"I think we generally find projects that scream optimism," says Elyssa Samsel, half of a songwriting duo with Kate Anderson. "If you're asking the audience to think about how to be optimistic and kind and compassionate, then hopefully you're creating some good ripple effects out there in the world."
In 2014, Samsel and Anderson were at a low point in their lives. Their partnership had begun four years prior in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and although they clicked right away, the duo's career had yet to take off. "Everything we were applying for as writers wasn't happening. We didn't know what to do with the musical we were trying to get produced. Nothing was happening," says Samsel.
Then they got an email from best-selling author Jodi Picoult, who wanted to turn Between the Lines, the YA novel she'd co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer, into a stage musical, asking them to try out for the job.
Picoult had reached out to composer Bobby Lopez asking for recommendations, and he admitted that his suggestion might sound like nepotism...but his sister-in-law and her partner had been writing a similar show... (Kate Anderson is Kristen Anderson Lopez's sister.) He pointed Picoult to Pat Cook, the director of musical theatre and jazz at BMI who also runs the famed writing workshop, and Cook ("without prompting," says Anderson) also mentioned that the show Samsel and Anderson had been working on made him think this was right up their alley.
So, Picoult went to their website and checked them out.
"Thank God we had all of these calling cards...all the songs that you write that are in shows that never happened or never see the light of day, they still help you get places," says Anderson. Like that musical that they couldn't get produced but led to recommendations: Camp Wish-No-More, which the two describe as "a dark, twisted story about a rehabilitation camp for girls who think they are Disney princesses."
Samsel and Anderson wrote three songs to audition for the project and landed the job. Somewhat remarkably, all three of those songs even made it into the show ("very close to what they originally were," says Samsel): "Between the Lines," "Allie McAndrews," and "A Whole New Story."
Between the Lines premiered in 2017 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and following a pandemic delay made its New York Off-Broadway debut in June 2022, officially opening on July 11. The show features a score by Samsel and Anderson and a book by Timothy Allen McDonald. Arielle Jacobs stars as Delilah, a teen from a recently broken home who is bullied in her new school and turns to the pages of an illustrated children's fairy tale to escape. The lines between reality and fiction begin to blur when she falls for the book's main character.
The musical lives in two worlds: Delilah's real life and the fictional world of the fairy tale. In her real life, the audience sees the timid teen both in her school setting, amongst a calculating popular clique, a potential new friend, a sympathetic counselor, and a couple of wildcard teachers, and in her home life, with her strained relationship with her mother (Julia Murney) on display. The book world is populated with the types of characters one might normally see in a book whose lead is a brave Prince Oliver—an overbearing queen, a troll, a vapid princess, a trio of mermaids, a talking dog, an evil villain. But even within that fairy tale world, the audience sees two existences...the story of the book, and the lives of the characters when the book is closed (the queen is a drinker, the dog is in love with the princess, Prince Oliver wants OUT).
Samsel and Anderson suspect that it was the fairy tale elements in their Camp-Wish-No-More that first led to the recommendations that Picoult look into collaborating with them. And although the duo sits soundly in the realm of quirky optimism (they are also the main songwriters for the Apple TV+ animated series Central Park), it was the more serious elements of Between the Lines that really drew each of them to the project.
"For me, it was the story of divorce that Delilah was enduring," says Samsel of her attraction to Between the Lines. "She is the same age that I was when my parents got divorced, and the mother-daughter relationship really appealed to me. That age is when I made some really big decisions in my life that have all led me to where I am right now. I know how pivotal that can be—not even that age, but that moment in your life—when you are rock bottom and you really have to make a decision to stay there or to get yourself out of it."
"For me, it was the outsider feeling that Delilah had, and that she found a kindred spirit in Jules. That time of life can feel so isolating, and I think a lot of kids these days, maybe now more than ever, escape in various ways—the internet has become a huge outlet for escape," says Anderson. "What happens to your reality when you escape so far into something? I remember feeling that at a time in my life, too. There where times where things really felt like they were falling apart and I definitely had my own version of this fairy tale."
In the end, Delilah must choose. She can stay in the book and marry the prince. Or she can start a new chapter in her own life, or rather, write "A Whole New Story." And although Between the Lines is filled with peppy tunes and comedy songs (the school librarian, slayed by Vicki Lewis, sings about her own imagined 38-year dalliance with Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy), that decision Delilah must make is where the duo's creed of optimism really comes into play.
"It's really easy to fall in the trap of telling your story one way, like, 'I'm so bad at this, I'm so bad at this.' What you repeat comes true, so just learning how to say it in other words [a lyric from the show], and spin it in a positive way...that's you actively changing your story," says Samsel.
Picoult finding Samsel and Anderson in 2014...at the moment when they were feeling the most lost...and they in turn booking the job, certainly changed their story. In addition to their New York theatrical debut with Between the Lines, the songwriter's credits now also include the Disney animated featurette Olaf's Frozen Adventure, the aforementioned Central Park, and the upcoming stage adaptation of another YA novel, The Book Thief, another collaboration with Picoult and McDonald, who are co-writing the book. The Book Thief is set to premiere in the U.K. September 17.
Between the Lines runs through September 11 at the Tony Kiser Theatre. For tickets, visit BetweenTheLinesMusical.com.