Skip to main content
Seven men dressed as sailors on a steps of a wooden deck set on a theater stage.
Carnegie Mellon graduates and leaders of PigPen Theatre Co. performing "The Old Man and The Moon". Credit: Jenny Anderson

From Playground to Broadway

Media Inquiries
Pam Wigley
College of Fine Arts

The circus has come to Broadway and the musical team behind it has been clowning around together since their freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. But clowning around is serious work for PigPen Theatre Co(opens in new window). This band of storytellers, made up of seven CMU alumni (Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Dan Weschler, Matt Nuernberger, and Ryan Melia) has created and produced imaginative musical works that have been performed all over the world. Now, the group is making their Broadway debut as the composers and lyricists of “Water for Elephants(opens in new window),” which opened on March 21 at the Imperial Theatre in New York. 

“Water for Elephants” is a musical adapted from the book of the same name by Sara Gruen. It follows Jacob Jankowski, an old man who recounts his life as a young veterinarian with a traveling circus; his forbidden love with the circus manager's wife, Marlena; and Rosie the elephant, who makes the struggling circus show a sensation. The show’s acrobatics, aerial silks and puppetry make for an awe-inspiring spectacle, but the music makes the story soar. And that’s thanks to PigPen Theatre Co.

They started working together as freshmen at the School of Drama(opens in new window) in 2007 when they created their very first multidisciplinary performance for “Playground” — a festival of independent student work that has been a hallmark of the School of Drama for more than 20 years.

“We learned how to collaborate at CMU,” said Weschler, “Our first few shows were developed using movement improvisations we were learning in class at the time. We learned how to devise work from a variety of different starting points, beyond the typical structure of script to stage. We also learned how to connect to the stakes of our storytelling. There’s a certain kind of embodied commitment to the story that is not always a given in the industry. We were lucky to have that imparted deeply.”

“Our foundational classwork freshman year, both in scene and movement study, was a huge asset to our company, especially when we were young,” added Gillen. “I am using everything I learned at CMU every day as I continue on this weird path of actor/creator/puppeteer/musician.”

The group graduated together in 2011 and has been creating their unique brand of musical storytelling ever since. Some of their shows include “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” which they premiered off-Broadway in 2012 to rave reviews (including Critics Picks in The New York Times(opens in new window) and New York Magazine(opens in new window)); “The Hunter and the Bear,” which premiered at Writer’s Theater in Chicago in 2016 and was named one of the 10 Best Plays(opens in new window) of the year by TimeOut Chicago; and “The Tale of Despereaux,” which had its world premiere at The Old Globe and transferred to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019. In 2021, PigPen premiered their ongoing interactive theatrical experience, “The Phantom Folktales”, aboard Richard Branson’s cruise line, Virgin Voyages. And now, their work has made it to Broadway.

“I am using everything I learned at CMU every day as I continue on this weird path of actor/creator/puppeteer/musician.” — Curtis Gillen

PigPen began working with book writer Rick Elice on “Water for Elephants” in 2015. Elice is the Tony Award-winning writer of the book for “Jersey Boys,” “The Addams Family,” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which opened in 2013 around the same time as PigPen’s “The Old Man and the Old Moon.” The two productions share what Weschler calls “a similar aesthetic and ethos of resourceful storytelling,” and they all became fast friends.

“We started looking for opportunities to work together,” said Weschler, “but nothing stuck until Rick came to us with ‘Water for Elephants’...” The rest, as they say, is history. But more specifically, it was years of iterative and collaborative work to develop this story into a musical. Fortunately, PigPen is no stranger to collaborative storytelling, having worked as a team to develop everything from songs, movement, music and even shadow puppets as a means to tell their stories. Puppets are a keen part of their aesthetic, and “Water for Elephants” is no exception, with a massive elephant puppet that is impressive in its size and beauty.

Often, the PigPen men have starred in their shows, playing the instrumentation and telling the stories themselves. However, this time around, they are on the other side of the fourth wall.

“We’re experiencing watching our own work from the audience for the first time in our careers,” Weschler said. “We’re used to being onstage, with a lot of firsthand control over the storytelling as it unfolds. Watching our wonderful cast make new discoveries every night is as rewarding as it is surprising.”

So, what would their college freshman selves think of their trajectory from Playground to Broadway? They all agree it is somewhat surreal. 

“Stepping into the Imperial Theatre for the first time as writers felt like passing through a portal,” the company said jointly.

And what advice would they give to students today, pursuing a similar dream?

“Find people who you love to work with and work together! Lean on each other and celebrate every individual win as a collective one," they said.

This spectacular Broadway debut is certainly a collective win worth celebrating.

For tickets and more information on the show visit in new window)

— Related Content —