James’ Journey

One of NewMusicalTheatre.com’s current best selling songs is “Middle of a Moment” from Pasek and Paul’s new musical adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. Musical theatre fans are downloading the free cast album by their favorite composing team, but few know the journey of James and how this mighty musical is impacting both the fields of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and new musical theatre. In tracing James and the Giant Peach’s development process, I wonder if this show presents a new model of creating musical theatre for young audiences.

As fits a musical for young audiences, the development process of  James and the Giant Peach has elements of those of both general new musical theatre and TYA. As the production developed, it moved from the East Coast to the West, stopping at three of the most prestigious development centers in the United States: Goodspeed Opera House, The Kennedy Center, and Seattle Children’s Theatre. Each theatre organization that assisted in the creation of James and the Giant Peach maintains a commitment to nurturing new work. Although the New Visions/New Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center and Seattle Children’s Theatre concentrate on growth of new work written for young people, Goodspeed Opera House’s mission focuses exclusively on musical theatre. Similarly, James and the Giant Peach bridges writers from different areas of the musical theatre. The show brings together the popular Tony-nominated song-writing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul with veteran TYA bookwriter Timothy Allen McDonald.

The trajectory of James and the Giant Peach seems more likely for productions in the future. Kim Peter Kovak, Producing Director of Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences, explains that new models of development are emerging in our field. He states, “Any of a number of theaters whose audiences are primarily adults are now commissioning and producing work specifically for young audiences of families, more and more each year.” As Kovak alludes to, there exist many different ways to create new art. He suggests that a “greying of the field” leads to new models of show development and suggests that theatre makers and the theaters themselves need to work together to generate new art.

Kovak’s theory of artistic incubation certainly applies to James and the Giant Peach, which paired specific theaters with the show’s creative team. Most TYA musicals develop with a major licensing company attached or through a laboratory like the Coterie Theatre’s Lab for New Family Musicals, whose mission focuses on introducing Broadway composing teams to the field of TYA. Instead, James and the Giant Peach progressed like any other new American musical theatre piece- through festivals and in developmental theatre spaces.

The Tony-nominated writing team Pasek and Paul has discussed the change in audiences openly in interviews with Playbill.com. In 2010, Paul stated, “As a creative team, we decided from the beginning that we were not writing a show for children.” But in a more recent interview on November 29, 2013, Paul reflects back to the first time they saw the show in front of an audience at Goodspeed. He described it as a learning experience. “Now, we sort of put a different lens on it,” Paul says. “It needs to be a show that is going to be engaging to a young audience.”

Also, Pasek discussed the trajectory of show after its Seattle run. He explained that the creative team’s goals for the production existed in theatre specifically for young audiences. In the same interview with Playbill.com, Pasek admits Broadway was not the aim, but he also believes that “anything 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.” The show possibly found a home in the large field of TYA with the Jr. and TYA versions of the production in addition to the full two-act version.

James and the Giant Peach’s journey remains fascinating, but the question about the ability to replicate the model in order to generate additional musical theatre works for young audiences remains unanswered. The production’s incubation and creation illustrate the ways in which segmented fields within the theatre find intersections with one another. It also points to the fact that work will ultimately find the right audience through the guidance of the houses and festivals committed to generating new work. As a scholar of both musical theatre and TYA, I believe this model and the trajectory of James and the Giant Peach needs repeated in order to continue the development of quality American musical theatre, no matter who the audience may be!

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