David Hunter and Joanna Woodward on bringing new musical 'The Time Traveller's Wife' to the stage

The actors share their excitement about being part of a new musical and reveal what we can expect from the stage adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s popular novel.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

We’ve seen Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling 2003 novel transformed into a movie with Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, and a TV series with Theo James and Rose Leslie. Now David Hunter and Joanna Woodward star in the new stage musical version of The Time Traveller’s Wife, which is coming into the West End following a premiere run in Chester last year.

“I do have a pang of nervousness,” admits Hunter about inhabiting such a beloved character. He plays Henry, who has a genetic disorder that makes him constantly time travel – tearing him away from Clare, the love of his life, or causing them to meet at different ages.

The musical has a book by Lauren Gunderson and a score by an intriguing, Grammy-winning partnership: Joss Stone and Dave Stewart. London audiences can discover what they’ve cooked up between them when the production begins previews at the Apollo Theatre on 7 October.

“It’s the dream to be part of an original cast,” says Woodward, whose previous West End shows include Pretty Woman: The Musical and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Hunter has led West End shows like Waitress, Once and Kinky Boots.

London Theatre spoke to the pair about creating a musical, their favourite numbers, and just how you time travel on stage…

Tickets to The Time Traveller’s Wife in the West End are available on London Theatre. Book The Time Traveller’s Wife tickets today.

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Did you know the story beforehand?

Joanna Woodward: I read the book when I was about 15 – I was a big fan. So I definitely knew about it, although I haven’t watched the film or the TV series. Have you?

David Hunter: I’ve watched the film, and I’ve only read half the book. I’d like to say it’s because I wanted to create my own process…

Woodward: Let’s go with that!

Is it hard to put your stamp on these much-loved characters?

Hunter: Yes, that’s the tricky thing: it’s such a thrilling story that it’s been adapted in many ways. With our version, they’ve gone right back to the source material, to the book, and what Lauren Gunderson has done incredibly well is distil the spirit of the story into two hours, so you really get the feeling of the whole thing in this lovely musical package.

Although every time people message me saying “Oh I love the book, I can’t wait to see this musical!”, I do have a pang of nervousness, because undoubtedly, perhaps in their twenties or their teens, they met Henry and Clare and decided in their minds how they looked, and painted a picture of them. I just want to live up to that picture! But if Daniel Radcliffe can play Harry Potter and win them over, then hopefully we can do the same.

Is it a big acting challenge playing different ages and timelines?

Woodward: We’ve both mapped it out as best we can. It’s definitely easier for me – mine is quite chronological. There’s just a couple of moments where I jump back to 18. For me the challenge is knowing which Henry I’ve got in that scene, how many times I’ve seen him before, and how strong our relationship is at that point.

Hunter: The changes are very subtle, because we don’t meet Henry, for example, as a teenager and then an old man. I’m trying to take the pressure off myself and go “How much do we really change between the ages of 30 and 40?”. Physically we don’t change an awful lot, or at least I haven’t! [laughs] So I think there’s a delicacy to those things and making sure you don’t overplay it.

Woodward: I’m definitely thinking about the vocal qualities of a younger version of Clare. We’ve got lovely young actresses playing Clare and then I take over at about 16, so when I’m at school, I’m thinking about what might be different to Clare as a 40-year-old mother. There’s also the physical quality of being a teenager versus a 40-year-old who’s been through a lot and is more comfortable in her body.

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Ultimately the story is more about emotion than sci-fi, right?

Hunter: That’s it. We have to understand the magical language of the piece and make sure we’re sticking to those rules, but personally I wouldn’t want to watch a musical that’s about those things. This is a love story, and we get this incredible idea of time travel that affects everything, but it’s not a story about time travel.

Woodward: Actually the brilliant design and costumes allow for that [the time jumps] to be told for us, so we just kind of do our acting!

Hunter: Exactly, and then you can just enjoy the moments that they connect and fall in love, and the difficulties they experience. It’s very relatable: to parents who have to go away, or couples who have to be apart…

Woodward: …or going through illness, any struggles that we all go through.

Hunter: We just happen to time travel as well!

But how do you time travel on stage?

Woodward: We have a brilliant illusionist called Chris Fisher, who – talking of Harry Potter – did [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] and Company and many others, so he’s got lots of magical ways that David can jump-cut.

Hunter: Effectively, from my point of view it’s a lot of running around.

Woodward: I have to do the hard bit, really. I have to make it look plausible. I’m the one left on stage going “He’s gone!”.

Hunter: I was so excited coming into it thinking “I’ll be part of all these magic moments and I’ll miraculously vanish”, but obviously I’m the only person who doesn’t see the magic! I’m just quietly creeping off.

What’s it like learning an original score?

Hunter: Both Jo and I have been really excited to do something from scratch. Getting to imprint your sound and personality and choices onto these brand-new songs – and our voices I hope will become synonymous with them – that’s really thrilling.

Woodward: The team have been super up for us bringing what we want to bring to it. But we also know we’re in the safe hands of Nick Finlow, who is such a musical theatre genius, for him to rein us back in if it gets too pop-y. Because Dave and Joss’s background is pop and rock, so them combined with Nick is a magical mix.

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Is it also a great way to bring in new audiences, who connect with that music?

Woodward: One hundred per cent. And the songs are standalone great songs. We’ve recorded the album, and I can’t wait to play it in the kitchen. They’re great tunes!

__Hunter: They’re where I love musical theatre to sit, in that the songs have got real rock-pop sensibilities. I love the Waitresses and Beautifuls of the world, and that crossover.

Any favourite numbers?

Hunter: There’s a standout moment that I have at the beginning of Act II – it’s a song called “Journey Man”.

Woodward: Oh, it’s epic!

Hunter: I love the song, and the way they stage it is both very theatrical and very technological. It’s really thrilling and quite different and unique and exciting, and a real physical effort from me. I get thrown around all over the place, and there’s lots of great special effects.

Woodward: It’s a huge spectacle to open Act II. It’s not what anyone would expect.

Hunter: That’s it. And it’s a song that, in one of the early workshops, Joss Stone was in the room writing it, and I recorded the whole thing on a voice note because I was like “Even if I don’t play this part in the future, how thrilling to be there at its birth.” So to hear it being written, and now sing it every night when we get to the West End – what a privilege. It’s just glorious.

Woodward: I’ve got a song in Act II that’s very girl power, very empowering. It’s super fun and terrifying to sing. It feels pretty badass.

Has the show changed much coming into the West End?

Hunter: Not massively. It’s a lovely feeling to come into rehearsal with a good grasp of your lines and the songs, and the arc of the whole thing. Even the costume changes – I had 39 in Chester, and getting your head around that in a short space of time was difficult, but I know them now.

The opening is completely different. But it’s made up of other aspects that we already knew, and we’ve recorded it for the cast recording, so it’s not a complete surprise.

Are you proud to be part of a new, original musical?

Woodward: So proud. It’s the dream to be part of an original cast, and see your name on that cast album. To actually create these characters from the ground up – it’s not something that comes along every day.

Hunter: It’s so rare, isn’t it? This is a recognised story, obviously, but they’ve taken a big leap with the new music and the writing, and the whole thing is brand spanking new. So hopefully it’s a title that people love and will want to come and see, but in a whole new guise. We feel very lucky.

Has Audrey Niffenegger given her blessing?

Woodward: I think there’s been a Tweet! But other than that, we’ve not met her yet. I really hope she’ll come to opening night.

Hunter: Apparently she’s enjoyed it: she’s seen various parts of it and how it works, and been in discussions. The great thing is that Lauren, and therefore the entire team, have always been so faithful to the book that I wouldn’t imagine there’s many bones of contention anyway.

Do you think the show connects to our own lives, perhaps especially what we’ve gone through with the pandemic?

Woodward: Everything we go through in life helps what we can re-create onstage as the truth. It’s been a tough few years for everybody – I’ve been through some tough stuff with my family. It’s interesting that we’re both playing this as parents, because eventually [Clare and Henry] have a child. I feel very strongly that we portray the real emotions on that stage and the truth that people can hopefully hook into and find some release.

Hunter: People will definitely find real ways to relate to the extraordinary material. Particularly after the pandemic, there’s even more connections to it – and god it gets emotional! In Chester we could hear them [crying].

Woodward: Combine that emotion with this beautiful material and it’s a recipe for tears!

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Photo credit: David Hunter, Joanna Woodward as Clare in The Time Traveller's Wife. (Photo by Ant Clausen)

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