Everything you need to know about 'Water for Elephants' on Broadway

Grant Gustin and Isabelle McCalla currently star in the critically acclaimed musical adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling circus-themed novel from 2006.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Step right up and see Water for Elephants on Broadway! Circus and theatre meet in the stage adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling historical romance novel, which captivated audiences on the page and screen and now does so live.

The Flash's Grant Gustin stars as Jacob Jankowski, who runs away with the Benzini Bros. Circus and falls in love with the beautiful performer Marlena (Isabelle McCalla). Amid an entertaining story and folk-tinged songs, expect plenty of circus spectacle. Trapeze, tightrope walking, acrobatics, juggling, clowning, animals (in puppet form), you name it.

"Director Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) deserves a big shout-out for combining all of the elements – the actors, circus feats, puppetry, song and dance breaks – so beautifully," New York Theatre Guide's Water for Elephants review reads.

Want to see the circus while it's in town? Learn more about the acclaimed show below before entering the big top at the Imperial Theatre.

Get Water for Elephants tickets now.

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What is Water for Elephants about?

Water for Elephants takes place in Depression-era America and centers on Jacob Jankowski, who's just shy of finishing vet school when a family tragedy occurs. Grief-stricken and seeking a fresh start, he boards a train that turns out to be carrying a traveling circus — which needs a medic for the animals.

While working with an ailing horse and a stubborn elephant named Rosie, Jacob grows close with the performer Marlena. She's married to jealous, abusive ringmaster August, but forbidden sparks fly, threatening to destroy Jacob's newfound sense of home and family if he and Marlena are caught.

Where is Water for Elephants playing?

Water for Elephants is at the Imperial Theatre, located at 249 West 45th St. between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Built in 1923, the venue has more recently housed musicals including Bad Cinderella, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

How long is Water for Elephants?

The Notebook runs approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission. This is a typical running time for a Broadway musical.

What days is Water for Elephants playing?

The Notebook plays Tuesday through Sunday, with two performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays and no performances on Mondays. For the most up-to-date weekly schedule, visit the Water for Elephants page.

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When did Water for Elephants premiere?

Water for Elephants began Broadway performances on February 24, 2024, officially opening on March 21. The story's history, however, stretches back further. Here's a timeline of how Water for Elephants went from page to screen to stage.

  • 2006: Sara Gruen publishes the original Water for Elephants novel. The book spent 12 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
  • 2011: The film adaptation of Water for Elephants is released. Robert Pattinson starred as Jacob opposite Reese Witherspoon as Marlena.
  • 2015: Producers Peter Schneider, Elisabetta di Mambro, Broadway Across America, and Mehr! Entertainment acquired the rights to adapt Water for Elephants for the stage.
  • 2023: The Water for Elephants musical premieres at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • 2024: Water for Elephants premieres on Broadway with multiple cast and creative team members from the Atlanta premiere. Notably, Grant Gustin took over the role of Jacob from Atlanta cast member Ryan Vasquez, who went on to star in The Notebook on Broadway.

Who wrote the Water for Elephants musical?

Water for Elephants features a script by Rick Elice, adapted from the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen. Water for Elephants is Gruen's best-known novel, and Elice's other musicals include the multi-award-winning Jersey Boys, The Cher Show, Peter and the Starcatcher, and The Addams Family.

The music in Water for Elephants is by PigPen Theatre Co., a collective of seven musicians who met in college and have since released multiple folk albums and created two stage musicals: Elephants and The Tale of Desperaux, adapted from Kate DiCamillo's novel.

Water for Elephants characters

Water for Elephants has a large ensemble of circus performers, a handful of whom have main roles in the story. Here are the major characters in the Water for Elephants musical.

  • Jacob Jankowski: The main character of Water for Elephants, a young man looking for a fresh start after tragedy strikes.
  • Mr. Jankowski: An older version of Jacob. Water for Elephants a memory play, framed around Mr. Jankowski reminiscing about his circus days.
  • Marlena Rackinger: A horse whisperer and the wife of August, the ringmaster. She works closely with Jacob to train the circus's newly acquired elephant, and the pair fall in love.
  • August Rackinger: The hard-driving, abusive ringmaster of the circus and Marlena's husband.
  • Camel: A onetime circus worker whose legs have since begun to fail him. He's one of the first people to welcome Jacob into the circus.
  • Walter: The circus's clown who takes a while to warm up to Jacob.
  • Barbara: The circus's lead showgirl and Marlena's confidante.
  • Wade: A roustabout who performs menial work to keep the circus running. His main alliance is to his job, doing whatever August instructs in order to keep himself safe.

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Water for Elephants songs

The songs in the Water for Elephants musical feature lyrics and music by PigPen Theatre Co., and they exude an old-fashioned, folksy Americana sound to fit the 1930s time period when the show takes place. Here are all the songs in the show.

Act 1

  • Overture
  • Prologue
  • "Anywhere/Another Train"
  • "The Road Don't Make You Young"
  • "Easy"
  • "The Lion Has Got No Teeth"
  • "I Choose the Ride"
  • "Ode to an Elephant"
  • "Just Our Luck"
  • "I Shouldn't Be Surprised"
  • "Silver Stars"
  • "The Grand Spec"

Act 2

  • "Funny Angel"
  • "Zostań"
  • "Squeaky Wheel"
  • "You've Got Nothing"
  • "What Do You Do?"
  • "Wild"
  • "The Road Don't Make You Young (Reprise)"
  • "Go Home"
  • "Zostań (Reprise)"
  • "I Choose the Ride (Reprise)"

What awards has the Water for Elephants musical won?

The Water for Elephants musical has yet to win any awards; it will be eligible for the Tony Awards and other theatre prizes in 2024. Gruen's original novel, however, received numerous awards following its 2006 publication.

These awards include the 2007 BookBrowse award for most popular book and nominations for the Quill Award and Alex Awards. The book also spent numerous weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Later, the film was nominated for Satellite, Teen Choice, and People's Choice Awards. It won the People's Choice Award for Favorite Drama Movie, and Robert Pattinson won the Teen Choice Award for Choice Movie Actor – Drama. Witherspoon was also nominated in the Choice Movie Actress – Drama category.

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Major productions of Water for Elephants

The 2022 Atlanta premiere at the Alliance Theatre and the 2024 Broadway production at the Imperial Theatre are the only major productions so far. However, during or after their Broadway runs, critically acclaimed shows may tour the country or launch more productions around the world.

Onscreen adaptations of Water for Elephants

The Water for Elephants musical hasn't received a screen adaptation yet; it's the other way around. After Gruen's novel became a success, it was adapted into a film in 2011 starring Robert Pattinson as Jacob, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, and Christoph Waltz as August.

Fun facts about Water for Elephants

Zostań (that means stay) a while and learn more about Water for Elephants on Broadway.

  • Jacob speaks Polish, which proves an invaluable skill in the show. The song "Zostań" incorporates the language, and the title word means "stay" (in the sense of commanding an animal to stay).
  • Water for Elephants employs a circus designer, Shana Carroll, alongside choreographer Jesse Robb to stage all the circus tricks. Carroll and Robb have a combined 20+ years of experience as circus performers.
  • In Water for Elephants and in the real-life circus, playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" signals to the circus performers that something is wrong.
  • The puppet for Rosie the elephant appears only as a standalone trunk or pair of legs early in the show. Her full self appears later in the show once she grows comfortable with Jacob and Marlena.
  • The title comes from a moment in the book when someone claims to have carried water for elephants in the circus. Jacob, who actually worked in the circus, knows that's impossible since elephants drink gallons of water at a time.

Get tickets to Water for Elephants on Broadway

Water for Elephants gives audiences a unique glimpse into circus life while providing all the entertaining spectacle of the real thing — plus old-fashioned Broadway spectacle, too.

Get Water for Elephants tickets now.

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Top image credit: The cast of Water for Elephants on Broadway. (Photo by Sophy Holland)
In-article image credit: Water for Elephants on Broadway. (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

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