LINCOLN PEIRCE won’t lie. He had his momentary doubts. They were the quiet concerns of a parent letting someone else take his child out for a stroll.
In this case, the offspring is “Big Nate,” the titular character and syndicated comic strip turned digital and publishing hit. Like an agent telling you your tween has star potential on the stage, a theater company came calling, convincing the cartoonist that his boy could make it in musicals.
“I have absolutely no experience in theater, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a few moments of skepticism,” Peirce tells Comic Riffs while en route to Washington to see the show. “But one thing that convinced me to give this a try was that there’s a precedent for this. Other comic strips, like ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Li’l Abner,’ have been successfully translated into musicals.
“So I decided: Why not?”
The creative result is Adventure Theatre MTC’s staging of “Big Nate,” debuting this weekend in Glen Echo, Md. Peirce himself will be on hand for Sunday’s two performances, as well as for a signing in between.
“I haven’t seen any rehearsals, and I’ve only heard a couple of the songs, so the musical will be almost as new to me as it is to the folks in the audience ... ,” Peirce tells Comic Riffs. “It should be a festive atmosphere. I’m looking forward to it.”
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The Universal Uclick cartoonist arrives braced, though, with an understanding of the nature of adaptations.
“Michael Bobbitt and his team have been great to work with,” Peirce says of Adventure Theatre’s producing artistic director and staff. “I’m sure that, as theater folks, they understand better than most that there will inevitably be certain incongruities when you translate something from another source.
“In the case of ‘Big Nate,’ “ he continues, “you’ve got to get used to the fact that these characters, who are 11 years old on the page, are being played by adult performers. And then you have to embrace the fact that they’re expressing themselves in song.”
For his part, Bobbitt approached the project convinced that the adaptation was a natural fit.
“I think Nate is a fairly theatrical kid,” Bobbitt tells Comic Riffs. “His thought bubbles are like direct addresses to the audience. He’s got an arch-nemesis and a love interest. Many dramas and operas have been written on this subject.
“I also think he’s the best kind of tortured soul and flawed individual that just makes for high stakes and humor,” continues Bobbitt, who first discovered “Big Nate” about two decades ago in the pages of The Washington Post. “With several books and strips, the source material for adaptation was endless. I knew that we could find the right story — and one that sings.”
That process involved some back-and-forth between creator and theater company.
“From the start, Michael and Jason Loewith, who wrote the book for the musical, invited me to provide notes every step of the way — first the synopsis, and then several subsequent drafts of the script,” says Peirce, an Iowa native who grew up in New Hampshire. “They told me: ‘You’ve lived with these characters for over 20 years, so let us know if something doesn’t sound right. I was sort of a dialogue consultant.
“I liked the storyline Jason came up with, so I really didn’t tinker with that at all. It was more a process of making the characters sound like themselves.” (Jason Loewith is former executive director of National New Play Network, and now artistic director of Olney Theatre Center.)
That storyline centers on “detention-riddled sixth-grader” Nate Wright, who aims to get the girl by winning a battle-of-the-bands competition; he may be thwarted, though, when the object of his affection and her boyfriend fall in league with his arch-nemesis by forming a sap-rock band. (Their band name? Rainbows and Ponies. Yeesh, poor Nate.)
Bobbitt was drawn to this material through the eyes of a tween boy himself.
“I have an 11-year-old son,” Bobbitt says. “When he was around 8, he started getting assigned chapter books. He just didn’t seem to like reading chapter books — with the exception of ‘Big Nate.’ He took to these [HarperCollins] books, reading them over and over again.
“I had, of course, enjoyed the comic strip, and out of curiosity would read the books after my son finished. They are just so great.”
That fandom helped fuel great and specific attention to detail.
“We absolutely embrace the tone and style of the comic strip in the musical,” says Bobbitt, noting that Loewith and composer Christopher Youstra shared the lyric writing. “You’ll see Nate’s ‘THWACK’ [sound effect] and ‘Francis’s Facts.’ It IS ‘Big Nate.’ “
“We really want you to feel like you are seeing a comic strip on stage,” Bobbitt adds. “It takes great direction. We are lucky to have a Helen Hayes [Award] winner, Michael Baron, at the helm.”
Amid the joy of the creative and collaborative process, Bobbitt notes one personal perk out of all this:
“I’ve become very cool to my son — and his friends — which is pretty great when dealing with a middle-schooler.”
“Big Nate” runs through June 2 at Adventure Theatre/Musical Theatre Center. For program and ticket details, visit the Adventure Theatre site.