When Claybourne Elder was first asked to adapt Jules Verne’s adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days by Luke Frazier of the American Pops Orchestra, it seemed like a natural fit.
“As a kid, I loved the Indiana Jones movies and any stories about travel or heroic journeys,” says Elder. “So, telling this story really excited me.”
Around the World in 80 Days follows the adventures of an eccentric millionaire, Phileas Fog, and his three unlikely companions, as they set forth on a global trek around the world. Elder says that while most people are familiar with the title, they know little about the story.
“Most people can’t tell you much detail about it other than someone travels around the world in 80 days,” he says. “When I first started to ask people what they knew about it, that’s the answer I got most often, and they usually said something about a hot air balloon.”
“But when I dove into the novel with the idea of adapting it, I was surprised by a lot of things, like the fact that they never travel by hot air balloon,” he adds. “In fact, if you watch any of the many film adaptations and read the novel, you will see that they vary wildly in plot.”
Elder used that ambiguity to his advantage and wrote a script. Frazier wove in songs from The American Songbook. The show premiered at Arena Stage in Washington DC in 2017 and was such a success that afterward, Elder’s friend Jenny Latimer asked if she could submit the script to Theatre Raleigh. Elder and Latimer have worked on stage together in many productions, so Elder jumped at the chance, and he quickly began working on an original new score with Rodney Bush.
“We have been friends for a long time,” says Latimer, who is directing the Theatre Raleigh Production. “He always wants people to be having a good time and laughing, and you can see that in his work.”
Elder says the biggest challenge in adapting Verne’s 19th-century novel was approaching the work with a modern sensibility.
“The first thing I thought when I read the novel was, ‘Wow, I really need to address the gender and cultural issues of this story,’” he says. “After all, it was published in 1873.”
“As I read and watched other adaptations and saw the great liberties they were taking with the plot, I decided to change the gender of one of the characters and that was really key in opening up the story for me.”
Elder ultimately determined that at its core this story is about adventure, travel, friendship and solving problems as a team, universal themes that resonate with Latimer.
“This piece is just teeming with humor and heart,” she says. “It is incredibly modern and witty with delightful anachronistic choices that make the show fun for children and adults alike.”
“I love shows where you can see how the writer is aware of writing for a wide range of people by bringing in universal themes that any age can relate to,” she adds.
According to Latimer, Elder and Bush’s catchy score draws its influence from classical musical theater to jazz. Even Elder’s two-year-old son Bo approves.
“Bo has heard way too much music from the show as Rodney Bush and I have been writing it,” Elder says. “He isn’t big enough to sing along yet, but he dances around the living room when we sing through it.”
“Kids are the best kind of audiences because they know how to play better than the rest of us,” he adds.
And that is something Latimer and Elder are hoping for when the show premieres at the Kennedy Theatre.