When bestselling author Jodi Picoult set out to adapt her novel YA Between the lines in a musical, she was trying to locate two unicorns.
At least that’s how she described her search to find a female songwriting team. She soon learned that such teams are still relatively rare in the theater world. (To date, only one all-female team of songwriters has won the Tony Award for Best Score.)
Like the novel by Picoult and her daughter Samantha Van Leer, the musical Between the lines (currently playing off-Broadway at the Tony Kiser Theatre) tells the story of 17-year-old Delilah McPhee, who finds solace in her favorite fairy tale – and her handsome prince – as her own world threatens to crumble.
“Because this is ultimately a coming-of-age story for a teenage girl, I thought female composers who had been through some of what Delilah had been through would be able to write from a place of understanding in a way a man couldn’t,” Picoult explained.
Fortuitously, Picoult linked up with Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel. The three songs they wrote for her on request are still in the musical. (“Between the Lines,” “Allie McAndrews” and “A Whole New Story” are available to stream on Spotify.) “It’s a testament to their talent and their bond with the material,” Picoult said. She had found her unicorns.
Between the lines is an all-girl show with an unusual number of women in its creative team and many strong female characters on stage. Writers Samsel, Anderson and Picoult, along with performer Julia Murney, recently shared their experiences working on this new musical and reflected on what it means to tell stories of and about women — especially right now.
From their first encounter with the novel, Samsel and Anderson bonded strongly to the story’s themes of friendship, family, and empowerment. They enjoyed how Delilah finally learns that she doesn’t need her prince to save her; she can save herself.
And how did they make the story of Picoult and Van Leer sing?
According to Samsel, they always knew they wanted to build two different musical universes that would come together at the end of the show to “create a common genre”. The songwriters, who work in tandem to create both the music and the lyrics, drew inspiration from the fairy tale world of classic Disney sounds. By contrast, Delilah’s high school songs are infused with a Taylor Swift-esque pop sensibility.
The songwriters had always wanted to give the score a cheerful sound, but that intention took on more significance when the spring 2020 production opening was postponed due to the pandemic. Now they hope their score will “make people happy and welcome them back into the theater and into their lives.”
For the past eight years, Samsel and Anderson have worked alongside producer Daryl Roth, writer Timothy Allen Macdonald and director Jeff Calhoun to bring Between the lines at the scene. Picoult and Roth served as role models for Samsel and Anderson throughout the development process. “We have so much gratitude for Daryl and Jodi, for showing the way and teaching us to own our place in the room,” Anderson said.
The songwriters set a tone in the room that was open, respectful and collaborative. On the first day of rehearsal, Murney, who takes on the dual role of Grace, Delilah’s mother, and fairytale queen, found herself restructuring one of her songs with Samsel and Anderson.
“We changed some melody lines and then we also made lyrical changes which helped tell the story better,” she said. “They were so open to it, which is such an all-around high for me, that I feel like I’m part of it.”
The writers were thrilled to have creative input from Murney. “When you get the chance to work with actors of this caliber, you learn so much about how they end up inspiring the work itself,” Anderson said.
Additionally, Murney found that being in a room with “so many women in positions of creative power” felt especially “safe” in this instance. There’s something special, she noted, about telling a story about “a young girl that’s written by people who have walked the world of being a young girl.”
Even when women are on stage, the female perspective is often missing from creative teams. Picoult observed that musicals have always been told “through a white, cis male gaze.” Despite recent “incremental progress towards various stories in theatre”, she believes that “stories of women – by and about women – are still rare”.
There are relatively few shows with smart teenage girls as protagonists. And even fewer that describe the kind of nuanced relationship Delilah has with her mother. Or, on a lighter note, the jokes about menopause and bra straps.
“We don’t often get an authentic take on this mother-daughter relationship and female relationships in general. We really wanted to portray what felt real,” Anderson said.
“I think it’s something they’ve calibrated very well,” Murney said, noting that Calhoun and McDonald also played a big part in creating the mother/daughter dynamic. “For the mother and daughter, you have to cram into the scenes just the right amount of exposition, the right amount of character development.”
Samsel and Anderson found it a bit surreal musicalizing the story’s mother-daughter relationship when the mother and daughter who wrote the original source material were often present in the rehearsal room.
“It was really magical to be able to watch this relationship between Jodi and Sammy, to see what it looks like when a mother and a daughter come together and form a team,” Samsel said.
In the show, Delilah realizes that she can become the protagonist of her story. Murney thinks Delilah’s trip has a universal message. “I hope everyone can see a part of themselves, if not physically on stage, textually on stage.”
Given the current zeitgeist, the idea of a young woman taking control of her story seems more poignant and necessary than ever.
“I hope people leave feeling empowered,” Anderson said, “feeling that even the smallest step forward can change their lives.
The day the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. WadePicoult gave the curtain speech after the show at Between the lines. She wanted to thank the public. “Knowing that 300 people had bought a ticket for a show about the dreams, fears and hopes of a teenage girl gave me so much comfort, and reminded me that there are still people in America who believe that women matter.”