BWW Exclusive Interview: THE LIGHT PRINCESS: Tori Amos & Samuel Adamson Reinvent the Fairytale
From George MacDonald's 19th century fairytale, The Light Princess has been transformed into a stage production, with a deeper morality play and potential anthem for present day youth.
Coming off a successful run at the National Theatre in London, the Original Cast album will be released on October 9th through Mercury Classics. The updated story was brought to the stage through the collaboration of playwright Samuel Adamson and singer-songwriter Tori Amos. Talks have commenced to bring the production to Broadway.
The original Light Princess tells the story of Althea, a child who is cursed to have no gravity. In addition, Althea cannot cry, and nothing can be found to make her do so. The changes to the story flesh out what may well have been hidden truths in MacDonald's work, involving politics, war, and a form of early feminism.
"It's a beautiful story," Adamson says. "We've used The Light Princess as a jumping off point to create a new kind of fairytale. It retains the central metaphorical idea, which is that a young girl floats in the air until she can learn to cry. Part of the reason she is in the air, in the original she finds everything funny. In our story, it's removing herself from everything troublesome. Her mother dies at six and she floats because she follows her mother to heaven, and she wants to retreat from everything that's horrible. And her journey is towards understanding that that's no way to live."
The commission of Adamson and Amos turned out to be an inspired choice, and work of several years was required. "It has taken a while," Adamson admits, "but I think most musicals do. They're incredibly difficult things to write, they're really collaborative pieces of work. The main thing about them, because usually they're written by more than one person, it's really about the relationship between the writers, the friendship, trying to grow and build so as writers you're in a position where you're friends and can talk to each other and ask questions. You can push each other to make the work better; and that takes years."
Both Adamson and Amos were familiar with MacDonald's work. "I had read it and thought that there were a lot of possibilities there," Amos says. "I thought mainly because at the time all my nieces and nephews were teenagers, and I thought that we could create a fairytale that tackled 21st century teenage issues, that would be a really fascinating marriage, something I was interested in being part of.
'It reminded me of moments of Sleeping Beauty," Amos goes on, "so I could see the references in the fairytale elements and I thought that it had something unusual, in which the girl was floating. If there's a girl floating, there's a reason for it, and I'm not interested in curses. It bored me."
Amos also hearkened back to her groundbreaking album, Little Earthquakes. "This musical reminded me of the issues," she says, "once they started coming up, once you started investigating it. We would spend hours talking with each other: 'Well, why would she do this? Well, why would this happen? Well, how would the father react?' So we would talk in depth about it, and it does remind me there are a lot of things that are similar to Little Earthquakes."
Amos speaks slowly, in thought before doing so: "It's not a secret that I had a confrontational relationship with my father, who was a minister. And he had certain ideas of who he wanted me to be, and the path that he wanted me to take. He wanted me to be a religious musician, so writing music for the church. And I didn't see my path in the same way. So, sometimes we didn't communicate very well. As he's gotten older, we've been able to communicate better, and as I've gotten older too. Definitely when I was a teenager and in my twenties, we weren't able to communicate. But he believed that his ideas for me was the best idea, and was pretty adamant about it. And we experience that in The Light Princess as well with (Althea's) father."
The fantasy world Althea retreats into is brought out by the collaboration. "She lives a fantasy life in the air," Adamson explains, "and she has to come down and face the darkness, she has to face the grief. That very simple idea, that until she realizes that somebody loved her and she's on the verge of losing it, that she cries and comes down. That simple idea is George MacDonald's. We've retained that, but we've created a new character and a world and new conflicts for our Light Princess."
The trials of the prince, Digby mirror those of Althea. "It's a bit Romeo and Juliet," Adamson goes on, "there are two countries, they're at war. (Althea and Digby) both lost their mothers, and they reacted to that in completely opposite ways. Althea floats in the air and never cries, and Digby becomes very heavyhearted and never smiles. In meeting each other, they break all kinds of taboos to do with the conflict, but they learn from each other, and give what the other one needs."
"Sometimes writing the songs, rolling up our sleeves and writing together there were moments that took me to some places that I thought had healed that were still very raw and I didn't realize it," Amos admits. "And this is why in some ways The Light Princess reminds me so much of Little Earthquakes. We're talking about the abuse that's done to her. We're talking about all these years; both albums are very similar in that they're tackling some of these tough issues. Sometimes it would be very emotional writing these things with Sam."
In writing, an author can hopefully not be blamed for getting close to the characters they are developing. Amos described her technique for the musical: "In order to relate to everybody, I would try and become a blank canvas. Even with the kings, in order to write 'My Little Girl's Smile,' I had to allow the father to take over my being, and it was easier for me to step into Althea's emotional perspective, just because it's closer to me than some of the other characters. But in order to really have them come alive and to feel genuine, we had to let them take over us in order for all their songs to really resonate. We had to allow that to happen."
That also involved taking Althea and the rest of the characters in The Light Princess to other places. "The big difference between the two versions," Adamson says, "is we wanted to make sure our characters were emotionally and psychologically complex. Originally she's in the air because she's cursed by a wicked aunt, and we decided that we weren't particularly interested in that, and we'd like to look at other reasons she might be in the air. We decided that her mother had died, and her instincts followed her mother to heaven, but the thing she's really doing is she's retreating from the darkness of the world."
The collaboration of two artists from two completely different disciplines might have seemed a daunting task at first. Amos recalls, "I'll never forget when Sam said to me for 'Queen Material.' 'We're going to start in her room in the tower where her dad (King Darius) is explaining to her that she has to come down to ground, and she's going to act like a queen. And he starts telling me they're going to fall out, and she's going to escape from the tower, confront the guards, steal (away) with Piper...and you can imagine I'm just looking at him, my eyes are getting bigger and bigger, and I kept saying, 'We're still in the same song?' And he goes, 'Yeah, still in the same song.' So in my mind I'm just trying to build structures in my head while he's talking, thinking, 'Oh my God, is this the longest song I've ever been a part of in my life. I think it is!"
"I think we really did get on from the start," Adamson says. "I felt very comfortable with her, and I think she did with me as well. I think we in some ways share the same sense of humor, I think we respect each other and that respect was there from the beginning. She's such a curious person; she's always looking at the world, finding stories and trying to gain knowledge and asking questions.
'It took a while for us to work out exactly what our roles were in terms of creating the material itself. (Tori) had come from a world that is collaborative, but she's a solo singer/songwriter and theater is incredibly collaborative, you work with all kinds of people. And I think there was a level at which she had to challenge herself in working in new ways. I certainly think she had to challenge herself to rewrite. That's what musicals are like; they're rewritten, not written. That's for a thousand reasons and I think that was a bit alarming to her, but in she began to embrace that and understand that. But it was about finding that process over a period of months and years and in the end, because we'd ended up being almost through song we were writing songs together. We had a very kind of close working relationship that developed over time, but it started from a place of respect, which moved into a happy friendship, and once we were friends we found a way of working together."
That process also included workshops with the London cast. "We were working with (Director) Marianne Elliott, an amazing woman and her creative team," Amos explains. "And so through the workshops we would begin to see what characters were just getting lost or not moving the story forward. And that process was so essential in helping us understand the story we wanted to tell.
'Sometimes because of their instrument, it would inspire Sam and me to go off and expand something for them. And we would realize the instrument we have with this actor, so we need to tailor this more to what their instrument can do. So this instrument, you think this vocal instrument is not a flute, this instrument is more like a violin, so we need to tailor it for that. And that's really where we began to grow as a team, and not be locked into a preconceived idea.
'I wanted the actor's instrument to shine, and they were all (singing in) different keys. Well, we had cast these people, and they're great actors, and so instead of casting people in the exact key I would say, 'Screw that, who cares?' The Music Supervisor, Martin Lowe said, 'Well, that's funny, not all composers would do that I said, 'I know, but we have these great actors, we're just moving keys. He said how many times, I said, as many as we need to. He asked, 'What's the rule on that? I said, 'What rule? I don't fucking care, there is no rule, make a new rule'!"
The approach led to standout performances when The Light Princess finally made the West End stage in 2013. Directed by Tony Award winner Elliott, the show received largely positive reviews. Rosalie Craig earned high marks across the board for her performance as Althea, and Nick Hendrix (Digby) also gained high praise. Other star turns came from Clive Rowe as Althea's father, King Darius, and Amy Booth-Steel as the princess' companion, Piper.
Some critics, however, found the show too preachy for the adult audience. Most approved of Craig and also the choreography and visual effects, but some found the narrative dragged, and Amos' music not always inspiring.
Then again, critics are merely people with opinions. Adamson and Amos remain undaunted, and for each, something important stays alight. "I think the new story for us is you have to face your fears," Adamson says. "You have to come down to the ground and look the enemy in the face; you have to overcome the odds. And by doing that we were able to create hopefully a real, contemporary female figure who's working out who she is. She has to fight for her independence and fight against the wrongs of the world. She works out who she truly is."
"I've made a commitment," Amos declares, "and a vow to all the teenagers out there, and who have been teenagers and who have yet to be...not to dilute the story in order to make it more commercial would be as my (daughter) says, 'Mom, be brave. Stand up for our rights as teenagers and tell our story, and don't let us down.' Those are my marching orders, and that's what we have to achieve."
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