Tony Nominee Jessica Stone on Her Journey From Actor to Director of ‘Water for Elephants’

After helming last year's Tony winning musical 'Kimberly Akimbo,' Stone brought seven-time Tony nominee 'Water for Elephants' to the Broadway stage.

Director Jessica Stone at the opening night of Water for Elephants at the Imperial Theatre on March 21, 2024 in New York City. Jenny Anderson Photo/Courtesy of Polk & Co

Jessica Stone—who directed last year’s Tony-winning Best Musical, Kimberly Akimbo, and may just have directed this year’s Tony-winning Best Musical, Water for Elephants—first met her husband, actor Christopher Fitzgerald, onstage. This was back in 1999, when there were still babes in arms and rehearsing, appropriately enough, a New York City Center Encores! production of Babes in Arms, the Rodgers and Hart perennial. Specifically, it was while rehearsing a fast-paced, roughhouse rendition of R&H’s “I Wish I Were in Love Again.”

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“It was a very physical number,” Stone tells Observer. “The first day we met, we were kicking each other and beating each other up.” But the result was gang-busters. “When you work hard at something and people appreciate it, you feel pretty great.”

Four years later, they returned to the stage of that triumph, Fitzgerald having lured her there, using the ruse that Encores! musical director, Rob Fisher, wanted to see them. When it became clear Fisher was a no-show, Fitzgerald dropped to one knee and popped the question. She said yes. They now have two sons, 17 and 15, but they travel on quite different showbiz planes. 

Not long after Babes in Arms, Stone traded in her dancing shoes and for a director’s megaphone. Fitzgerald remains a clown prince of Broadway—he handled three roles in the recent revival of Spamalot—while Stone toils behind the scenes.

Stone sees her switch from dancing to directing as a natural progression. “I always had a desire to collaborate with other kinds of storytellers, to think about the story in a larger way than just the character that I was playing,” she says. 

Nevertheless, she tiptoed into this new profession. Whenever she had free time between gigs, she’d sign up to assist friends who were already directors—Joe Mantello, Christopher Ashley, David Warren—and acquaint herself with varied works from Shakespeare to Shaw to Simon. 

Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of Water For Elephants. Matthew Murphy

One of her director-friends, the late Nicholas Martin, started her off on solo-directing in 2010 when he provided her with the mainstage at Williamstown and she filled it with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Just to make it characteristically complicated, she used an all-male ensemble and had everybody double-cast. “I loved the puzzle of it,” she admits. “It’s so silly, and that score is just so elegant. It elevates the entire evening. I just love that show. 

“Even then, I didn’t know that I was pivoting away from acting. I thought, ‘Oh, that was kind of a lark,’ but, when serious job offers to direct started coming in, I realized I was more interested in those than in the acting offers. I’d lost my desire for that a while ago, and I felt much happier, more fulfilled and excited. Also, I had much more energy for directing than I had for acting.”

Stone guided Kimberly Akimbo—about a teenage girl suffering from a form of progeria, which causes her to age four-and-a-half times faster than normal—to no less than five Tony wins out of seven nominations. The elaborately staged Water for Elephants—which uses horse and elephant puppets to help tell the story of a run-down, one-ring circus traveling through the Depression —has seven Tony noms itself.   

Both shows seem, on paper, difficult if not impossible to musicalize. “I gravitate toward stories that intertwine pain and hope and joy in any given second,” Stone says. “When I was presented with the opportunity to think about Water for Elephants, it was less about ‘Ooooh, this sounds hard—I want to do it’ and more about ‘How’d I do that—and still have the train and a stampede and puppetry? What might it look like?’”

She knows who to thank for getting her somewhat unwieldy epic vision on stage. “I had the luck to work with an incredible producing team—Jennifer Costello and Peter Schneider—who allowed a lot of room for research and development and a lot of time to sit down with Rick Elice and the writers to crack the code,” she insists. Then, there’s that surprisingly tuneful and sprightly score from an aggregate of seven known collectively as PigPen Theatre Co.

Strengthening her stage vision are the idyllic memories of her own circuses from childhood. “ I loved the circus as a kid, and I still love it, as an adult,” she says. “There’s such skill and such fragility in the entire experience, such trust among the company members because they hold each other and carry each other.”

But circus love wasn’t exactly what drew her to the project. “The attraction was the fact that the main character loses everything, and it changes the entire trajectory of his life,” she opines. “He faces again his life, and what he chooses to do with what’s left of it—how he uses that previous chapter of his life to teach himself to think about what he might want to do next.”

This would be Jacob Jankowaki, a veterinarian who loses his parents in a car crash. Transitioning from an Ivy League school to anywhere, he hops a cross-country train shared by the Benzini Brothers Circus, and his life is upended. Grant Gustin, in his Broadway debut, has this lead role. He was recommended by friends to Stone, who “knew he was the guy as soon as we met.”

Young Jacob, too, develops a circus love—specifically for the beautiful horseback-rider (Isabelle McCalla), who unfortunately is married to the ringmaster (Paul Alexander Nolan). I say “young Jacob” because there’s an old Jacob (Gregg Edelman), who muses over the life that he survived.

Grant Gustin, Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla and the company of Water For Elephants. Matthew Murphy

Thus running around loose in Water for Elephants is a circus story, a love story, a triangle and a memory play. That’s a lot for a director to crack her whip over. Stone had help from choreographers Shana Carroll and Jesse Robb, scenic designer Takeshi Kata and costume designer David Israel Reynoso, each of them Tony nominated themselves. 

She also had time. Water for Elephants unfurled its tent for the first time last year for a world premiere at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. “I think it’s important to give new musicals a chance to breathe,” Stone contends. “People say, ‘Oh, it takes seven years to make a musical,’ and, in a funny way, it really does. It’s not just the time it takes to write and revise and design. You need room to look at it and then to step away from it. We had so much support at the Alliance. It gave us the opportunity to see it on its feet first and then make changes where we still wanted to that the story. We were able to tinker and make a few changes, actually, upon leaving Atlanta.”

Stone said goodbye to a performing career some time ago and doesn’t miss the acclaim that went with it, but she relishes the kudos she’s getting for directing Water for Elephants. “I love that people really enjoy the show, that they scream at the end of Act I, that they leap to their feet at the end of Act II and tell me it takes their breath away. That’s the thing that moves me. I’m proud of the show we’ve all created. I love the team that I worked with and the company of actors. And I feel really, really proud that this show is getting the kind of praise it’s getting.

“When you get a nomination for Best Musical, it belongs to everybody. You don’t make a musical without everybody. That’s the thing I’m most pleased about, what nobody told me when I was an actor. When you’re a director, you work so closely with every single person on a project. This one has a lot of people attached to it, and there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. It’s an incredible group of storytellers—on stage and off—and Water for Elephants is truly the thing that makes me happy to hang my hat on because it’s a show that belongs to all of us.”

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Tony Nominee Jessica Stone on Her Journey From Actor to Director of ‘Water for Elephants’