Wonder woman Jodi Picoult faces new challenge in KC
Unamplified, accompanied by a lone Yamaha keyboard, two actresses rehearse a duet, a mother/daughter moment of reconciliation.
“I dislike you. And then I don’t.”
“You may hate me now. One day you won’t.”
It’s a familiar sentiment for author Jodi Picoult, considering she and her then-teenage daughter co-wrote “Between the Lines,” the best-selling novel that inspired the new musical of the same name. Picoult, along with the playwright and songwriters who adapted the novel, watch the recent rehearsal in Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s window-lined Donor Lounge.
“It’s a musical about finding yourself,” Picoult says later. “But more importantly, finding your voice. That’s relevant not just to teenagers or to fairy tales, but to everyone, no matter how old you are.”
“Between the Lines” tells the story of high schooler Delilah, who escapes the pressures of her parents’ divorce by burying herself in the pages of a fairy tale book. But when the handsome Prince Oliver begins to actually speak to her, the real world and fictional one start to blur.
The musical adaptation of the popular novel enjoys its world premiere on Sept. 8 at Spencer Theatre to kick off the Rep’s new season.
Joined by her “Between the Lines” collaborators, Picoult came to Kansas City three weeks ago to spend the month ushering her project from page to stage.
Picoult’s daughter, Samantha van Leer, was just 13 when she conceived the idea.
“She pitched it to me, so I suggested, let’s write it together,” Picoult recalls.
The pair composed it over the course of a few summers. When “Between the Lines” was published in 2012, they went on a three-continent tour to promote what would soon reach No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. (Van Leer is now a college student at Vassar.)
Even then, Picoult had visions of the novel becoming something more. “I thought, this book sings. It felt like a musical to me.”
She visualized a play incorporating fantasy, reality and a hybrid of the two. That applied to the music as well.
“I wanted it to sound like classic Disney when you were in the fairy tale and Sara Bareilles when you were in the real world. And when Oliver and Delilah were together, to sound like modern Disney — like a ‘Frozen,’” she says.
With “Frozen” as a touchstone, Picoult put out the call to songwriters who could tackle the project. Several insiders suggested the promising team of Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. Such a perfect fit in retrospect, considering they are now the credited songwriters of “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” a short musical spinoff to Disney’s “Frozen,” the highest-grossing animated film of all time. (“Olaf’s” hits theaters Nov. 22 as the featurette playing before Pixar’s “Coco.”)
“I get called ‘Elsa’ a lot,” jokes Samsel, the blonde of the two songwriters, who bears a potent resemblance to the “Frozen” princess.
She and Anderson met at a workshop in New York and soon forged a tight partnership.
“We were so similar in our styles and the message we wanted to get out there,” Samsel says.
As an example, she cites the bridge section of the Act 1 finale song, “A Whole New Story.”
“I was Delilah’s age when my parents were going through a divorce,” she says. “I threw all of my own personal experiences into that song. Because you can make a whole new story out of what you feel like are shattered pieces of life. Delilah is finding her voice in that song. She has the voice to run away or give up or surrender to the circumstances. But she doesn’t. She perseveres.”
When writing, Samsel primarily handles the music and Anderson the lyrics.
“We like to work in the same room and like being as collaborative as possible,” Anderson says. “That said, I don’t play piano like Elyssa. She’s a prodigy. And I can’t take credit for all the lyrics. We like to share lyric credit.”
Anderson hopes the lilting, emotion-heavy narrative that characterizes their style comes across as something fresh.
“This sound is incredibly, uniquely ours,” she says of “Between the Lines,” which they began writing three years ago.
Picoult deems it a “testimony to these ladies” that the three spec songs they initially pitched still remain in the finished show.
Bridging the novel with the music became the job of veteran playwright Timothy Allen McDonald.
“I’m the token male,” he says, laughing. “But I did grow up in a house full of women.”
McDonald (best known for “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka”) asserts “Between the Lines” is something of an anomaly compared to typical Broadway fare.
“I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a musical about women that wasn’t set in a period,” he says.
“And where the voices writing it were a lot of women,” Picoult adds.
McDonald continues, “Even though there’s ‘Wicked,’ those were fictional characters. This is a very real story. A male doesn’t come in and rescue them or give them the secret sauce they need to make their lives better or make their decision. I don’t think that’s ever been done in a musical.”
Musicals often take five years to go from inception to Broadway, according to McDonald. “Between the Lines” earned a fast-pass due, in part, to the selected venue and city.
Kansas City became a premiere option when team members from KC Rep met with the creators in New York to pitch their resources for debuting the play.
“We thought they were smart and understood the piece,” McDonald says. “And they were willing to take a risk on new writers.”
McDonald, who had worked with Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre on previous collaborations, thought KC would be an ideal fit.
“This isn’t what many Coast dwellers would think about the Midwest,” he says. “This is a sophisticated market. If this show works here, it will work everywhere.”
Picoult considers herself an East Coaster, having resided in New Hampshire for years. But her creative battles have typically been with the West Coast. She’s witnessed five of her books adapted to the screen: “My Sister’s Keeper” (starring Cameron Diaz) earned a theatrical release. “The Pact,” “Plain Truth,” “The Tenth Circle” and “Salem Falls” all were produced for the Lifetime channel.
Despite boasting 14 million books in print, that number counts for very little in Hollywood when it comes to artistic input.
“I’ve done this before with Hollywood,” she confesses. “I walked in there as a writer with plans and thoughts and ideas. What usually happens is they say, ‘Thank you. That’s lovely. Here’s a check. Goodbye.’
“Here, there’s no check,” she says, laughing.
Picoult admits she still was expecting to be edged out of the process of adapting the musical.
“I’m so lucky Tim is generous enough to say, ‘You’re a living author. Come in. I want to run things by you. I want you to help out.’ This has been the most collaborative experience of my life,’” says Picoult, also reveling in the fact her musical is directed by Jeff Calhoun, a recent Tony Award nominee for “Newsies.”
Today’s rehearsal finds dark-haired “Wicked” veteran Arielle Jacobs as Delilah singing opposite tattooed Shanna Jones, who plays her mother. The song called “This Is the Way it Is” offers their characters a poignant cease-fire to their squabbles.
Their voices blend seamlessly when harmonizing on the lines:
“’Cause this is the way it is. And it doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t mean we can’t ever be friends. So how ’bout we make amends.”
Picoult and her colleagues beam.
“It’s so fun watching it become three dimensional,” Picoult says.
Eyeing Jacobs and Jones, songwriter Anderson notes, “That was exactly what was going on in my house when I was 17. It was that pull of wanting to be independent, but you’re not quite ready and still need your mom. But your mom needs to also let you go and make your own mistakes at that point.”
To “Let It Go,” as they say.
“We hope the show resonates with mothers and daughters. But we think it’s for everyone who ever felt they were stuck in a story they didn’t want to be in. And they had to figure out how to change that narrative,” Anderson says.
The title of the musical offers a clear indication of the themes being explored.
“There’s the metaphor of ‘read between the lines,’” Picoult says. “What’s on the surface is not always what you’re getting. And what seems at first glance to be devastation might also be opportunity.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
“Between the Lines” will play at Kansas City Repertory Theatre Sept. 8-Oct. 1 in Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.
Those with tickets to any of the performances are invited to a Q&A with “Between the Lines” authors Jodi Picoult and daughter Samantha van Leer from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Spencer Theatre Donor Lounge. Admission is first come, first served. Bring your ticket or stub.