This week, Broadway buffs and readers alike can expect to see Nate, the titular character of Tim Federle’s 2013 middle grade novel Better Nate Than Ever, (Simon & Schuster) sing and dance his way onto the screen. The film is set to be released exclusively on Disney+ starting April 1. Along with writing the screenplay, Federle will also be making his directorial debut.
Seventh grader Nate Foster (newcomer Rueby Wood) has big dreams of becoming a Broadway musical star. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a part in the school play. When Nate’s parents (Michelle Federer, New Amsterdam; Norbert Leo Butz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) leave town, he and his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks, All That), use the rare opportunity to sneak to New York City in order to prove that he has what it takes to take center stage. In doing so, they also run into Nate’s long-lost Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow, Friends). Some other familiar faces joining the cast have been seen on and off of Broadway, including Joshua Bassett (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) as Nate’s older brother, Anthony; and Tony winner Priscilla Lopez (A Chorus Line) as the casting director. The movie is produced by Marc Platt (La La Land) and Adam Siegel (Oslo), with Federle and Pamela Thur (Hustlers) as executive producers.
When Siegel first read an early draft for the script, he remembers being very taken by it. “It felt like a love letter to Broadway and New York, two things that are important to me,” he said. Ultimately, he was pulled by the sense of wish fulfillment that the main character (and in turn the audience) would get to experience. “Nate is a character who dreams big and goes for it and achieves it,” Siegel said. “I love helping to put that energy into the world.”
Inspired by Federle’s experience as a theater-loving kid growing up in Pittsburgh, the book is an homage to his own life as well as other kids who are waiting for something to happen. “Sometimes when you’re young,” Federle said in a statement, “you think you have to change yourself to fit in at the right cafeteria table. And I think the journey of adulthood is about realizing you don’t have to change yourself. Sometimes you actually just have to change the people around you who can understand who you are. When you get enough people with similar passions and interests together, you’ve got this club and you no longer have to apologize. You can actually create.”
Channeling some of that Broadway flair, the movie uses music as a way to portray intense emotions. “Unlike in a novel, you can have the inner voice come alive, and [having] someone like Tim who knew the musical numbers so well made a big difference,” Siegel said. “Music does such a good job of conveying emotion, you can sing things that you can’t say.” The wonder of the Big Apple experienced by the movie characters was another aspect that the actors themselves underwent, a feeling that translated to the screen. “From shooting at the Natural History museum, to shooting at the New Amsterdam Theater, to signing autographs at 7 a.m. in Times Square, they [Wood and Bassett] were living out the movie in real time. Aria had never been in NYC either,” Siegel marveled. “It was art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life.”
Siegel, who has previous experience producing books-turned-movies (including Drive and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), recalls a moment between him and the author of Drive, James Sallis. “To get to experience [turning a book into a film] with the author is a tremendous privilege. [Sallis] said, ‘You breathed in my book and breathed out a movie,’ and that’s what you want to hear from an author because it can’t be a carbon copy. Because Federle was a big part [of the film] it was a tremendously special experience. I got to watch the author himself inhale a book and exhale a film.”
“I think this movie is a celebration of those people who lead the way for the next generation and those places that we escaped to in order to find ourselves,” Federle said.
Siegel hopes audiences are able to experience the wonder that comes with having larger than life aspirations. “It’s a love letter to dreaming big, it’s a love letter to New York, and it’s a love letter to Broadway.”