When bestselling author Jodi Picoult set out to adapt her YA novel Between the lines In a musical she tried to find two unicorns.
At least that’s how she described her search for a female songwriting team. She quickly learned that such teams are still a relative rarity in the theater world. (To date, only one all-female songwriting team has won the Best Score Tony Award.)
Like the novel by Picoult and her daughter Samantha Van Leer, the musical Between the lines (currently playing Off-Broadway at the Tony Kiser Theater) tells the story of 17-year-old Delilah McPhee, who finds solace in her favorite fairy tale – and in his handsome prince – while her own world threatens to collapse.
“Because this is ultimately a coming-of-age story for a young girl, I felt that female songwriters who have experienced some of what Delilah experienced would be able to step up from a place of understanding a way of writing that a man might not have.” Picoult explained.
Coincidentally, Picoult bonded 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 her talent and connection to the material,” said Picoult. She had found her unicorns.
Between the lines is a female-dominated show with an unusual number of women on its creative team and many strong female characters on stage. Writers Samsel, Anderson and Picoult and performer Julia Murney recently shared their experiences working on this new musical and reflecting on what it means to tell stories by and about women – especially in this moment.
From their first exposure to the novel, Samsel and Anderson drew heavily on the story’s themes of friendship, family, and self-empowerment. They appreciated how Delilah eventually 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 worlds that would come together at the end of the show to “create a common genre.” The songwriters collaborating on the music and lyrics were inspired by classic Disney sounds for the fairytale world. In contrast, the songs for Delilah’s High School are steeped in a Taylor Swift-esque pop sensibility.
The songwriters have always wanted to give the score a happy tone, but that intention gained momentum when the opening of the Spring 2020 production was postponed due to the pandemic. Now they hope their score will “make people happy again and welcome them back to the theater and their lives”.
For the past eight years, Samsel and Anderson have worked with producer Daryl Roth, author Timothy Allen Macdonald and director Jeff Calhoun Between the lines to the stage. Picoult and Roth served as role models for Samsel and Anderson throughout the development process. “We are so grateful to Daryl and Jodi for leading the way and teaching us how to take our place in the room,” Anderson said.
The songwriters set an open, respectful and collaborative tone in the room. On the first day of rehearsals, Murney, who serves dual roles as both Delilah’s mother Grace and fairytale queen, found herself revamping one of her songs with Samsel and Anderson.
“We changed some melodic lines and then also looked at some lyrical changes that helped tell the story better,” she said. “They were so open to what is such an absolute high for me to feel like a part of it.”
The writers were delighted with Murney’s creative input. “When you’re fortunate enough to work with actors of this caliber, you learn so much about how they ultimately inspire the work itself,” Anderson said.
Additionally, Murney felt that being in a room with “so many women in a position of creative power” felt particularly “safe.” She noted that there is something special about telling a story about “a young girl, written by people who have been through the world of a young girl.”
Even when women are on stage, the female perspective is often missing in creative teams. Picoult noted that musicals have historically been narrated “through a white, cis-male gaze.” Despite the recent “gradual approach to different stories in theatre”, she believes that “women’s stories – by and about women – are still rare”.
There are relatively few shows with smart teenage girls as protagonists. And even fewer that portray the kind of nuanced relationship Delilah has with her mother. Or, a little lighter, the jokes about menopause and bra straps.
“We don’t often get an authentic picture of this mother-daughter relationship and women-to-women relationships in general. We really wanted to represent what feels real,” Anderson said.
“I think that’s something they’ve calibrated really beautifully,” Murney said, clarifying that Calhoun and McDonald also played important roles in shaping the mother-daughter dynamic. “For the mother and the daughter, you have to squeeze into the scenes just the right amount of exposure, just the right amount of character development.”
Samsel and Anderson found it somewhat surreal to musicalize the story’s mother-daughter relationship when the mother and daughter, who wrote the original material, were often present in the rehearsal room.
“It was really magical to watch this relationship between Jodi and Sammy, to see what it’s like when a mother and daughter come together and bond as a team,” Samsel said.
In the show, Delilah realizes that she can become the protagonist of her story. Murney believes Delilah’s journey has a universal message. “Hopefully everyone can see a part of themselves, if not physically on stage then lyrically on stage.”
Given the current zeitgeist, the idea of a young woman taking control of her story feels more poignant and necessary than ever.
“I hope people go home feeling empowered,” Anderson said, “feeling that even the smallest step forward can transform their lives.
The day the Supreme Court fell Roe v. calfPicoult delivered the curtain call after the show Between the lines. She expressly thanked the audience. “Knowing that 300 people bought a ticket to a show about a teenage girl’s dreams, fears and hopes was so empowering and reminded me that there are still people in America who believe that women are important.”