Seventy-three years after its aviator protagonist crashed into the desert – and our imaginations – The Little Prince is once again top of mind, certainly in Canada. This country is about to serve up two world premieres – a musical opening in Calgary next week and a ballet in Toronto this spring. And the animated feature film first seen at Cannes in 2015, which will finally open in theatres this year, was primarily produced in Montreal.
"It seems that it is the year of Le Petit Prince in Canada in 2016!" wrote Olivier d'Agay in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail this week. D'Agay is head of the estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the author's great-nephew. While d'Agay has been involved in and supports all three projects, the book is now in the public domain in most countries, including Canada.
The Little Prince, published in 1943, is a sort of illustrated children's book for adults, functioning on different levels. On its surface, it is the story of a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and meets a little prince who has left behind his great love, a rose, on the tiny asteroid he calls home, and has met a number of characters on his interplanetary travels.
"It's a universal story about … what we lose along the journey to adulthood," says National Ballet principal dancer and choreographic associate Guillaume Côté, who is creating the full-length ballet. "It's so simple, but its depth is quite striking." So superb is the minimalist work, Côté says, that Saint-Exupéry gets more across in a single paragraph than some authors do in an entire book.
Adding to the book's mystique was Saint-Exupéry's own death. The author, who had crashed in the Sahara in 1935, disappeared while flying for the Allies during the Second World War in 1944. His aircraft was not recovered for decades.
The book may have some Canadian roots: There is speculation the model for Saint-Exupéry's little prince may have been a Quebec boy, Thomas De Koninck. Saint-Exupéry visited the boy's family in Quebec City in 1942 and endured many questions from the eight-year-old, now professor emeritus of philosophy at Laval University.
"My memory is this tall aviator … standing in the middle of the living room. Other people were there, too, but he would stay with us, the children, and be attentive to us and he would make little paper planes and show us drawings," De Koninck says. "People always told me, 'Shut up, you talk too much.' And Saint-Exupéry was exactly the opposite, so far as I remember; he would listen to us children."
According to De Koninck's brother, Saint-Exupéry told their father that Thomas had been a model for the little prince. "I always say that, for me, le petit prince is Saint-Exupéry, himself," De Koninck says. "But he may have, of course, drawn inspiration from children he met."
On a hot spring night last year, the creative team behind The Little Prince – The Musical gathered at a Vancouver restaurant after a full day of casting. Adapted by composers Nicholas Lloyd Webber (son of Andrew Lloyd Webber) and James D. Reid, the production – which opened at Theatre Calgary this week – is a heavily reworked version of the musical that premiered in Belfast in 2011. With so many significant changes, they're calling this a world premiere.
Reviews were mixed in Belfast, and Reid and Nicholas Lloyd Webber knew they could do better. They went back to work – at a place in Southern France that coincidentally offered views of the spot in the Mediterranean, where Saint-Exupéry's plane went down – and did some major rewriting.
"You want to be loyal to the spirit of the piece, but at the same time, I think you have to use your imagination. Otherwise, it can be unsuccessful if you're too slavish to the text," Lloyd Webber said at that dinner.
"It's a book that's close to so many people's hearts, and it's a very sort of difficult, heavy responsibility trying to … find the right words that catch the essence of it," Reid said. "We are now happy with what we've done, and we can walk away feeling proud that we've done it to the best of our abilities."
The play is directed by Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum. "The whole thing is about your imagination completing the picture in a really bold way," Garnhum said this week. Watch for what sounds like a magic lamplighter effect involving the audience.
Meanwhile in Toronto, work is under way on Côté's ballet, which will have its premiere in June.
The book was an important part of Côté's childhood; his parents were obsessed with the story and, as a boy in Lac-Saint-Jean, Que., he played the little prince in a ballet-school production.
"It was just a little ballet, but it doesn't change the fact that being on stage and relating to this beautiful tale kind of stayed with me," Côté says. "From there on, it never occurred to me to make a ballet out of it until one day I found the book again and fell in love with it all over again as an adult. And [I] kind of realized that when I played it when I was seven years old, I was very much of the mindset of the child in the story, and now, I'm much more of the aviator's mind."
The team – including composer Kevin Lau, who has created an original score, and designer Michael Levine – considered telling parallel stories involving the little prince and Saint-Exupéry's real life. But in the end, the ballet will stay relatively true to the book. While developing the work, they brought De Koninck in for a workshop, who talked about that childhood visit, including Saint-Exupéry's paper airplanes – which inspired the airplane that will appear in the ballet.
"All the philosophies of that book are relevant now more than ever. They probably resonate very true to a lot of people, because this idea, this little prince who goes from planet to planet and meets these exaggerated personalities, it's kind of the world we live in. We kind of come across these exaggerated personalities on a daily basis," Côté says. "And it's a good reminder. I think we are looking for ways of making ourselves happy. It's not by more belongings or more cellphones … or getting more money. … It's really the things that you only can see with your heart that are valuable."
The Little Prince – The Musical is at Theatre Calgary from Jan. 19 to Feb. 28 (opens Jan. 22). Mark Osborne's film The Little Prince opens in Quebec Feb. 12 and elsewhere in Canada March 11. The National Ballet's Le Petit Prince is at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto from June 4 to June 12.