Thursday 8 January 2009

A Sorta Fairytale: Samuel Adamson Talks About The Light Princess

Samuel Adamson: Photo by Catherine Ashmore

The announcement in summer 2007 that Tori Amos was collaborating with the playwright Samuel Adamson on a new musical based on George MacDonald’s 1864 fairy-tale The Light Princess for the British National Theatre sent Toriphiles worldwide into show-stopping, standing ovation-generating paroxysms of excitement. The news came somewhat out of left-field, although, given the increasingly narrative-driven and character-based nature of Tori’s recent work, it should, perhaps, not have been so much of a surprise to discover that she was stretching her creative muscles yet further with a move into musical theatre.

The involvement of Samuel Adamson as Tori’s collaborator in this venture was also extremely exciting news. Adamson, whose work has been presented on some of the most prestigious stages in London, as well as in New York, is well known to British theatregoers for his original plays such as Clocks and Whistles (1996) and Southwark Fair (2006), his acclaimed adaptations of works by Chekhov, Ibsen and Schnitzler, and his 2007 stage version of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film All About My Mother. His new play, Mrs. Affleck, premieres at the National Theatre this month. Last year, I interviewed Sam for the penultimate issue of the Tori Amos zine Little Blue World. The full interview can be read in the issue (Fall 2008, No. 31), but I wanted to share a section of it here, in order to give more of Tori’s fans an insight into what is shaping up to be a very exciting project. In this section Sam discusses his take on the musical, the Amos/Adamson collaborative process, and the experience of singing Rodgers and Hammerstein to Tori.

AR: Could you tell us a bit about your background, how your interest in writing for the theatre developed, and what you consider to be some of your career highlights to date?
SA: I grew up in the South Australian countryside, miles from anything theatrical. Who knows how and why particular interests develop — I try not to analyse it too much. Perhaps I’d get suicidal. But I was one of those theatre anoraks that put plays on for his parents in the living-room. Actually, at that stage it was stage lighting I was obsessed with. I used to create superbly hopeless lighting designs with Anglepoise lamps. I still look at theatre lighting designers with a bit of envy … theirs is a great job. Getting my first play on was a highlight. And working at the National Theatre. Whichever project you’re currently working on is the most important to you, though.

How did you become involved in The Light Princess project?
 Tori took the project, that is the MacDonald story, to the National Theatre. She was looking for a bookwriter. At that stage, they’d just produced a play of mine called Southwark Fair. She came to see it and liked it and then we met with her manager John Witherspoon. We got on and that was the start of it.

What was your initial reaction to George MacDonald’s story?
I liked its adult wit and subversiveness. The narrator has a very wry attitude to his subject — and he sends up the fairy-tale genre. And he’s lightly satirical about the light princess herself. She can be quite an irritating woman. But that’s not her fault. I like this about her.

The fairy tale deals with some fairly adult themes and was quite controversial upon its original publication. Why do you think this was, and what, for you, are some of the major themes of the piece?
It’s quite honest about sex. It’s a very rich tale, really, with a beautiful central metaphor: the light princess is not just “light” because she has no gravity, she’s also light-minded and light-hearted. Only when she suffers real heartbreak, real human loss, only when she learns what love is, can her “lightness” be “cured”. Until then, she is flighty, indulgent, maddening, selfish, self-protective — all the things we all are, sometimes. It’s a sentimental education of an Everywoman.

As well as your original writing, you’re well known for working in the field of adaptation, having written successful new versions of plays by Chekhov and Ibsen, and last year’s stage adaptation of Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. What do you find to be some of the pleasures and challenges of adapting others’ work?

The obvious pleasure is that you don’t start with an empty page. It’s about shaping and shifting, finding the best way to articulate a moment in stage terms, in stage language. It’s very challenging, though, because for each moment there are usually about a thousand choices. And it’s down to you to find the best one. Then ask yourself, “does your choice for that moment marry up with your choice for the next?” And so on. It’s not quite the bloody slog that writing an original play is, but curiously it usually takes more time. And more people – directors, etc. – put their oars in, because they don’t always agree with your choices. But I like people putting their oar in, so it suits me.

We’re speaking in Summer 2008. How far along is The Light Princess project at this stage?
At the moment, the story is completely finished. That is, we know exactly what’s happening to each character in each moment, from beginning to end. I wrote treatments for the whole musical which we’ve been working from and I’ve written the complete book to Act I and a skeleton draft of Act II. Tori has written about 20 songs. She works in a way that’s different from what I’m used to, in that she’s creating fairly comprehensive demos – that’s how the songs develop. That’s exciting. I’m piecing things together on the book now.

Your stage adaptation of All About My Mother managed to be both faithful to the film and yet construct something fresh and distinctive in its own right, by incorporating new elements which really involved the theatre audience. Are you “riffing” on MacDonald’s text in a similar way, updating, revising, or changing any elements?
It’s very important that if you’re doing something on stage it becomes its own thing, has its own life and identity. I worked very hard on All About My Mother to make sure it was a play — that it worked solely on its own terms, on the stage, if you happened never to have seen the film. There are things you can do on stage that you simply can’t do on film and because I love those things so much, I’m a playwright. Tori and I are doing much more than “riffing” on MacDonald, as it happens. We’ve been quite radical with it. Hopefully our story speaks more directly to our world than the fairy-tale itself. The Light Princess, whose name is Althea in our musical, is much more three-dimensional and she has actively dramatic relationships with other characters in a way she does not in the story. We have expanded the King and Queen’s roles, introduced a whole set of new characters, and cut the evil aunt because we thought she’d be a bit corny in the new context. The trick is to stay true to the central ideas of MacDonald, to the essence of what he was saying, but to make it our own. Tori wouldn’t have been interested in the project if she couldn’t have done that, and nor would I.

You’ve spoken about your love of Stephen Sondheim’s work and also of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, his magnificent Civil Rights-era musical. What is it about these musicals in particular that speaks to you? Do you feel that they will influence The Light Princess, and, if so, in what ways?
The thing that attracted me to Caroline, or Change, was that it was like a play set to music. I’m probably wrong about this, but it felt as if Tony Kushner, the playwright, had written a highly political play, and Jeanine Tesori, the composer, had then set Kushner’s text to music. The effect was that the songs often felt thrillingly incomplete, unresolved. I was challenged as an audience member, I was made to sit up and listen. I didn’t get my songs handed to me on a platter – verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus. I had to be prepared that a magnificent tune might not complete itself or be reprised. In this day and age of everything needing to be familiar to us before we enter the theatre, I found that refreshing. It also had magnificent performances from Tonya Pinkins and Anna Francolini. In many ways, I’m from a Sondheim school of musical theatre writing. Tori has more of a pop-rock sensibility. The marriage of those two things is what’s driving us forward. It’s why I was brought on board: she could have just gone and written a through-sung rock musical if she wanted. So it’s not going to be Spring Awakening, a brilliant full-on rock musical, but it’s not going to be Merrily We Roll Along, a brilliant full-on book musical. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. We’re still discovering it.

Although she’s never written directly for the theatre before, Tori’s last album, American Doll Posse, and its accompanying tour, were highly theatrical, and her recent work has been increasingly character-driven and narrative-based. What, in your view, makes her an ideal composer for The Light Princess?
You know, if one’s going to use those often not-very-helpful terms “songwriter” and “composer” then Tori is definitely both things. To call her a “songwriter” but not a “composer” wouldn’t be right, I think. She composes music. And she knows musicals. She could sit down at the age of three or something crazy like that and play the whole damn score of Oliver! She’s a little bit of a genius, clearly. Other people had told her she must write a musical but I think she wanted to wait till the time was right. She had turned down musicals before. Someone directed her towards The Light Princess as a story and she decided this was the one. And when you look at the way the last few albums have been driven by character, narrative and unifying themes, it seems like a natural progression for her now to want to have actors singing her songs and bringing characters to life.

Were you at all familiar with Tori’s music before this project came about? Which songs or albums?
I was familiar with her work but, to my shame, a lot of it had passed me by. Obviously I knew some of Little Earthquakes — my flatmate owned it and I used to listen to that. What a magnificent album. And I knew “Cornflake Girl” and “Mr Zebra” and perhaps I danced to “Professional Widow” once or twice! But that’s going to look so disappointingly corny to Tori’s fans – that that’s all I knew. A few months before I met her, I happened to have picked up Tales of a Librarian in New York, and that was the real beginning of my Tori journey. Anyway, I often think coming to somebody quite late is a good thing – you have a whole body of work to discover. And that’s the thing about Tori, it really is a superb body of work. Not everybody loves it, but no one can say that it isn’t constantly challenging and detailed and heartfelt and ambitious. Not every musician has a back catalogue that truly is a catalogue you’d want to get lost in, but Tori does. I love Scarlet’s Walk. I’m a Clyde guy where ADP is concerned. “Bouncing off Clouds” and “Roosterspur Bridge” – what lovely songs. I love it when Tori gets rhapsodic. A girl and her piano. And she writes funny songs, too. She’s not known for her sense of humour, but that’s because her critics aren’t listening. “Mr Zebra” and “Programmable Soda” and songs like that are little explosions of glee. She’s written some very sexy, funny stuff for The Light Princess.

Practically speaking, how does the collaboration with Tori work? Do you present her with your finished adaptation and suggest places where songs might be appropriate? Do you have any input into the lyrics of the songs?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Cornwall with her. Before we wrote a word or a note, we spent a lot of time just talking about the story, where it might go, how it might differ from the MacDonald, what we wanted to say. A structure began to develop and then I began to talk to Tori about which parts of the story should be musicalised. I would say “I think this is a song” and she would go away and think about it. She would also give me ideas for the book. I’ve pushed her to musicalise quite a lot of it because it’s a musical, and musicals need to tell their stories via the music, otherwise what’s the point? Tori is the lyricist but I give her ideas and phrases. We still need to get into workshop to make sure everything’s working on that front. Everything is based in character. Tori knows these characters inside out. At the moment she’s working from a draft of my script but a lot of it has been developed from me sitting on her sofa, her sitting at her piano, and the two of us throwing ideas back and forth. Then she’d disappear to go and sack her record company or whatever whilst I wrote some more dialogue. Pretty exhilarating. I sang a song to her once. Not one of hers, she asked me to give an example of the kind of song I wanted for a particular moment in the play. So I sang her a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from Carousel. Can you believe that? I’m sitting in Tori frigging Amos’s workroom, singing her a frigging Rodgers and Hammerstein song. I don’t sing for anybody, but somehow Tori makes you feel so comfortable that you can do anything. After that she went away and wrote what I think is one of the best songs in The Light Princess, a beautiful number for the King.

Tori’s music is extremely diverse stylistically. Can you say anything yet about the styles that the musical might contain? Is this something that you discuss with Tori in advance?
Again, things are character-based. She’ll say to me, “I hear this kind of music for this moment” and we’ll discuss it. She’s so musically literate she can draw on anything really. So, the King is a particular kind of guy, and his music reflects who he is — his attitude and background and so on. I don’t want to say too much at this stage, but it’s a very varied score. There is a bit of soul and gospel in there, some guitar-based rock, something a little Wagnerian, a couple of hilariously Beatles-esque numbers for a new character I’ve created who isn’t in the original story. But all of it sounds like Tori. I’ve told you too much already, I’ll get in trouble. Her manager will ask me what the hell I was thinking.

We won't tell, honest ... I’m sure it’s far too early to say but is a U.S. transfer of the musical at least a possibility?
Everything’s a possibility. We’ve a lot of work to do before it gets on in London, though, let alone New York or wherever. But one always hopes that things will be successful enough to have a further life.

Like Tori, you’re an ex-pat to Britain. In what ways do you think that this informs your take on British culture?
Well, that’s one of those things that’s hard for me to have perspective on. Suffice to say there’s nothing wrong with being slightly on the outside, if you’re a writer. Tori said to me that she’s American through and through, that actually she doesn’t find her stories in England, but that being in England gives her a helpful view from the bridge of the things she wants to explore in her homeland. I feel very at home in the UK, and in London specifically, and write about this world a lot.

You’ve written a play - Some Kind Of Bliss - about a journalist’s journey to interview a pop star. The play itself takes its title from a Kylie Minogue song. In what ways is music important to your life and work? Do you consider it a direct inspiration for your writing? Beyond Sondheim, what are your preferred styles and genres? What’s on the Adamson iPod?
Music is very important. Soul food. One of the great things about working on a musical is that whenever I get stuck or bored with work, I can listen to one of Tori’s songs — and at this stage no one else has heard them, so that’s a nice perk! I’m inspired by music if only in the sense that it gets your juices flowing, gives you energy to sit down and get on with things. On the Adamson iPod is everything from Carole King to The Fratellis to Harry Belafonte to Regina Spektor to new musicals like In the Heights and A Catered Affair and Light in the Piazza. I do have an addiction to cheese. I need Sugababes or Madonna to get me to the gym. I grew up listening to musicals. My first album was Kiss’ Dynasty. You do the analysis.

Finally. what would you say to any theatre sceptics out there? What makes theatre special for you, both as audience member and practitioner?
Well, if you don’t want to go to the theatre, don’t go to the theatre, that’s fine. But for me, nothing quite beats live actors telling you a story. I really hope Tori’s fans will come along to see and hear her work in a different context. She’s really embracing this whole process: she’s said on a number of occasions how great it is to write for voices that are not her own – I do think people will hear something new from Tori on this show. If you consider the kind of “concept” behind ADP, this takes it all one step further: a three dimensional dramatised world, live on stage, with Tori songs. I’d buy a ticket, wouldn’t you?

© Little Blue World, 2008


  1. Well done! That's a really fantastic interview, Alex...and I'm amazed that it's only an except from the longer one. Very insightful questions and informative answers. My favorite moment is Sam Adamson's anecdote about singing a song from Carousel to Tori in her workroom. What an honor that must have been, like singing for the queen or something. I'll look forward to hearing more about this project when it's all completed, and I'll also hope to see the musical in London or New York. Thanks for the excellent lead. :)

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  3. Thats great :) I cant wait to see it live!!

    Thanks for the interview!