Theater geek from Upper St. Clair writes adventure tale for middle-schoolers

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 8:18 p.m.

During his student years in Upper St. Clair, Tim Federle was the kid who cut class to read Stephen Sondheim's autobiography in the library stacks.

He recognized he was never going to be an athlete or a mathlete like his big brother.

An aspiring dancer and musical-theater geek, Federle found his niche at places like CLO Academy, the Center for Theater Arts in Mt. Lebanon and Pittsburgh Musical Theatre.

“I knew at 5 o'clock I would put on my jazz shoes and join the club,” Federle says.

Even before he knew exactly what and where Broadway was, Federle knew it was where he belonged.

Which is why, years later Federle has written “Better Nate Than Ever,” a funny and touching adventure tale about a 13-year-old boy who sneaks off to New York City to audition for a role in “E.T. The Musical.”

He returned home to Pittsburgh this week for a series of book-signing events and appearances at area schools.

In his book, Federle's hero, Nate, lives in Jankburg, Pa., a town whose motto Nate suggests should be “48.5 miles from Pittsburgh and a 1,000 miles from fun.”

He arms himself with an ATM card borrowed from his mother's purse, his older brother's student ID and a cell phone with his best friend and advisor Libby on speed dial. He's a man on a mission with a time limit. He has less than 24 hours to get to Manhattan by bus, navigate his way to the audition room and return home before his parents return from their overnight anniversary getaway.

Peppered with references to Pittsburgh landmarks, “Better Nate Than Ever” is aimed at middle-school readers between the ages of 9 and 13.

“It has themes about somebody who is an outcast in one community who finds himself in another community,” Federle says. “It's an aspirational story. ... It's incredible when you can star in your own life story and not be the secondary character in someone else's.”

Unlike the fictional Nate, Federle's parents had always been supportive of their son's career choice.

By the time he graduated from Upper St. Clair High School, he had already performed for Civic Light Opera in “The Wizard of Oz” and “Oliver!”; for Pittsburgh Musical Theatre in “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita”; for City Theatre in “Beast on the Moon.”

Wanting to head to Broadway, Federle struck a deal with his parents — he could go to New York City for one audition. If it went well, he could delay college.

As soon as he could, he traveled to New York and quickly landed an ensemble role in a non-Equity tour of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He eventually made it to Broadway with roles in “Gypsy,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Billy Elliot: The Musical.”

At age 30, he became associate choreographer for “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” a job that included auditioning replacement performers for the children who quickly outgrew their roles.

“I was so inspired by them and their fearlessness,” he says, explaining that it motivated him to try writing the book he had been thinking about.

He decided: “If these boys were fearless enough to face audiences, I can face a blank page.”

The decision obviously paid off.

Simon & Schuster signed Federle to a two-book deal and Federele is already working on the sequel to “Better Nate Than Ever.”

He hopes Nate's experiences will let kids know that middle-school misfit isn't the only role they will play in life.

“The things that make you different when you are a kid are the things that when you are an adult will get you noticed in great ways,” he says. “The things that get you picked on in one town will get you paid in another.”

Federle has written columns for Huffington Post and Apartment Therapy. His book for adult readers is “Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist,” (Running Press, $15, hardcover), a book of cocktail recipes and bar snacks for book hounds. It will be released in the spring.

He will be back in town on March 9 to perform in “Reach for a Star,” a fund-raising gala for The Center for Theater Arts. Details: 412-563-5080

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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