Aussie youngster treading boards abroad

·3-min read

When the curtain raises on the world premiere musical production of international bestseller The Book Thief by acclaimed Australian author Markus Zusak, there will be a fellow Aussie playing a lead role.

And it's not just any actor. He's a 12-year-old who's already making a name for himself on the global stage.

Charlie Murphy, from Newcastle, will star in The Book Thief musical opening on Saturday.

Murphy is part of an international creative team bringing to the stage for the first time Zusak's story of a young orphan girl growing up in Nazi Germany.

The book has sold 16 million copies and was made into a film starring Oscar-winning Australian actor Geoffrey Rush.

The multi-platform success of The Book Thief brought it to the attention of an American team made up of best-selling US author Jodi Picoult, award-winning playwright Timothy Allen McDonald and songwriting duo Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson.

It was Picoult who convinced Zusak at a literary event in Texas to grant the rights to turn his book into a musical, promising to "look after his baby".

A previous relationship between the American team and English director Lotte Wakeham resulted in the musical being staged at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, northwest England, where Wakeham is the artistic director.

In another fortunate coincidence, Murphy was living 20km down the road from the Bolton at Wigan, where his family is on a two-year posting thanks to his dad's work as an engineer.

Murphy had just completed a seven-month stint on London's West End playing the young male lead, Michael, in the musical Mary Poppins.

He therefore proved an obvious choice to be cast in The Book Thief as German boy Rudy, the best friend and neighbour of Liesel, the orphan girl.

The Book Thief focuses on Liesel whose life is changed by books she steals. She learns to read with the help of a Jewish man Max who Liesel's foster parents are hiding and protecting from the Nazis.

While the book's heavy content shadowed by death doesn't appear to bend to a musical, Zusak believes music will bring it to life and highlight one of the themes of finding beauty in tragedy.

He's not been involved in the production process, preferring to "let creative people dream".

"I would much rather be surprised by differences to the novel that work beautifully than see a show that's not quite right on account of being too faithful to the book," he told AAP.

Nor was Zusak surprised to learn there's a young Australian actor in the cast because "nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to the life The Book Thief has had".

He said he was excited for Murphy and delighted the young actor had been touched by the book's magic.

"The thing about The Book Thief is that it's a lucky book," Zusak said.

"It's like it's had a bit of magic sprinkled on it and it's had an incredibly lucky life. I would love that good fortune to continue for everyone in and around the musical: the writers, the songwriters, the performers, the crew - everyone."

After performing in the magical world of Mary Poppins, based on the books by Australian-British writer P.L. Travers, Murphy is excited to be caught up in the drama of a world premiere based on the work of another notable Australian.

Murphy says the production "is a powerful and moving story that takes you on an emotional ride as you learn about Liesel who lives with a German foster family during the holocaust and hides a Jew in their basement".

"On the production side it has an amazing, friendly cast and an incredible creative team who have worked on West End and Broadway productions," Murphy told AAP.

The young actor looks forward to meeting Zusak who is attending the premiere and wants to ask him why he wrote the book and what it means to him.