From an Orchard in Buckinghamshire to Emerson Stage:
The Journey of James Henry Trotter
James and the Giant Peach is one of the world’s most beloved children’s stories. Author Roald Dahl introduced the adventure of James Henry Trotter and his famous fruit. The original inspiration for James and the Giant Peach was actually a cherry tree in the author’s Buckinghamshire orchard. Dahl imagined what would happen if the cherries suddenly grew larger and larger. Those thoughts led Dahl to imagine James’ voyage atop other fruit (including apples and pears) until he eventually settled on a giant peach. Although James and the Giant Peach was not Dahl’s first children’s novel—his first was Gremlins published in 1959—the book was generally well-received and marked the beginning of his long-celebrated career as a children’s writer. At the time of James and the Giant Peach’s publication, Roald Dahl reflected on the experience of writing the story as such a positive one that upon its completion, he immediately began writing his next book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Despite its popularity, James and the Giant Peach was not adapted to other media until after Dahl’s death in 1990. In 1992, Dahl’s widow, Felicity Ann d’Abreu Crosland, granted permission to Walt Disney Pictures to produce a feature film adaption. The film version of James and the Giant Peach (directed by Henry Selick) debuted in 1996 to mixed reviews from critics. The film features the voices of Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Pete Postlethwaite and Susan Sarandon.
In 2005, playwright Timothy Allen McDonald was given permission to begin work on the musical version of James and the Giant Peach after his successful theatrical development of another of Roald Dahl’s classic novels, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Later in 2008, McDonald brought on board Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to create the show’s music. Pasek and Paul are Tony/Emmy Awards nominees for their work on the Broadway musical A Christmas Story. Since the musical’s original premiere in 2010 at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, James and the Giant Peach has played at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 2012, Seattle Children’s Theatre in 2013, and the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, Ontario in 2014. James’ next stop will be the Emerson Stage production.
James and the Giant Peach sets sail at the Paramount Mainstage on October 20, 2016. The staging of any live theatrical musical has its challenges, and Emerson Stage’s James and the Giant Peach is no exception. The work of bringing Roald Dahl’s memorable characters to the stage presents many opportunities to designers. Between fittings and rehearsals, Emily White, costume designer for James and the Giant Peach, shared some thoughts about the process of designing and resolving challenges she encountered for this production.
From Emily White, Costume Designer
The very first thing we had to figure out was what historical time period to use. We chose the 1960s. This means that all of the characters that are not bugs would be dressed in clothes that would have been worn in the 1960s. The exceptions are the characters that are only shown in memory, like James’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Trotter. Once we had the human characters figured out, I had to figure out how to make actors look like fun bugs.
Do you have any examples of costume challenges you encountered, in the design process? How were they resolved?
Yes, the problem I had to solve for Earthworm was how to make the actor look like a worm but still be able to move and dance. The solution I came to was pants that have very short legs but are super stretchy. This way even though the pants look restrictive, the stretch still lets him move.
Another was for Miss Ladybug. It was very important to make her body have the shape of a ladybug. To achieve this, the costume shop built a skirt that is fluffy in the back to make the ladybug shape.
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In addition to the costumes, James’ Peach friends are also brought to life through the magic of puppetry. Annett Mateo, Puppet Designer for James and the Giant Peach, gives a sneak peek at one of her more challenging designs.
From Annett Mateo, Puppet Designer:
For James and the Giant Peach, the biggest puppet challenge has been one of scale. Scale means the size of things in relation to each other, like the way that adults are larger than kids and kids are larger than insects. There are a lot of insects and small creatures in this show. Actually, there are only five—Ladybug, Grasshopper, Earthworm, Centipede, and Spider—but because the characters change in size and we present them in different ways, there are a lot of versions of them.
Right at the beginning of the play, Grasshopper and Ladybug visit James’ orphanage. These two puppets are small compared to James but huge compared to real insects. They are about 18 inches tall. If they were smaller, it would be hard for everyone in the theater to see what they were. If they were much bigger, they would be so big in relation to James that it would be scary, which isn’t right for that scene.
A little later when James discovers the magical Ladahlord by the peach tree, Grasshopper and Ladybug are joined by the other creatures. This scene transforms into a big dance number, so for them to be big enough to dance effectively there is another set of larger scale puppets. These are three to four feet tall and are much more articulated—they have more joints, so they can have more movement.
To see these costumes and puppets, and also the work of the cast, crew, and other designers, don’t miss Emerson Stage’s production of James and the Giant Peach.