Music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson
Libretto by Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald, from the book by Markus Zusak
Octagon Theatre, with Writers’ Cage and DEM Productions
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
September 17 - October 15, 2022; 2hr 25min
With every stage version of a well-loved text come questions. Does it matter if you have read the book? Should you compare and contrast? How much freedom should the librettist have to conjure something completely different? (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the Bible. Discuss.)
The Book Thief, rendered as a musical, tests on all these fronts.
Markus Zusak’s searing story of loss, heartbreak, deprivation, stoicism, endurance and survival paints pictures that scorch the backs of the eyes. Can a musical, usually the stuff of dreams not nightmares, lightness rather than grinding horror, convey such levels of suffering?
Death (Ryan O’Donnell, wearing a mac and sporting a wry swagger) narrates the life of Liesel who, in the midst of unbearable trauma, discovers the power of words. She holds her brother as he dies in the snow beside a railway track then, about to be orphaned as her communist mother, like her husband before her, is led away to a certain death, is left with foster parents in a small suburb of Munich.
Her talisman is a book, a manual of gravedigging, stolen at the burial of her brother. As she learns to read it with her new papa, Hans, the household takes in and hides another fleeing soul, the son of the Jewish fellow soldier who saved Hans’ life during World War I.
The idea to turn this hugely successful novel into a song and dance show came from a writing team led by award-winning, best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult. The team – which previously adapted one of her novels as a musical – all have serious pedigrees: Timothy Allen McDonald (musical adaptations including Willy Wonka and James and the Giant Peach and Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel have written for Disney.
And as a musical, it is a great success. Structurally the piece is well-balanced and skilfully crafted, with crisp and sensitive direction by Octagon artistic director, Lotte Wakeham. The music is powerful and packs an emotional punch. The set – in tones of grey, echoing Liesel’s discovery from her pilfered book that even this drab colour comes in many shades – is spare and utilitarian, like the lives we are watching.
The cast, individually and as an ensemble choreographed with both delicacy and passion by Tom Jackson Greaves, is superb. Liesel and her friend Rudy (on our night played by Bea Glancy and Alfie Corbett) were charming amidst the tragedy.
But here lies the problem. This is not a charming story. Of course nothing can be done to turn two healthy young actors into scrawny and starving street urchins, scrapping and stealing their way through the only life they have known. But the musical format changes the entire substance of the tale.
It feels somehow lightweight, low-cal and low fat. The elements are all there: the hidden Jew who doesn’t see daylight for two years then glimpses the stars, with devastating irony, during an air raid; the columns of Jews on their way to Dachau; the small boy, an archetypal Aryan who inconveniently idolises the black Olympic runner Jesse Owens; the complicit neighbours, welcoming Hans to the Party with a party.
But the format provides the audience with a layer of protection that is devastatingly absent from the book.
Kindness is the take-home from this interpretation. Tears seed kindness, as the words from the stolen books seed understanding and resistance, and ultimately prevail. Timeless themes, which resonate today. But the musical format softens the blows, turns the dignity of instinctive human survival into a pat happy ending. It leaves you with a tear in your eye but the book has you sobbing, as the subject should and must.
More info and tickets here