How Water for Elephants Brought the Circus to Broadway | Playbill

Special Features How Water for Elephants Brought the Circus to Broadway

Circus designer Shana Carroll and star Isabelle McCalla on the show's gravity-defying acrobatics.

Actor Isabelle McCalla is a bit of a daredevil—she’s been skydiving, hang gliding, bungee jumping.

So, when she had to swing from a trapeze for a number in the new Broadway musical Water for Elephants, McCalla didn’t flinch. In fact, she’d fly higher if they’d let her.

“I have so much fun up there. And you kind of learn that if you have three points of contact [on the trapeze], you’re safe,” says McCalla. “It is a very dangerous art form. But I think the reason I’m not scared is because I was literally taught by the foremost trapeze artist in the world with Shana Carroll.”

Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin in Water for Elephants Matthew Murphy

Carroll is the co-choreographer and circus designer for Water for Elephants, which is currently running at the Imperial Theatre. Based on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen, the action is set in the 1930s amidst the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a one-ring traveling circus. It features a book by Rick Elice and a score by PigPen Theatre Co. The show's innovative mixture of acrobatics, puppetry, and musical theatre storytelling has wowed audiences so much that its earned seven 2024 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and a choreography nod for Carroll and Jesse Robb.

Carroll grew up a theatre kid in California, but she makes her home now in Montreal, Québec, Canada. That's where she ran off to, quite literally, join the circus and study at l’École Nationale de Cirque. Following a 10-year traveling performance career, Carroll began directing and choreographing for Cirque du Soleil, headquartered in Montreal. She is now a co-founding artistic director of The 7 Fingers, a circus collective that marries the death-defying acts of circus with theatrical storytelling. Just last summer at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Playbill got to take in their show Duel Reality, which sets the star-crossed love story of Romeo and Juliet in the middle of a competitive sporting arena. 

It is that commitment to story that makes Carroll the perfect person to bring circus to a Broadway show. “Theatre was my original passion, and that’s the way my brain works. So even in my very, very first pieces, as soon as I started becoming a trapeze artist, I always had little mini dramaturges. I had a character and an objective and thought of it almost like a monologue. I didn’t really realize that was a rare approach,” she says. “I was always focused on the theatricality of circus. In a way, I think that’s what made me fall in love with it—seeing the metaphors inside of it and this type of beauty that I felt we couldn’t quite achieve with words.”

Shana Carroll Vi Dang

When director Jessica Stone contacted Carroll for Water for Elephants, the choreographer knew it was a match. Carroll has been approached to add circus elements to Broadway shows before, but just slotting in tricks for the sake of spectacle didn’t interest her. Stone was open to Carroll’s desire to use circus metaphorically as a storytelling device. “Anytime I start a project, I always ask myself, ‘Why is circus necessary?’” explains Carroll.

She found her answer in the musical’s lead character, Jacob Jankowski (played by Grant Gustin), a veterinary student who accidentally hops a circus train and ends up staying on. The audience first meets Jacob as an older man visiting a circus, recalling the days of his youth with Benzini Brothers. “Having spent my life in circus, I know my imagination and memory is often conflated with circus. I’ll have dreams where some event in my life is told through circus. And this is a memory play…” says Carroll.

To illustrate, Carroll describes one of the first scenes where the audience sees Water for Elephants’ acrobats. The show has a dedicated troupe in the ensemble, comprising of seven circus performers and two swings, most of whom have worked for 7 Fingers. The train stops and Jacob witnesses the circus folk pitching the big top, while the chorus sings, “The Road Don’t Make You Young.” 

Grant Gustin Heather Gershonowitz

Explains Carroll: “He’s being welcomed by a sense of family and community. Those who have worked in circus know that’s actually a huge part of it as well—the feeling like you’ve been adopted by a family. So, I knew at that moment in the story, I wanted the circus language to represent community and family, so I chose to use group acrobatics. Tricks that involve five people, or two people are throwing and one person is catching, showing the interdependence of circus.”

McCalla notices that audiences have been spellbound by all the circus work in the musical. In addition to trapeze and acrobatics, there are aerial silks, tight-rope walking, and Chinese pole tricks. But she echoes that story is king here. 

“You really get a sense of who these people are. And the higher the stakes are in life, the higher the stakes are in the acrobatics themselves. There’s such an emphasis on storytelling,” she says, punctuating Carroll’s intent. “So, it’s more than just, ‘Wow! I saw a really cool trick!’ It’s like, ‘Oh, my God! I just saw somebody fall to their death and then come out of it alive.’ People feel that in their nervous systems.”

Before every show, the Water for Elephants troupe have a traditional fight call and a circus call, where they run through every trick in the show. Go behind-the-scenes at the circus call in the video at the top of the story or the photos below.

Photos: Circus Warm Ups With the Water For Elephants Cast

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!