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Open Book: TUCK EVERLASTING's Bookwriters Claudia Shear and Tim Federle; Providing Dirt For A Garden

OPEN BOOK is BroadwayWorld's series placing a well-deserved spotlight on some of the least appreciated of theatre artists, those who write the books for musicals.

TUCK EVERLASTING, based on the novel by Natalie Babbitt about a young girl who befriends a boy whose family lives forever, is the first Broadway musical written by either member of its bookwriting team, Claudia Shear and Tim Federle. Actor/playwright Shear won an Obie in 1993 for her solo play BLOWN SIDEWAYS THROUGH LIFE and made her Broadway debut as both actor and playwright when DIRTY BLONDE transferred from Off-Broadway. Federle's Broadway career began as a farm boy in the Bernadette Peters revival of GYPSY. After appearing in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, THE LITTLE MERMAID and BILLY ELLIOT, he turned his career towards becoming an award-winning writer of fiction for young adults ("Better Nate Than Ever") and humorous cocktail books for adult adults ("Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist").

"I use the metaphor of turning straw into gold, like Rumpelstiltskin," says Shear of musical theatre bookwriting. "As a bookwriter, you're the dirt. And nobody really sees the dirt. You walk on top of it and you just see the flowers and the plants. And that's what it should be. You're growing a garden. You can't say, 'Wait, what about me? I gave you all of this dirt!' Pretty white gravel is not going to grow anything. And it might seem like a waste to have these acres of rich black soil that I like to think I bring. But look what comes from it."

Federle puts it in more theatrical terms: "Have you ever seen a juggler? Okay, have you ever seen a juggler use swords? Okay, now add fire and maybe a puppy. Some fruit, for fiber. And an audience. And many millions of dollars. Kidding aside, every show is different and every room is different; it's one part trusting your own internal storytelling gut, one part deferring to a larger group of both creators and producers, and one part copious drinking. It is also many parts fun."

"I love musicals," says Shear, who began the initial work on the book with director Casey Nicholaw, composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen. "I worked with the greatest bookwriter in the world, James Lapine."

Lapine directed Shear's DIRTY BLONDE after directing and writing the books for three musicals with Stephen Sondheim, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, INTO THE WOODS and PASSION.

"I was obsessed with 'On The Steps Of The Palace,'" Cinderella's INTO THE WOODS solo.

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Charles Lewis in
TUCK EVERLASTING (Photo: Joan Marcus)

"He would write a monologue and it would become the song," she says of the Sondheim/Lapine working relationship. It's a technique she used herself with her Tuck Everlasting collaborators. "I wrote pages and pages and talked with them for hours about every single song."

Unlike his co-author, Federle had no experience writing for the stage before this opportunity arose. "I absolutely had interest in writing musicals, but I was luckily so busy with both my novels and my cocktail recipe books that I hadn't actually stopped to map out a plan to dive back into theater. When I got the call about TUCK I was in the middle of developing a movie musical for Nickelodeon, so my head was already in the world of combining all my different loves, but this definitely feels and felt like a big break."

That call came from Nicholaw, who Federle has "known for ages."

"I've been a fan and friend of Tuck Everlasting stretching back to one of its workshops. I got a call last summer to come take a look at it again, as Casey had been working on it with Claudia Shear, Nathan Tysen, and Chris Miller for close to seven years and felt they could use a fresh set of eyes, which is pretty normal on many shows. What started as a peripheral role for me grew pretty quickly and organically into a co-writership, and it's been quite a ride."

No doubt it was Federle's combination of musical theatre experience and acclaim for writing novels for young adults that made him a perfect addition to the project.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

"And as a novelist," he explains, "I tried to bring the same storytelling sensibility I employ for young adult literature: namely, that kids are incredibly sophisticated but still innocent, which makes them amazing to write for. And for a show that has, I think, broad appeal to families and even 'just' adults as audience members, the challenge is also in writing a show that will play for anyone who's got a heart and a taste for adventure and a killer bluegrass-infused score. If you do your job right as a book writer, nobody notices."

Shear agrees about not being noticed. "You write 9,000 drafts and everything gets thrown out and thrown out and thrown out, but it leaves a ghost trail. It's like an oil painting where you start with dots of color and you paint over that, but it leaves something underneath. My mother painted in oils and I'm a bit of a painting freak. It's a layering process like with great paintings. The titanium white glows through, even though you might not see white when you look at it. Art history is one of my obsessions."

While the musical sticks closely to its source, it does include, as Federle puts it, "a few additional characters conceived brilliantly by Claudia Shear."

"The constable in the book was sort of a fool. I wanted him to be our Atticus Finch in some ways," Shear says, referring to Harper Lee's heroic lawyer in "To Kill A Mockingbird." "Then I wrote a character called Hugo who isn't in the book at all. He was just born unto me. I just knew he had to be there."

"There's no fair in the novel," she adds, "but I love fairs and it informs the whole thing. In the book there's a jailbreak and a thunderstorm, so I had to think of how to end the musical based on something that didn't happen offstage."

But even with changes, Federle assures that, "the DNA of the musical is the same as Natalie Babbitt's classic book. You don't do THE WIZARD OF OZ without Toto."

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