Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult makes her theatrical debut with the new pandemic-set musical Breathe, premiering virtually on OVERTURE+ May 14. There is an in-person screening of the filmed musical, but there are no opening jitters for Picoult. “It’s a giant celebration,” she says, adding that it’s the first time all the collaborators will be in the same room.
Among the many collaborators (we’ll get to that in a minute), Picoult will share the evening with her writing partner, playwright Timothy Allen McDonald, co-conceiver and co-librettist of Breathe, and “the other half of my brain,” as Picoult calls him. The two were introduced by Daryl Roth early in discussions for the musical adaptation of Between the Lines, the YA novel co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer. “We just clicked,” she says. Between the Lines was slated to run at Second Stage in April of 2020, but then COVID happened.
Picoult and McDonald had just traveled to Mexico in March 2020 for the wedding of Arielle Jacobs, their lead for Between the Lines. The following week, everyone from their table had COVID, except Picoult. When McDonald recovered, Picoult called him up and said, “We have to mark this time.”
Picoult, a prolific novelist, couldn’t figure out how to put the pandemic on the pages of book, but she could see it as a musical. Strangers sitting next to each other, feeling the same emotions because of what they are watching on the stage seemed to her a lot like everyone in lock down, in isolation, yet experiencing the pandemic together.
The two began by writing short stories about couples and how they would be affected by the pandemic. Picoult and McDonald are both fans of collaboration, and with the pandemic halting most theatre work altogether, they were able to gather several admired songwriting teams to create the pieces of Breathe: Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich (Ever After), Rob Rokicki (The Lightning Thief) and Rebecca Murillo, Daniel Mertzlufft and Kate Leonard (Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical), Tony winner Doug Besterman (Little Did I Know) and Sharon Vaughn (Hats!), and Jonathan Larson Grant finalists Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar (Five Points).
The musical is constructed of five interlocking suites, each exploring a different relationship and each titled after a symptom of COVID: Fever, Aches, Swelling & Irritation, Fatigue, and Shortness of Breath. It starts with a rom-com and ends with the loss of a loved one. The couples in each story are isolated, and so were their creators. All the workshops, readings, and meetings were held over Zoom throughout the year.
Breathe boasts an all-star cast including Tony Award winners Kelli O’Hara (The King and I) and Brian Stokes Mitchell (Shuffle Along...), Broadway couples Patti Murin (Frozen) and Colin Donnell (Violet) and Matt Doyle (Company) and Max Clayton (Moulin Rouge!), Tony nominee Denée Benton (The Great Comet), Rubén J. Carbajal, Daniel Yearwood (Hamilton), T. Oliver Reid (Once on This Island), and Josh Davis (Beautiful).
But Breathe isn’t just chronicling the pandemic. Supervising Director Jeff Calhoun has created an archive of what theatre looks like in this moment. The film version is theatre in its barest form. Actors on a stage, no sets, no costumes, no audience. “We aren’t allowed to have those things yet,” says Picoult. (You’re also going to see Kelli O’Hara getting her temperature checked and Brian Stokes Mitchell getting a nasal swab.) And Breathe has been licensed by MTI, so it is possible that years from now the musical will be one of the ways we remember what happened during this time.
Picoult talks about writing the epilogue while still in the middle of the COVID pandemic. “In a way that was very healing, and a little wistful and aspirational,” she says. In a week with so many announcements about the return of Broadway, Breathe will open without an afterparty, because of social distancing and capacity limits. Because this isn’t really over yet. But Picoult sees the light at the end of the tunnel. She’ll get to thank her collaborators in person. “The world is beginning to change a little bit.”
For tickets, visit Breathe.com.