"I Always Felt Like It Sang"
Between the Lines, a new musical based on the Jodi Picoult novel, premieres at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre this month.
Jodi Picoult always knew there was more to her bestselling novel Between the Lines, about a teenage girl who falls in love with a book character and starts to interact with him. Even after her daughter and co-author, Samantha van Leer, suggested a sequel, which would become Off the Page, Picoult wasn’t finished.
“I wanted it to go the distance,” Picoult says. “I don’t know what it was about the book, but to me it felt like it sang.”
That feeling gave her the idea to turn Between the Lines into a musical, celebrating its world premiere with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre on Sept. 8. To make that happen, Picoult knew exactly where to turn — 10-time Tony-winning producer Daryl Roth, known for works like Kinky Boots and August: Osage County, whom Picoult had met previously.
So why was the Rep selected as the world-premiere destination? Roth has known the Rep’s Artistic Director Eric Rosen since she worked with Chicago’s About Face Theatre, which he co-founded, and she thinks the Rep’s educational work fits a show for pre-teens and teenagers.
“I think that the story itself had a lot of possibilities that would adapt very nicely to the stage,” Roth says. “I have three granddaughters that are young teenagers, and I’m always looking for projects that would be appealing to that age group.”
Kansas City is a test run for the show. The team hopes to see what works and doesn’t work in front of a crowd and make changes accordingly. After the show closes on Oct. 1, the possibility is open for another run in another city and an eventual move to a Broadway or Off-Broadway theater in New York.
Roth collaborated with Picoult to form the creative team, which also includes the Tony-nominated Newsies director Jeff Calhoun, accomplished children’s theater writer Timothy Allen McDonald, and up-and-coming composers Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson.
“We wound up forming this little family,” Picoult says. “We were all really writing this show together, and it has been an utter joy.”
Picoult hopes to be in Kansas City for all of it — from the beginning of rehearsals in mid-August to the end of the run. She jokes that she’ll be “a temporary fixture in Kansas City.”
For Samsel and Anderson, that joy was there from the beginning. Between the Lines will be the duo’s first musical to fully premiere after they’ve worked together since 2010, so it was emotional to learn that Picoult wanted them to compose it.
“I remember hugging Elyssa on her stoop,” Anderson says. “We just held each other and cried because it was such a huge turning point for us. … We cannot wait to see it come to life.”
“What we said to each other was, ‘I can hear the songs already,’” Samsel says about the first time they read the book.
Now, they’ll be sung by big names in musical theater. Arielle Jacobs, who played Jasmine in the Australian production of Aladdin and was in the closing cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, will star as Delilah, the teenage protagonist obsessed with the prince in her book. That dreamy, fictional prince, Oliver, will be played by Curt Hansen, who most recently starred in the national tour of Kinky Boots as Charlie.
Both say it’s a dream to originate a role in a new musical — and for Hansen, it builds on a previous experience at the Rep, where he performed a workshop of the show Stillwater in the scene shop.
“It’ll be nice to be back in Kansas City and actually be in a legitimate theater,” Hansen says. “Having it come to fruition after a year and a half of being with something — it’s cool and it’s exciting, but I’m anxious.”
“Putting together something from scratch is the most exciting thing to do as an actor,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs and Hansen aside, most of the cast is from Kansas City, and Calhoun is excited to work with the mix of talent, especially on a new musical.
“The actors that you have in the show are very helpful in shaping the show,” Calhoun says. “You’re waiting for that time when the story starts to lead you.”
As a local actor, Tim Scott is equally excited to work with Calhoun and the team. He plays two characters: Rapscullio, the storybook’s villain; and Dr. Ducharme, the psychologist Delilah’s mother hires after she hears her daughter talking to book characters. While he’s acted in other Rep productions, he says Kansas Citians have a special opportunity with Between the Lines.
“Imagine if you saw the first professional production of Hamilton, or A Chorus Line, or anything like that,” Scott says. “To see something new, born for the very first time, with this kind of creative team in Kansas City — if you’re a fan of musical theater and you don’t take advantage of that, shame on you.”
“We’re really grateful to the Kansas City community for welcoming us,” Picoult says. “We can’t wait to see you in the theater, and we can’t wait to see your reaction. … This show will make you leave the theater singing.”
For more information, visit kcrep.org.