It takes a village to scare a generation into never swimming in the ocean again. During the filming of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws, Spielberg and his team were faced with incessant challenges involving budget, the weather in Martha’s Vineyard (where they shot most of the film), and perhaps most notably, a dysfunctional mechanical shark named Bruce. Years later, Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor realized it was the perfect material for a musical.
Bruce, Taylor and Oberacker’s new musical premiering at Seattle Rep this May, follows the tumultuous filming process of Jaws as described in The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, one of the film’s screenwriters.
“Being a film buff, I had always heard some of the crazy stories about what had gone on that summer to make the film and how insane it was,” Oberacker said. “Before I met Rob, around the 25th anniversary of the DVD, they did a documentary about [Jaws] that got released as a bonus feature [and] I started to realize that the backstory of how the film had gotten made was kind of the perfect hero story that musicals often follow.
“There’s something about our brains that finds it very delicious to find out origin stories to things we already know and love. All of the masters have to learn. We’re finding out how Spielberg became Spielberg—he wasn’t born the guy who did Schindler’s List [or] Jurassic Park. He was born with innate talent, there’s no question, but that summer, he was only 26 years old [and] he had very little film experience on this level, so he surrounded himself with people who were much more seasoned than he was. He spent that first film learning from the best and in exchange, with his own innate talent, he taught them something.”
Eventually, Oberacker got ahold of The Jaws Log and thought that if the story was to be adapted as a musical, he would use the book as a blueprint rather than trying to collect interviews independently. Eventually, he and Taylor brought their idea to Gottlieb. “Finally, we got the nerve to cold email and call Carl Gottlieb and say, ‘Hey, we have a crazy idea to pitch you,’ and Richard went out to LA and met with him at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Taylor said.
“We were supposed to actually go have lunch together and we never left the lobby,” Oberacker recounted. “We just talked and talked and talked for a couple hours and he got it immediately. He thought it was hilarious and just crazy enough that it might work.”
Unlike most book adaptations, the writers were able to draw from additional sources. “There are things in discussions we’ve had with Carl that are not in the book, the personalities and things people were thinking,” Oberacker noted. “We’re working from a much broader pallet of inspiration.”
Oberacker and Taylor also took inspiration from their Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Bandstand. “We worked with Andy Blankenbuehler on Bandstand and [he] taught us so much,” Taylor said. “If you can do multiple things at once, do them.”
“By going through that process with Andy, we wrote into the original draft of Bruce that sense of layering [and] we took stronger risks,” Oberacker added.
For Bruce, the duo is thrilled to be collaborating with director/choreographer Donna Feore. “Two years before the pandemic hit, Richard and I read this rave review of a Music Man production up at [The] Stratford Festival in Toronto and it was Donna’s production of The Music Man,” Taylor said.
“It was just absolutely brilliant. It was functioning on so many levels that I haven’t seen productions of The Music Man function on prior to that or since then, so we kind of became superfans instantly.”
The following summer, Taylor and Oberacker were looking for a director, so Taylor emailed Feore and told her that he was returning to Stratford to see two of her upcoming productions and would love to meet her if she was available.
“By the time I arrived there, about four days after I had emailed her the script, she had been through it three or four times, she had given it to multiple friends, and it was clear that this was the perfect person to direct this show,” Taylor said.
“She’s just so creative and honestly, she’s fun to hang out with,” Oberacker attested. “There are a lot of laughs [and] she is very methodical about every word. She plans very far ahead and expects everyone she’s working with to do their homework.”
Recreating Jaws’ chaotic production process for the stage hasn’t been without its own challenges. “There’s a whole kind of incredible arc before they actually land in Martha’s Vineyard for the summer to start shooting and it’s written on the page very, very fast and it jump cuts from office to office,” Oberacker said. “Donna was very challenged by that, [but] what [she and the designers] created was so different from what we had imagined at all; it is so completely crazy what they have chosen to do and when we saw the design, we almost wept because it’s so brilliant and so simple. It’s an incredible magic trick.”
“Then, we couldn’t figure out how you are going to get from this magic trick to Martha’s Vineyard physically, and when they showed us how it happens, our jaws fell open.”
The show was set to open in 2020, but the pandemic delayed the production. However, according to Oberacker and Taylor, the pandemic has made the show more important than ever. “The show became more relevant over the past two years,” Oberacker said. “It was always fun, it was always a story about imagination and overcoming odds, but it has a resonance now that it simply didn’t have before. We were able to incorporate what was happening to us personally as artists in a very visceral way so it made it onto the page by virtue of sort of living a version of the chaos and troubles they were living that summer as well.”
“The show is an ode to how imagination and the ability to [improvise] is what will take you through almost any situation and it’s what we all have to do,” Taylor added. “This was a group of people that set out to make this film thinking they were going to have access to all of these things, in particular [a] giant mechanical shark, but the shark would just keep refusing to cooperate. Somehow, you still have to find a way to keep moving forward and being creative.”
Bruce is playing at Seattle Rep from May 27-June 26, 2022.
Kyle Gerstel is a 15-year-old musical theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. In addition to writing for the TeenTix Newsroom and his school newspaper The Islander, Kyle frequently performs with Youth Theatre Northwest and works with Penguin Productions to foster an equitable theatre community. When not in rehearsal, you can probably find him writing poetry, rewatching The Cabin in the Woods or obsessing over Bo Burnham.
This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.