Eight years ago, songwriters Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson were living a story they didn’t like. “We were sort of down and out in our career,” shares Anderson who has been writing with Samsel since they met at the prestigious Lehman Engel Musical Theater writing workshop in 2010. “We had written a show, but nothing was happening with it and felt we were starting from scratch.”
And then, one day, an email from New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult landed in Samsel’s in-box.
The novel, Between The Lines, by Picoult and her daughter and co-author, Samantha van Leer, was going to be turned into a musical. Prolific playwright Timothy Allen McDonald was on board to write the book. The musical was being produced by theater powerhouse Daryl Roth who has produced seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and has twelve Tony Awards. Would Samsel and Anderson be interested in writing the show’s songs?
“I fell out of my chair. And then I called Elyssa and ran ten blocks to her stoop. We held each other and cried,” recalls Anderson. “We spent the next eight years literally writing ourselves a new story by writing this show.” Next month, Samsel and Anderson will experience the fruits of their labor when Between the Lines opens off-Broadway at the Tony Kiser Theater on June 14.
In the piece Delilah is a 16-year-old bullied teen who feels like an outcast. Miserable in her new school, she has spent most of her years trying to be invisible. Her ultimate salve is to escape into a world of books. She becomes obsessed with a young adult fairy tale story about a prince named Oliver. Not only does the prince come to life, but Delilah longs also to live in his seemingly perfect world.
When Picoult and van Leer sent the songwriting duo the novel it resonated with them both immediately. “We loved Delilah’s story,” says Samsel. “It was also very personal for me. I was the same age as Delilah when my parents were getting a divorce and was going through a very tough time.”
Between The Lines was initially birthed when van Leer, who is now 26, was in her eighth grade French class. “I don’t condone this, but I was zoning out a little bit when this idea came into my mind about the characters in a book. I thought, what happens when all the books we love are closed?” shares Leer. “Do the characters just sit there, waiting for us, twiddling their thumbs until a reader comes, opens the book and they get to play their part? I started to imagine the worlds that could exist when books are closed.”
Van Leer pictured a girl, totally smitten with a fairytale book, turns to it over and over to escape her world. But what if the prince was over being a prince in a fairytale and wanted to live in the real world? What would happen if their worlds collided? “What if they met and fell in love?” asks van Leer. “What would that story look like?”
She brought the idea to her mother and Picoult saw major merit in the story. “Everyone has had a literary crush. We’ve had a moment where we read a book and asked, ‘What if that character was alive? I would run off with them in a heartbeat,’” shares Picoult. “There was something universal about Sammy’s idea that could bridge readers my age, as well as readers her age. It’s also why this makes such a great musical.”
Picoult and van Leer, who was a teenager at the time, literally sat side by side writing as they took turns typing. “We spoke every word out loud. One of us would finish a sentence. The other one would chime in,” recalls Picoult. Then there were times when van Leer would roll herself in a comforter on the floor and shout lines at her mother. “Like a normal teenager,” Picoult adds. “But I knew she was so imaginative and such a good writer that having the experience of writing something as big as a novel would be life-changing for her. She would always know how to do it from that point on.”
A few years after Between The Lines debuted Picoult and Daryl Roth happened to both be at Dartmouth College. “Jodi came over and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about a wonderful book that my daughter and I wrote that would make a musical,’” recalls Roth. “I said, ‘I’m all ears.’” After reading the novel Roth was convinced too.
Between The Lines struck a deep chord for Roth. “This is a story that so many people can relate to about young people finding a voice and place in the world,” explains Roth. She was attracted to its layers of joy and fantasy and how it was also grounded. “It’s about surrounding yourself with people who support and believe in you and closing out the noise of those who don’t,” says Roth. “That is an important message, not only for kids in high school, but for all of us.”
Roth connected Picoult with playwright Timothy Allen McDonald. “He has a wonderful wealth of experience writing for younger audiences,” says Roth. As McDonald adds, “Daryl locked us in a conference room with a beautiful view and said, ‘figure it out and see if this is a match.’ We emerged as best friends and discovered the other half of our brains that we’ve been missing our whole lives.”
Adding Anderson and Samsel to write the songs was also key. “They are two of the most talented young women,” says Roth. “People will come away with these songs in their heads in the most wonderful way.” In fact, the duo has since written songs for the Apple TV+ series Central Park and are developing songs for the upcoming musical, The Book Thief.
In 2016, Arielle Jacobs whose credits include In The Heights, Wicked and playing Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, was cast as Delilah. She has been with the show ever since. Picoult found Jacobs when the actress posted a YouTube video of herself singing “When Will My Life Begin.” Picoult declared, “That’s our Delilah.”
Jacobs, who was bullied herself when she was in school and even wrote and performed a solo show about finding her own power has a special connection with Delilah. “She is trapped in this story that she doesn’t want to be in and having a really tough time,” says Jacobs. “Her journey lies in making the transition between feeling a victim in her world to becoming the author and hero of it.” And what would Jacobs say to Delia? “I would tell her to see what’s possible. And if you can’t imagine it, shift your vision into creating a world you want.”
Jake David Smith, who plays Prince Oliver, observes that the characters in the Between The Lines fantasy world are not your typical fairytale tropes. “I get to let my own weird, goofy energy flow through,” says Smith. “He is not the poised fairytale prince that you expect him to be.”
For Wren Rivera, a fan of the novel since childhood when she was younger, getting to play Jules, (and Ondine in the fantasy world), was particularly meaningful. “Jules is a high school student who is non-binary and I’m non-binary myself,” says Rivera. “It’s thrilling to be playing a character who is not only non-binary, but proud of who they are and unswayed by opinions of others. The character is somebody I could have used when I was growing up. And I’m overjoyed that somebody else is going to have that opportunity.”
Directed by two-time Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun (Newsies) and choreographed by Paul McGill, Between The Lines also stars Vicki Lewis, Will Burton, Jerusha Cavazos, Pierre Marais, John Rapson and Julia Murney. “I hope people come away from the show with joy,” shares Murney who plays Delilah’s mother. “I would like people to leave our theater excited to go back to see another show,” adds Calhoun. “Going to the theater is such an investment, time-wise and financially, I feel a real responsibility that when people leave a show, they’re excited to see another one.”
Not only does Between The Lines touch the hearts of teens, but its messages are also universal. “It’s not just a children’s show, there’s a lot in there for adults,” says Lewis. When they did the show in Kansas City, Anderson remembers how parents responded. “A dad came up to us and said, ‘I didn’t want to come tonight, but I’m coming again tomorrow because I relate so much to these characters,’” she shares.
Samsel and Anderson are also emboldened that Between The Lines has an all-female songwriting team and women at the helm, which continues to be uncommon in musicals. “That made us want to persist,” says Samsel. “We wanted to get our voices on and off Broadway. So, if we get through the door, we can bring others with us.”