By Madeline Orton
Bubble Boy, based on Paul and Daurio’s 2001 film with the same title, tells the story of Jimmy, a young man born with no immune system who lives in a bubble. Originally inspired by the 1976 made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble starring John Travolta, Bubble Boy follows Jimmy on his comedic journey to prevent the girl of his dreams from marrying another man.
The film version was a flop. “It was a mass failure,” jokes Paul. “It was our first movie that ever got made and it was a critical and commercial disaster.”
Still, Paul and Daurio have gone on to have exceptional film careers co-writing screenplays for films like Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax and the mega-hit Despicable Me, so it might be a surprise to some that Paul and Daurio decided to revamp Bubble Boy as their first musical theater venture.
“Ken and I have always loved Bubble Boy and [the film] hadn’t turned out the way we wanted it,” explains Paul. “This often happens to screenwriters. You don’t really have control of the finished product.” For the duo, telling their story through musical theater is an opportunity to take it back and re-create it as they originally wanted it to be. Enter: American Theater Group.
For American Theater Group, a year-old company in residence at Rahway’s Hamilton Stage, helping add new voices to the American theatrical canon is a major element of their mission. “We want to…give writers the opportunity to see their newly-written work up in front of people…to gauge what the audience’s reaction would be,” says Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Producing Director Jim Vagias.The company produces previously-mounted works as well, but is uniquely placed to develop new works through a partnership with the annual Musical Theatre Workshop run by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Dreamworks. Composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin) leads this workshop and also advises American Theater Group’s New Musical Reading Series. In the ASCAP/Dreamworks workshop in Los Angeles, excerpts from new musicals are performed, and now in American Theater Group’s New Musical Theater Reading Series, a select few will have the opportunity to mount readings of their entire piece for further development. Through his dual roles with the L.A. workshop and American Theater Group’s reading series, Schwartz championed Bubble Boy for a full-length reading last year that’s success ultimately led to the present full-scale production.
“It’s been a great experience and a learning experience,” says Paul of seeing his and Daurio’s script and score come to life. “For three or four years we’ve just been doing staged readings or readings of the show, and those have been going really well…but it can’t tell you nearly as much as actually mounting a full-scale production.”
For writers like Paul, this means determining how elements of the script will work on stage. “[We were] trying to figure out, ‘How does this bubble suit work?’ and ‘How is his bubble room going to work?’ And then you find out something like it reflects light and so you can’t see him when [he’s] inside the bubble suit.”
Lessons like these help Paul and Daurio continue to improve their script with the hope of one day bringing it to Broadway. “We want another production,” says Paul. “We want to keep fine-tuning and get it better, and better, and bigger, and bigger productions until it’s at a point where it’s ready to transfer to Broadway.”
As Paul points out, their goal isn’t unprecedented. “[The film Bubble Boy] actually has a similar popularity to what Hairspray, the movie, did. That didn’t make much money when it came out, so it wasn’t an obvious choice for a musical.” Though he adds, “[It] takes a lot to get there.”
American Theater Group and the creative team have hosted several commercial producers and the major theatrical licensing companies over the course of the show’s run in an effort to continue its life after this production ends. If the show does find a lasting place in the American theatrical canon, Vargias feels the company’s audiences will be excited to have caught it early on.
“People who sat in the audience…are going to be able to say, ‘I was there when it just started,’ and that’s kind of a cool thing,” he says.
American Theater Group will announce the next new musical to be produced shortly. And for fans of Bubble Boy who hope to see the musical live on, Paul recommends they spread the word and “pray with all [their] might!”