Rick Elice, writer of the book for Peter and the Starcatcher, and co-writer of the books for Jersey Boys and The Addams Family, answered some of our questions about the writing process, his personal experiences, and the crossover between theater and the classroom.
StageNotes: The three Broadway shows you worked on as a writer, The Addams Family, Peter and the Starcatcher and Jersey Boys, are all based on other sources in literature or pop culture. What kind of research did you complete while writing the new shows to retell the stories in a new form?
Rick Elice: JERSEY BOYS is not a re-telling of a story in a new form. All that existed prior to our writing the show were the recollections of the men themselves and the records they had made of their songs. There was no story, there was no structure, there was no point of view; only a thousand disparate anecdotes recounted during long interview sessions – events described that had never been described before, and personal perspectives that were similarly undisclosed, and, once revealed to us, often contradicted. For those interview sessions, which occurred over the better part of a year, we functioned as journalists, trying to get to the truth, or at least, a truth. Then, we put aside our journalist hats and functioned as dramatists – as we realized that, as drama, we needn’t establish one single true version of four men’s life together; we would embrace the idea of their multiple contradictions (of each other and of their own earlier “versions of the truth”), and invite the audience to decide for themselves which version(s) to believe. There’s a line in the show, “You ask four guys what happened, you get seventeen different answers.” After speaking to these guys individually, we realized that people remember things the way they need to, the way they want to, and out of that came the realization that there is no one true version of their story. But then, out of that, came the structure for the show. It’s not a documentary and it’s not fiction; it’s four guys’ real lives up there.
With THE ADDAMS FAMILY, we were given characters, with well-known characteristics, but we were asked to invent our own story to engage those characters. The work wasn’t research, therefore, as we were told to studiously avoid all prior stories having to do with the characters. Instead, the work was devising multiple stories and scenarios for the directors, until one story clicked with them.
With PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, my work included reading the novel I was asked to adapt, re-reading JM Barrie’s original play and stories from the early part of the 20th century, which led me to read a lot about Barrie’s life, and much of his other work, including plays, speeches and correspondence. Those documents, and that research, suggested the type of literary devices populating my play: alliteration, anachronism, song, high comedy, low humor, puns, re-inventions. I asked the directors to allow me to employ all those and more in order to create a “connectivity” between Barrie’s play and the the novel – both in terms of style and plot. While it might seem easier to write a play than a musical, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER took longer to write than either JERSEY BOYS or THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Probably because, having fallen in love with the characters and the people involved with making the play, I felt a greater responsibility to the enterprise.
SN: There are study guides available for The Addams Family and Peter and the Starcatcher on Stagenotes.net. How can these shows spark students’ interests both creatively and educationally?
RE: Because ADDAMS is original, it would be a great challenge to design another original storyline that could accommodate the characters and their famous personalities. It’s one of the great creative acts, inventing a story. Have at it!
For PETER, I think the themes of the play are big, and worth thinking about and writing about, and even trying to make part of one’s daily life. JM Barrie created, out of nothing, a character that’s become part of our mythology. That’s rare, and wonderful. Why are we still talking, writing, making plays and films about Peter Pan? Answer that, and you unlock something very big.
SN: What was your favorite subject in middle school and high school? Why?
RE: I love English Literature, because I love to read and always have. It was in my Eng Lit classes that I was first introduced to Shakespeare. And because the teacher was great (Thank you, Mrs. Winter!), I‘ve always loved Shakespeare and the theater. Hearing plays read aloud by someone who really cared about them, and was a good actor, brought plays to life for me, and excited me about going to the theater.
SN: What is your favorite history lesson you learned from a musical or play either in researching or the actual text?
RE: I learned an enormous amount from most plays and musicals, but I remember very vividly how Sondheim’s musicals, PACIFIC OVERTURES and SWEENEY TODD, made me curious about the “Open Door Policy” that introduced Japan to the West and vice versa, and how the industrial revolution influenced the lives of the lower classes in England, respectively.
SN: What is your favorite life lesson you learned from a musical or play either in researching or the actual text?
RE: I’ve become very much more involved with family and extended family as a theme in my life, thanks to my work on JERSEY BOYS and PETER AND THE STARCATCHER – specifically, the issues of belonging, being part of a larger whole, acceptance, loyalty and respect. I think that’s what I’ll write about one way or the other for many years to come.