What do you get when the minds behind Despicable Me, Horton Hears a Who!, and The Secret Life of Pets write a musical? Enter Bubble Boy, a tale as charming as any of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio’s acclaimed animated films.
Jimmy Livingston was born without immunities and is confined to live in a plastic bubble room. His only childhood friend was the girl next door, Chloe, and when he learns she’s going to be married, he resolves to travel across the country, stop the wedding, and confess his love. Based on the 2001 film of the same name—written by Paul and Dario and starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal—the duo debuted the musical version in 2008. Championed by Wicked’s Tony-winning composer Stephen Schwartz, the show has continued to garner buzz.
On July 28, Ghostlight Records released the album version of Bubble Boy The Musical, featuring the voices of Broadway talents A.J. Holmes (The Book of Mormon), Richard Kind (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Caroline Bowman (Kinky Boots), Matt Doyle (Sweeney Todd), and Alice Riplely (Next to Normal). Here, Paul shares the inspirations (see: Sweeney Todd), influences (see: Kander and Ebb), and secrets behind each track on the album, now available in stores and online.
We start the show off with a big epic sound combined with silly lyrics to make clear to the audience right away that this is a comedy and they’ve got permission to laugh. And then a nice bouncy Beatlesque pop shuffle to set the tone of the show: fun. There’s a lot of ground to cover in a little time, so I felt it would be most effective to have Mrs. Livingston break that fourth wall and narrate directly to the audience. Jimmy’s “Luckiest boy in the world” section was added later because we weren’t getting enough of his point of view in the opening, and now I can’t imagine the song without it. Michael Holland’s vocal arrangements here are extremely challenging (just ask music director Matt Hinkley and the ensemble!), but really cool.
IT WILL BE CHLOE
This is the first song I wrote for the show, Jimmy’s “I Want” song. The rhythm of the melodic line is very syncopated, reflecting how anxious Jimmy feels about Chloe. With these lyrics I didn’t want him to come across as feeling too sorry for himself, so I made sure he ended on a positive, hopeful note. A.J. Holmes was my Jimmy when I did the first read-through of the show in my living room back in 2007, and I was so excited to have him back for the album. He kills this song, delivering the humor and sweetness perfectly. Justin Goldner did an amazing job with all the new arrangements for this recording, and I love what he did here, particularly Emily Hope Price’s beautiful cello.
The show had its debut back in 2008 at the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop (overseen by Stephen Schwartz, who’s since become an incredible champion of the show), and this song actually won the ASCAP Sammy Cahn Award for its lyrics that year. Musically I knew from the get go this was going to be in ¾, a sweet maternal lullaby with a dark, manipulative message. Alice Ripley does such a great job with this song—she sings it beautifully, with just the right touch of menace. It’s so wonderful when something gets performed ten times better than you ever heard in your head while writing it. Thank you, Ms. Ripley!
FALLING FOR THE BOY
Believe it or not, the inspiration for this song was the “Johanna” quartet from Sweeney Todd, particularly in the way the themes from our three main characters intertwine (my daughter Alex was doing Sweeney in high school with A.J. when I wrote it). It also contains some relatively Sondheim-esque tone clusters. Narratively it’s the equivalent of the montage in the movie that takes place over several years as Jimmy and Chloe become friends. The incredible Caroline Bowman sings this beautifully—not only is she technically flawless, but she injects it with so much warmth and humor. This has always been many people’s favorite song in the show.
This is me trying on a bit of Kander and Ebb, a classic swung eighths striptease tune with a dirty clarinet (courtesy of Geoff Countryman). Onstage it’s a great comedic moment for Chloe as she tries to be seductive but is so drunk she fails miserably. I think what really makes the song work are Jimmy’s responses to Chloe’s attempted seduction: A.J.’s panicked squeals of “I’m uncomfortable!” and “One nation under…GOD!!!” And then at the end we bring back Jimmy’s “It Will Be Chloe” theme as Chloe passes out and he stares longingly at her.
Mark is a wannabe rocker, so I knew his songs would need to reflect that. This is basically my attempt at something by Black Sabbath. With lyrics as simple as Mark is. Matt Doyle, who has an incredible voice, really gets to wail on this one (as does Simon Kafka on guitar).
IT WILL BE MARK
A fairly simple reprise that gets a surprisingly big laugh in the show. The music sets us up for something sweet, and then Jimmy’s lyrics surprise us. I love triple rhymes for comedy—they are everywhere in the show—and this is yet another example.
PROM NIGHT and FALLING FOR THE BOY REPRISES
The first version of the show didn’t have a scene at the prom—this all took place offstage. Which led to Chloe being underdeveloped and things feeling a bit claustrophobic. Actually going to the prom provided a welcome escape from the bubble room (although the “Bubble Boy” theme reappears for a moment here) and gave us more insight into Chloe’s decision to say yes to Mark’s proposal.
A sweet pop song with a simple idea at its core: a boy who wants to tell a girl he loves her, but can’t bring himself to do it. It’s a joke song in a lot of ways, but it ends with a moment of heartbreak that hopefully cements the audience’s empathy for Jimmy. A.J. and Caroline deliver this perfectly.
OUT OF HERE
One of the most important songs in the show, and one of my favorites, as it launches Jimmy out into the world. The dramatic key change from Eb in the verses to B in the choruses was my way of indicating the separation between Jimmy’s old life and the adventure he’s about to embark on. The middle section in which the people in the neighborhood sing about their desires to be “Out of Here” was added for a very important reason: to give the actor playing Jimmy time to get into his bubble suit!
BRIGHT AND SHINY
Originally I was using a version of the “Bright and Shiny” song from the movie here, but in the ASCAP workshop Stephen Schwartz suggested I come up with something completely new, and thus this was born. He was right, of course. This song was inspired by a ’70s super-wholesome anti-counterculture singing group called Up With People that visited my school in fifth grade. Look them up on YouTube—they’re hilarious. The wonderful Kirsten Scott not only has a super high belt, which this song demands, but her comedic energy and intensity here never fail to delight me.
BRING BACK MY BOY
This was also Sweeney-inspired, my take on “The Worst Pies in London.” I love patter songs and the frenzy of a mother worried about her missing son seemed like the perfect opportunity for one. Alice does such a great job with this, channeling Mrs. Livingston’s insanity perfectly. Mrs. Livingston was partially inspired by my childhood friend Marty’s overly protective mother, and that’s where the name Dorothy came from. Listen closely and you’ll hear the “Bubble Boy” theme returning in the bass line of the chorus.
It was actually relatively easy song spotting this show, and “Regret” is a great example of this. Slim’s moment in the movie where he tells the story of Wildfire declared itself as a song from the very first outline. The Spanish line “soso y sensato” translates as “bland and sensitive.” We’ve had many Slims throughout the development of the show, but no one has sung this song as passionately as Martin Sola does here. Anything but soso!
SOMETHING CALLED FOREVER
I really wanted to give Chloe another song here, and tried several, but they never seemed right. And then I got the idea to give it to Mark and Shawn instead, a power ballad like something you might hear from Poison or Warrant that ends as a celebration of their bromance (and leaving Chloe in the lurch). Matt Doyle and Gerard Canonico got this song immediately and killed it. I believe this may be the first musical theatre song to feature an air guitar solo. And I loved watching Jamie Eblen play drums on this—he embraced the cheesiness wholeheartedly and it shows.
GOTTA GET THAT BOY
This song is relatively simple, a counterpoint to “Out of Here” that brings all of our disparate groups together in one big number: Bright and Shinies, bikers, Chloe and Mark, and Mr. and Mrs. Livingston. Each time a group is added we go up a half-step, which really helps keep the energy up in a fairly long number. Alex Chester’s emphatic “It’s Nebraska!” always makes me smile here. And yes, that is Richard Kind as the cult leader Gil (a role originated in the movie by the one and only Fabio!).
IT’S AN ELK
This is another song that was spotted on day one. A list song, with every possible animal that Pushpahp could mistake for a cow (buffalo, zebu, gazelle, impala, etc.). Here’s to zoological research! I listened to a lot of Indian pop music from the ’60s for musical inspiration here. Justin Goldner really went to town with this arrangement (Isamu McGregor on keys creating the Indian instrumental sounds), and the fantastic Nehal Joshi gives a hilarious yet sincere performance as Pushpahp.
THERE’S A BUBBLE AROUND MY HEART
I wanted to write a duet for Jimmy and Chloe that they would sing while miles apart, but connected by their hearts. In this song, both of them are arriving at an important step in the journey towards change: realizing they’ve got a problem. It touches on the theme of the show, which is that we all have our bubbles. All the dissonance in the verses reflects their conflicted state of mind, while the simplicity of the chorus brings them back home. I could listen to A.J. and Caroline sing this all day. They are just fantastic here.
I STOLE A BUS
This was a late addition to Bubble Boy, and is now probably my favorite song in the show. Another unabashed attempt by me to channel Sondheim. I gave Justin “There Won’t Be Trumpets” as an example of what I was looking for in the arrangement, and he really delivered. It’s an important moment in the show that was lacking before—a chance to show Jimmy transforming before our eyes. I love how A.J. sings the second half with such newfound manliness!
YOU CAN SEE THE MOON TODAY
This also came out of the ASCAP workshop. Stephen Schwartz asked the audience if there was anything they felt was missing from the show, and a woman said, “I wanted to hear the dad sing.” I immediately realized she was right and dove in and wrote this musicalized version of his movie lines about the moon (which were actually improvised by John Carroll Lynch on the set). Musically, there’s definitely some “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka here. Richard Kind just does a beautiful job with this one. So sweet.
ONE MORE MILE
The last song written for the show, a rousing gospel number bringing everyone back together as Jimmy runs to the church. This was definitely inspired by those unforgettable Frank Loesser numbers “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Brotherhood of Man,” which I’ve loved since I was a little kid. This is crazy demanding on A.J., especially at this point in the show, but he rose to the occasion. And that’s ensemble member Anita Welch with those great gospel riffs at the end.
I’D RATHER SPEND ONE MINUTE HOLDING YOU
This was one of my favorite lines in the original movie, so I knew it needed to be a song. Musically, it’s rooted in early ’70s rock, something by the Faces or Procol Harum. I added the rap section later because it felt like we needed Jimmy to recap everything he’d been through—and finally tell Chloe, “I love you.” I think it was Justin’s idea to have A.J. sing the last “could” all alone, and it really works beautifully.
I’ve always had an affinity for closing numbers in which the cast addresses the audience to let them know the moral of the story. As the writer of the show, it’s especially fun to see all of your characters line up and one at a time sing what they’ve learned. And driving home the theme of the show, which is that we’ve all got our bubbles. And it doesn’t hurt to get that five-note “Bubble Boy” musical theme in the audience’s head one last time before they go…