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The notion of "happily ever after" gets a fresh twist in this page-to-stage adaptation of Between the Lines
Indecent. The Kite Runner. How I Learned to Drive. Jagged Little Pill. During her three-decade, 120-plus-productions career, producer Daryl Roth has gravitated toward grown-up fare, plays and musicals that explored sensitive subjects—incest, prejudice, addiction, sexuality—with empathy. So, it may seem surprising that she's behind Between the Lines, a teenage musical rom-com that puts a clever meta spin on fairy-tale tropes. But according to the superstar producer (13 Tony Awards and the backer of seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays), the show was—like most fairy tales—meant to be.
"I was at an event at Dartmouth," Roth recalls, "and was introduced to Jodi Picoult, who lives in the area. She said, 'I have written a book that sings to me. I wonder if you think it could be a musical.'"
That book was the 2012 young-adult bestseller Between the Lines, which Picoult had written with her then-teenage daughter Samantha van Leer. Roth read the novel and was immediately smitten with the tale of a bookish adolescent whose obsession with a children's adventure changes her life. "I thought, yes [this could be a musical], especially because the story is so empowering for young women," she says. "I have three granddaughters, so it's a subject that's important to me. I said yes, let's develop this."
After attaching Jeff Calhoun as director and connecting Picoult and van Leer with book writer Timothy Allen McDonald, Roth put out a call for songwriters. Robert "Bobby" Lopez, who cowrote Frozen with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, recommended his sister-in-law Kate Anderson, a writer/singer/stand-up comedian who had formed a songwriting partnership with classically trained violinist Elyssa Samsel in the BMI workshop.
"Bobby told Daryl that it might sound nepotistic, but that we were writing something very similar, so it might be a good match," Anderson reports from Los Angeles, where she and Samsel are neighbors. That show was Camp Wish-No-More, "a wacky comedy, sort of like a Disney parody," according to Anderson. But the duo put that project on hold for a chance to work with the doyenne of New York theatre. They immediately whipped up three songs on spec, all of which survive in the finished show.
"This is a woman's story, so I really wanted women songwriters," says Roth. "And I loved working with them because they really got it. It was in their wheelhouse, being young and looking for their voice through their music."
The musical had its world premiere in 2017 at Kansas City Rep and, after a two-and-a-half-year pandemic delay, it's now playing at Off Broadway's Tony Kiser Theater through September 11. The story centers on Delilah (Arielle Jacobs of Aladdin fame), a socially maladroit 17-year-old recently uprooted by divorce, coping with a depressed mother (Julia Murney) and a posse of mean girls at her new school. Regressing a bit, Delilah finds refuge in a picture book describing the travails of a handsome young prince facing his own challenges in a long-ago, faraway kingdom. Magically, the two connect between the pages... but is this fantasy happy ending the reality Delilah wants?
In one of the musical's most inspirational moments of whimsy, a trio of guardian mermaids tells Delilah to "Do It for You." "Whatever you do, do it for you. You gotta make a choice, don't let 'em do it for you." Why should Delilah sacrifice her own dreams to follow the standard script?
Roth is especially fond of this scene, noting that "it feeds into the whole story of female empowerment: Don't get married to do something that isn't your life. Do your life! I love that."
Between the Lines isn't Roth's only Off-Broadway musical this summer. She's also producing a new staging of the Tony Award-winning musical she calls "the highlight" of her career: Kinky Boots, which begins performances this week at Stage 42.
"Not only did Kinky Boots fulfill my mission statement of wanting to do shows that have a message that I want to amplify," Roth says, "but it was also financially successful. Not everything I do is. It's really wonderful when all the boxes are checked!"
Why bring Kinky Boots back now, just three years after the original Broadway production closed? "Because the message is evergreen," she says. "It is something that we all need to hear. It's a message of hope, of finding your joy, of being true to yourself"—the same moral as Between the Lines. "Kinky Boots just delivers on every level. And the fact that we're doing it in a 500-seat theatre hopefully means we can run for a very, very long time. It can kind of be a staple here in New York."
Whether Between the Lines becomes a staple, too, remains to be seen. (First it would need to transfer, since its current home belongs to Second Stage Theater, which kicks off its 43rd season in late October.) Whatever the show's future, Samsel and Anderson acknowledge Roth's commission jump-started their career. During Between the Lines' development, the pair wrote songs for Disney Animation's Olaf's Frozen Adventure and Apple TV+'s animated sitcom Central Park featuring the vocal talents of a host of Broadway stars, including Tituss Burgess, Daveed Diggs, Josh Gad and Leslie Odom Jr. "We had a bucket list of people we wanted to work with," says Anderson, "and we got to check off so many." Soon they'll be heading to the UK to put the finishing touches on a musical adaptation of The Book Thief.
The songwriters are very clear about who deserves their thanks: "Daryl said, 'I'm going to raise the flag for you because you are female songwriters,'" Anderson recalls, "and she really kept her word. She followed through and it has changed everything for us."
Top image: Arielle Jacobs in Between the Lines. Photo by Matthew Murphy.