Fans of Jodi Picoult know she has a gift for making words sing. Who knew she also had a gift for writing words that would inspire others to sing?
In fact, the Nesconset-raised novelist seems excited enough to burst into song talking about "Between the Lines," the new Off-Broadway musical based on the 2013 story she wrote with daughter, Samantha van Leer. The show, which opens July 11 at the Tony Kiser Theatre at Second Stage in Manhattan, is a melding of the book and its sequel "Off the Page," and tells what happens when a book's characters take on new lives and personalities whenever the book is closed. Taking center stage is teenage Delilah, who finds a new life and love with her literary crush, a dashing prince in a fairy tale she's entered.
Both mother and daughter have been heavily involved in the writing process with the musical's book writer Timothy Allen McDonald ever since the project began eight years ago. Picoult recently spoke to Newsday by phone from New Hampshire about the show as well as her own musical moment in a middle school production of "My Fair Lady."
So has it really been eight years since you started working on this show?
That was when it began. And then we lost a full year due to the pandemic. We were two weeks away from starting rehearsals when Broadway closed [in March 2020]. … I think the delay has made this a better show. We really had time to fine tune it, so it’s a well-oiled machine. It’s also a joy spot at a time when the world is still burning. It's about things that matter in a girl’s life and it’s a very honest relationship between a mother and a daughter.
And we don't see a lot of musicals about young girls growing up.
What we tend to see on Broadway are the reflections of men’s lives for the most part. You’ve got a lot of boys' coming-of-age stories like “Be More Chill” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” Women’s stories don’t seem to matter as much. So it’s really important to me to have this. It says, we see you, we hear you, you’re valid.
You're also doing talkbacks with the audience at several of the performances through July 23. Was that your idea?
Yes, it was. It's always a challenge to get people to know about a new musical. I have no doubt that a person who sits in the theater and watches the show for two hours is coming to go home and tell their friends to see that show. But I had to think about how can I get people to come in there in the first place. I said, I’m going to be there the first week anyway, let's figure out how we can do special fan nights for people who want to meet me and who want to learn how this came to be. And I want to say to them, "So, what did you think?" I can't wait for that feedback.
As a kid on Long Island, were you involved in the world of musical theater?
You are looking at Eliza Doolittle, that was my big start turn. I think I got it because I was the only person who could do the accent. It was at Great Hollow Middle School [in Smithtown]. I think the entire world should be delighted that I decided to work behind the scenes rather than on the stage. … I love the idea that there are some moments that are so big that you need music for them. And that’s the next step to a novelist. Where’s that moment where suddenly emotion comes pouring out through song?
When you spoke to Newsday last year when "Wish You Were Here" came out, you mentioned that your teachers on Long Island had a strong influence on you. In what way?
I had so many good English teachers in high school who knew that I loved to write and encouraged me to write and pushed me toward undergraduate writing programs in colleges to help me become a writer. … Ed Ehmann, my English teacher in 11th grade, who went on to become supervisor, was phenomenal. He knew what I wanted to do. He sent me off to college with posters from his classroom that were quotes from “Romeo and Juliet.” I remember hanging them on my bottom bunk on the wall next to it when I got to Princeton.
"Wish You Were Here" just came out in paperback. Do you have a new book coming out?
I do. I co-wrote my next book with Jennifer Finney Boylan and it's called "Mad Honey" and comes out Oct. 4. It is a courtroom drama, a love story and it's about the secrets that you keep in order to become the person you’re supposed to be. It’s all very timely and I can tell you it will likely end up on many banned book lists.
Are you looking to do another musical?
Tim and I are next working on a musical adaptation of “The Book Thief" and we're headed to the U.K. next month to launch that musical. This is like my third act. I didn’t expect to be writing for musical theater, but I kind of love it. It’s kind of the antithesis of novel writing. It’s collaborative, it’s working in a room with a lot of people. Its learning how to problem solve when you have 50 points of view with people who all want to have input.