How ‘Tuck Everlasting’ Composers Adapted a Novel for B’way

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Photo Source: Hali Alspach

At its heart, storytelling is about immortalizing. The upcoming Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting,” written by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, with music and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller, addresses this literally. Beginning previews March 31, the show brings to life onstage Natalie Babbitt’s novel about an immortal family and the young girl who befriends them.

In the intimate environment of the Black Box Theatre at NYU Tisch School of the Arts—10 days before the show opens to its first audience—composers and graduates of NYU Tisch’s musical theater writing program Miller and Tysen, and book writer Federle discussed the process of adapting a work of fiction as a musical. Additionally, they performed excerpts from the score and reflected on the tricky nature of the business.

With youth-oriented Broadway adaptations such as “School of Rock the Musical” and “Fun Home” on the Great White Way, the balancing act of pitching successful shows to producers without sacrificing creative integrity or source material accuracy in the process can be difficult, said the creative team.

The composers addressed the challenge of bringing various elements of the novel, as well as the sound of folk and Americana, into the milieu of Broadway-style storytelling. The process resulted in six months of spec songs performed in front of producers with more than 40 songs written, only 22 of which made it to the final score.

By reducing character elements and altering thematic material, the story of an immortal family living in rural America in the 1880s was given new life under the direction of Tony-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. When speaking of the writing process, Federle recalled a note from the “Something Rotten!” helmer: “You can’t dance the lyric ‘can’t,’ it needs to be replaced by something positive,” which resulted in an improved lyrical change. This collaborative process yielded the kind of artistic balance needed to craft simple moments and make them land for the audience.

On the stage delivering those moments will be Broadway veterans Andrew Keenan-Bolger (“Newsies”) and Tony nominee Carolee Carmello (“Finding Neverland”), and newcomer Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie Foster, among others.

“We’ve gone through many Winnies because she has to stay 11 years old, and actors quickly grow out of it,” said Tysen of casting the precocious girl. “We had to be careful not to let the age gap become distracting, to deal with it delicately so it stayed true to the source material.”

Performed for the small audience at the university were “Good Girl Winnie Foster,” in which the protagonist laments her humdrum lifestyle, building dramatic tension toward her meeting the enchanted Tuck family, and “Time,” a bittersweet folk ballad reflecting on the nature of passing time and the loneliness of having too much of it.

“Live to Tell the Tale” displayed the show’s streak of dark humor, recounting various bodily injuries sustained by the unharmable family over giddy and frantic piano chords.

“The [actors’] line readings are influenced by the melodies,” Federle added about the tunes. “The emotional beats need to be exact, but we want the actors to bring their own interpretation to it.”

“Tuck Everlasting” opens April 26 at the Broadhurst Theatre.

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