The third time’s charm for “Room,” twice over.
Emma Donoghue’s novel about the profound bond between a mother and her young son, who are held captive in a small space for years, became an international bestseller when it was published in 2010.
A 2015 film version won raves plus an Oscar and Golden Globe for leading actress Brie Larson.
An acclaimed musical version of “Room” was meant to premiere at the Grand Theater in London, Ont. on March 13, 2020, but was canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic surged. The show was rescheduled for early this year, but then postponed again due to the Omicron variant.
At long last, the musical “Room” has opened at the Grand and is on its way to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theater April 5-May 8.
“Every author should be so lucky,” Donoghue said, “to have one story that keeps seizing people.”
For those who know “Room,” a musical version may seem unlikely. The jumping-off points for the novel were Donoghue’s experience of parenthood and the details of the horrific Josef Fritzl case, in which an Austrian father held his daughter captive in his cellar for over two decades and fathered many children by her. Told from the child Jack’s perspective, the first half of “Room” describes a wonder-filled existence living in a single room with his mother. In the second half, his world gets much bigger and he struggles to make sense of it.
“The combination of the idea of this outsider to the world, and the idea of the parent-child bond in all its intensity and all its beauty and all its claustrophobia,” Donoghue said. “Those were the two main things that hooked me.”
In 2016, the Scottish writer, director, and producer Cora Bissett approached Donoghue about a musical version. Donoghue initially flinched, “thinking of jazz dance numbers,” she said.
“And Cora said, ‘No, no, not a traditional musical at all, but I think Ma needs songs to release all the thoughts in her head she can not share with Jack’.”
An accomplished playwright, Donoghue had always thought that “Room” would work well on stage. “I mean, two people in a room making stuff up, that’s theater,” she said.
Donoghue wrote the screenplay for “Room” before anyone approached her about a film version. “With film, I had a lot more to prove,” she said. Film is a more male-dominated industry, and an industry dominated by specialists. There’s a real mystique about, ‘Ooh, screenwriting, that’s a specialist task, leave it to us’, ”she said.
Director Lenny Abrahamson’s initial approach to Donoghue was a 10-page letter detailing how he’d film certain key scenes. With Bissett as with Abrahamson, Donoghue was won over by a “strong sense of vision… there’s a lot to be said for just saying yes, rather than trying to quibble or negotiate.”
Donoghue wrote the stage adaptation, too, with the mindset that “the play can afford to go the other way completely” to the novel and film, “and be very theatrical.”
In addition to musical numbers expressing Ma’s inner life written by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, a new addition to the stage version is a character called Super Jack, the child Jack’s confident adult alter ego. “The way they play with each other is just wonderful,” said Donoghue. “That takes the pressure off the child.”
This staging is a co-production between Covent Garden Productions, David Mirvish, and the Grand Theater. Donoghue is from Ireland and has lived in London, Ont. since 1998; her partner is a professor at Western University, and they raised their two children there.
London is “where the story began for me,” Donoghue said. “Quite a few scenes happened in playgrounds around town. I wrote some key scenes of the novel in the YMCA while my kids were in the child care area. ”
Part of what sold her on the Grand’s involvement was an offer of a weeklong workshop to further develop the material after its world premiere, which played in England, Ireland and Scotland. “That was such a luxury to actually invest in developing a script without the need to put it on immediately,” Donoghue said.
The time allowed the creative team to drill down on physically realizing the show’s second half. A breakthrough came when designer Lily Arnold proposed to make a revolving door of the center of that act’s set.
“It turned out to be a design solution, but not one that we would have found without that extra development,” said Donoghue.
She and the rest of the team were feeling confident about this updated stage version when it started previews in March 2020. The fact that the show did not officially open made it easier for the producers to “put it in the freezer” until the pandemic subsided , and then pick it up again, said Donoghue. “If you’d done a week and then it shut down, it would have been seen as a production-that-happened.”
“Room” has some very disturbing elements. As with the film, the poster for the musical focuses on the loving bond between Jack and Ma. “People sometimes need to see the little glimpses of an outside in order to go into the dark with you,” Donoghue said. The poster celebrates Ma and Jack’s extraordinary magic trick of finding some solace in a place that is officially a dungeon. I’m happy those elements get emphasized, ”she said.
“Room” plays at the Royal Alexandra Theater from April 5 – May 8. Mirvish.com and 800-461-3333.
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