There’s mother-daughter bonding, and then there’s your mom moving into a college dorm with you.
One of the earliest workshops for the musical “Between The Lines” saw international bestselling author Jodi Picoult temporarily live in senior housing at Vassar College, where her daughter Samantha van Leer was a student.
Picoult and van Leer co-wrote the YA novel “Between The Lines,” which they helped adapt into the musical.
“I remember her being like, ‘Wow, this is living the dream. Getting to go to college with your mom,'” Picoult (“My Sister’s Keeper,” “Nineteen Minutes”) said, laughing.
Luckily, that summer at New York Stage and Film (an incubator for artists and their work), paid off. About six years later, the musical is soon to make its off-Broadway debut.
And the pair are about to move back in together.
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“I think for my mom and I, it’s a very beautiful and fun opportunity to get to come back together,” van Leer said. “We wrote the sequel, ‘Off The Page,’ back when I was in college, and now we have very far apart lives. We live on opposite sides of the country. So getting to come back together and having a reason to live together in an Airbnb for a month brings back the memories and, and it’s an opportunity for us to get to collaborate everything and work again together years later.”
‘Between The Lines’
Performances of “Between The Lines” begin Tuesday, June 14, at Manhattan’s Tony Kiser Theatre.
The musical features a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, with music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. It’s choreographed by Paul McGill and directed by two-time Tony Award nominee Jeff Calhoun.
“Between The Lines” tells the tale of Delilah, an outsider in a new school who seeks comfort in the pages of her favorite book, when the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur.
The message of the book and the musical is “live the story you want, if it’s not the story you’re in,” Picoult said.
Picoult and van Leer said adapting the story into a musical gave them the opportunity to rewrite parts of their story.
“I feel like when you write a book and it’s published, that’s what it is. It’s there and it stays that way forever,” van Leer said. “But with this musical, we have an incredible book writer and an incredible creative team and the opportunity to get to put in a little bit more into the story, to decide ‘what do we want our focal point to be?’ ‘What do we want the message to be coming across?’ ‘What do we want our representation to look like?’ ‘What do we want our cast and our story and the world that we’re building to physically look like and reflect maybe a more modern world, a more realistic world, different from when we were writing this a decade ago?’ “
Some of the changes include aging up the characters a little, incorporating social media and issues of online bullying, as well as ensuring that the show featured a diverse cast. They rewrote one of the characters as nonbinary, working with nonbinary voices to craft the character authentically.
“One of the things that we learned right off the bat is that saying that you are nonbinary means different things to different people,” Picoult said. “So we were really trying to wade through many different types of experiences for many different people to come up with what we felt was organic to our character.”
Picoult and van Leer said they are excited to present that representation to the world.
“I think it’s something that a lot of teenagers in particular can identify with, and it’s not something we’ve seen a lot of onstage,” Picoult said.
Hearing the music
Picoult has written shows for community teen theater and runs a group in New Hampshire, where she lives.
She said the idea to turn “Between The Lines” into a musical came about because the story called out for more.
“To me there was something about the story that sang,” she said. “It just felt like it wasn’t quite finished, like I could hear more. I could hear music behind it.”
Providing that music was Samsel and Anderson.
“I am so delighted to be providing a vehicle for the theatrical debut of Samsel/Anderson as songwriters,” Picoult said. “They’re ridiculous. They’re so gifted. We call them ‘The Mythics’ because the odds of finding an all-female songwriting team are about as likely as finding two unicorns together.”
Since signing onto “Between The Lines,” Samsel and Anderson have written the score for Disney’s “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” short, and been staff songwriters for Apple TV+’s “Central Park.”
McDonald and Picoult also clicked, and now have an adaptation of “The Book Thief” opening in the UK in the fall, also with music and lyrics by Samsel and Anderson.
McDonald and Picoult also collaborated on the streaming musical “Breathe,” based on stories about COVID-19, which streamed last summer.
Bringing others into the world of their book was made easier by the fact that the pair had written it side by side, van Leer said.
“Writing with someone else doesn’t happen a lot, especially in the fiction world,” she said. “I know that when we were first writing the books together, my mom always said that it was really nice to have someone else in the room, that it wasn’t so lonely. And that was such a beautiful opportunity for the two of us , both as mother and daughter and as writers.
“And now we get even more people in the room. We’ve been really lucky that our creative team has welcomed us in and let us really be a hands-on part of this process and not just watching from the sidelines as someone takes over our story.”
Looking back to writing their novels together, van Leer smiles as her mom recounts her shouting ideas while wrapped up in a comforter on the floor. Not typing fast enough for her mom’s liking, her contributions often came from that snuggled-up position with Picoult at the keyboard.
“It was very different when we were writing the books considering that I was a teenager living under my mother’s roof. So that’s a very unique collaboration because my mom has collaborated with other authors, and I don’t think she could tell them to go to their room,” she said, laughing.
While they had disagreements, they came to the understanding that the “best idea wins,” which they say is a through line into their work with the creative team for the musical.
And the bouncing of ideas off each other continues, although van Leer has abandoned the comforter and the threat of being sent to her room.
The pair can’t wait to share the show with the world.
“It’s just a joy spot. It’s funny, and it’s heart-wrenching,” Picoult said. “A lot of people have asked me … ‘Is it similar to the stuff that you write as a novelist?’ The truth is that I think a lot of the things that I write take you on quite a journey up and down, and you’ll feel the same thing when you’re watching the show. solo novels. And I’m really excited to share it with audiences.”
The cast includes Arielle Jacobs (“Aladdin,” “Wicked”) as Delilah, Jake David Smith (“Frozen”) as Prince Oliver/Edgar, Vicki Lewis (“Anastasia,” “Damn Yankees”) as Ms. Winx/Jessamyn Jacobs/Mrs. Brown/Kyrie, Hillary Fisher (off-Broadway’s “Cyrano”) as Allie/Princess Seraphima, Will Burton (“Kiss Me, Kate”) as Frump/Ryan, Jerusha Cavazos (“The Prom”) as Janice/Marina, John Rapson (“Les Miserables”) as Dr. Ducharme/Rapskulio, Wren Rivera (“Jagged Little Pill”) as Jules/Ondine, Sean Stack as Martin/Troll/Dad/Delivery Person, and Julia Murney (“Wicked”) as Grace/Queen Maureen, joined by understudies Heather Ayers, Dan Hoy, Martin Landry and Aubrey Matalon.
Performances of “Between The Lines” begin Tuesday, June 14, at the Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd St. Tickets are on sale through Oct. 2.
Live talkbacks with Picoult are scheduled for 7 pm June 28, 2 pm June 29, 7 pm June 30, 2 pm July 2, 8 pm July 22, and 2 and 8 pm July 23.
For tickets and more information, visit betweenthelinesmusical.com.
Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. She highlights arts advocacy and education, theater fundraisers and more through her column, “Sightlines.” Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller; email@example.com