibility to the show that isn’t present in Babbitt’s masterpiece. Winnie’s grandmother delivers most of the zingers. When she first encounters the villain, she quips: “Where do you find a suit that color? And why would you buy it?” The Tucks explain their immortality to Winnie in a slapstick number, “Live to Tell the Tale,” that employs a frying pan, hatchet, shotgun, wooden chair, knife, and a rattlesnake to demonstrate all the ways in which they have tested the strength of their immortality. “Jesse held his breath through all of 1853,” the Tucks sing.
Babbitt loves one of the musical’s quieter moments: “The scene with Winnie and Pa Tuck in the rowboat is my favorite,” she said. “It carries the essence of the story, the whole of what I wanted to say, and it’s done beautifully in song and setting, based as it is on a real lake always visited in my summer childhood – Indian Lake in northwestern Ohio.” (The musical, however, sets the show in New Hampshire.)
Spoiler alert: The ending has been both simplified and enhanced by a sweeping ballet number that dramatizes Winnie’s life as she grows from girl to young woman to mother and beyond. New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, who saw the show in Atlanta, called it “dazzling.”
For the transition to Broadway, the producers brought in Federle, a writer well known in the children’s book community for his series on Nate Foster (no relation to Winnie!) because Shear was in the middle of finishing a different project. For Federle, whose career began as a child dancer (he appeared in five Broadway shows, including Gypsy and The Little Mermaid), the chance to get a writing credit for Tuck was a dream come true. “I had been trying to adapt Nate’s story as a musical when [director] Casey [Nicholaw] asked if I would give them a fresh perspective on the [Tuck] script before the Broadway run started, so this is not only beyond thrilling, it was also exactly the opportunity I needed,” Federle said.
Raising the Curtain
To take advantage of the Broadway run, publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Tuck Everlasting’s publisher, is planning a big moment around opening night, offering a book giveaway so fans who have just seen the play can re-read the novel that inspired it. Tickets to the preview have been offered to booksellers, educators, and wholesalers so they can experience the show early and spread the word to fans. Local schools in the tri-state area will receive a mailing highlighting the book, the teacher guide, and a special discount code for tickets. Bookstores in the tri-state area have received promotional materials and Tuck Everlasting: The Musical window cards. Books will be on sale at the theater, and FSG plans to advertise in Playbill.
Joining Lewis and Keenan-Bolger in the cast are Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello as Mae Tuck, two-time Emmy Award winner Michael Park as Angus Tuck, three-time Tony nominee Terrence Mann as the Man in the Yellow Suit, and Robert Lenzi as Miles Tuck. The score is by Tysen and Chris Miller; Nicholaw, a Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and The Drowsy Chaperone, directs the show and created the choreography.
The project has the blessing of its original creator, whose worries about what might happen to her story have been cast aside. “I realize it’s not going to be my book exactly,” Babbitt said, “but it is going to be a wonderful musical based on my book.”