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Rick Elice reveals the guiding emotion of ‘Water for Elephants’

The musical that depicts the high-flying the circus finds its roots in a more grounded place.

Rick Elice (Credit: Courtesy of LSG Public Relations) 

Before Rick Elice became a three-time Tony Award-nominated playwright (and four-time Tony nominee overall), he worked in advertising — specifically for live entertainment — for the agency Serino Coyne. For nearly his entire 20-year tenure with the firm, Elice handled the Big Apple Circus account; and in his last five years with Serino, he also took on the Ringling Brothers account. So in 2006, when he read Sara Gruen’s novel “Water for Elephants” as part of a book club, he thought, “Oh yeah, I know this world.”

“I spent a lot of time at the circus and behind the scenes and sort of getting the smell of the circus in my nose and in my heart,” Elice said. That intimacy served him well when producers Peter Schneider and Jennifer Costello approached him about adapting “Water for Elephants” as a stage musical.

In Gruen’s novel, nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski lives in a nursing home. When the circus parks outside his window, it jumpstarts memories of his time caring for the animals in the menagerie of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A withering Jacob recalls the chaos and the excitement of the traveling circus and the complication of a love triangle. As Elice noted, “[Sara Gruen] deftly draws the curtain back on the American dream and reveals the mud beneath the magic as it were.”

In approaching “Water for Elephants,” Elice thought about a passage from Alan Bennett’s  play “The History Boys.” As Elice recalled, a professor explains to a student: “Sometimes you think the things that you’re feeling are so unique to your own heart and soul that nobody could possibly understand. And then you read something and it’s almost as if a hand is reaching out from the page and grabbing you by the arm saying, ‘I know too.’”

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