Author Jodi Picoult stages The Book Thief musical as a 'cautionary tale'

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment & arts reporter

  • Published
Image source, Pamela Raith
Image caption,
The Book Thief has been adapted as a stage musical for the first time

US author Jodi Picoult says Broadway wouldn't stage her new musical version of Markus Zusak's beloved novel The Book Thief. So it his having its world premiere in Bolton instead.

For years, Picoult has watched her books be adapted for the stage and screen by other people, not always with happy results.

So she felt some extra responsibility after Zusak agreed to let her turn his 2005 bestseller about a young girl in Nazi Germany into a theatre musical.

"Part of what I said to Markus, when I was pitching him this idea is, 'Look, I just went through this process with my own work,'" she says. "'I will take care of your baby, because I know what it feels like.'

"And because of that, I feel like I have an added responsibility to be true to the story and the message and the emotions that he created in his beautiful novel."

She adds: "There is no small part of me that is terrified because he's flying here from Australia to see the production."

Image source, Don Arnold
Image caption,
Author Markus Zusak's original novel has sold 16 million copies worldwide

Picoult has made a long journey herself, temporarily relocating from New Hampshire to Bolton, Greater Manchester, for rehearsals and the show's opening this week.

She made her name by writing almost 30 novels, the last dozen of which have gone in at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Five have been made into movies, with four more in development.

In 2009, Cameron Diaz starred in a film of her 2004 novel My Sister's Keeper. However, Picoult was not happy when the ending was changed without her knowledge.

"When you adapt for a different format, there are changes that have to happen," she says. "And they hopefully are made without compromising the quality or the message of the story that was originally told in book format.

"As someone who has had an experience where that didn't happen, where I did see my story compromised on film, I'm really sensitive to making sure that even if a change is made, or if something is altered in the story that we tell on the stage, it is for a reason that will eventually bring you around to the same feelings and energy that the novel has."

Picoult has recently thrown herself into the world of musicals. She was part of a team that adapted one of her own books, Between the Lines, which has just finished an off-Broadway run.

She worked on that show with playwright Timothy Allen McDonald and songwriters Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, who penned tunes for Disney's Olaf's Frozen Adventure and Apple TV's Central Park.

But its preparations were ravaged by Covid, and Picoult has blamed a decision to cut its run short on a post-pandemic reluctance for audiences across the theatre industry to book tickets in advance.

She and her co-creators wanted to work together again. "I wanted to try something different, because it's more of a challenge for me to adapt a story that isn't mine," she says.

Image source, Pamela Raith
Image caption,
Two young actresses alternate in the main role of Liesel

All four wrote wish lists of other novels they would like to adapt. Everyone put down The Book Thief.

"It is a story that sticks with people," Picoult says. "It's one of those books that I read and thought, God, why didn't I write that?"

That's not the only reason she was keen to stage it. The Book Thief follows Liesel, who discovers the power of words, not only to heal her own wounds, but also to be used by those in power to divide or silence.

It depicts the burning of books by Nazis in 1933. Picoult worries that such threats will not stay in the distant past.

She says her books have been banned by school districts in five US states in recent years. Most object to her 2007 novel Nineteen Minutes, about a school shooting - although it is a page depicting a rape that they find objectionable, she says.

Last week, the American Library Association said attempts to ban books are accelerating at a rate not seen since tracking began more than 20 years ago, according to The New York Times.

Image source, Ray Jefferson
Image caption,
Jodi Picoult (left) with The Book Thief director Lotte Wakeham

The Book Thief "is a story about what is happening to us now in our world", Picoult believes. "It's a cautionary tale.

"And for us, we're four Americans who have seen a rise to power of an administration that sought to divide America rather than unite it, that leaned into the ideas of lying, of calling the press fake news, of calling immigrants the enemy of the state, of banning books... I mean, my God, all of this is literally in the pages of The Book Thief.

"So for us, it felt very, very current."

Picoult struggled to get Broadway producers on board - not because of its subject matter, but because they just weren't familiar with the book, she says.

"To be brutally honest, when we began pitching this to people in the United States, most people had not heard of the book, and that shocked me," she explains.

The book particularly appealed to teenage readers. "In America right now, the gatekeepers of Broadway are a very small group of mostly older white men who are making the decisions about what comes to Broadway and what does not. They like to see shows that reflect their own experience."

'Broadway is a little broken'

The Book Thief novel was better known in the UK, and Bolton Octagon theatre artistic director Lotte Wakeham already held it close to her heart.

Two of its main characters are called Liesel and Max. By coincidence, Wakeham's own brother and sister are Max and Ellen Liesel, named after her great grandfather and great aunt, Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust.

"So the story and themes of The Book Thief have always had a very special resonance to me," she says.

McDonald knew of Wakeham through her past work as associate director of Matilda The Musical, and she jumped at the offer to direct the show.

US producers are also reluctant to take a risk on new shows, Picoult says. "It is honestly not a good time to develop new musicals in America", the author adds.

It may be the case, of course, that the gatekeepers were less willing to take a risk on The Book Thief after Between the Lines got mixed reviews, with the New York Times calling it "sweet but uneven" and Time Out saying it had "a lot of clichés and stock characters".

But Picoult believes "the Broadway system is a little broken". She continues: "Having had all the struggles that we had to launch the musical that was off Broadway this July, Between the Lines, we didn't want to go through that again.

"And the UK has, I think, a much more generous system for creating new musicals and new content. And for all those reasons, it seemed like a good fit."

The Book Thief is at the Bolton Octagon theatre until 15 October.

Five more new musicals around the UK

  • The Famous Five - Enid Blyton's friends embark on a mission "with the future of the planet at stake", directed by Tamara Harvey, who has just been named joint artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (Theatr Clwyd, Mold, 23 September-15 October)
  • The Time Traveller's Wife - Pop musicians Dave Stewart and Joss Stone have written the songs for this adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's book, which is then headed for the West End (Chester Storyhouse, 30 September-15 October)
  • Cashy C's - Bradford poet Kirsty Taylor's high-energy musical takes place in a recreated pawnbroker, using rap and bassline to follow characters who hustle and struggle to make ends meet (Bradford, 30 September-7 October; Keighley, 21-23 October)
  • Tammy Faye - Sir Elton John does the music, the Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears does the lyrics and Sherwood writer James Graham does the script in this musical about real-life US televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. (Almeida, London, 13 October-3 December)
  • Betty! A Sort of Musical - Maxine Peake has co-written and stars in this show about a group of ladies staging a show about former House of Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd (Royal Exchange, Manchester, 3 December-14 January)