5 Things Steven Sater Learned Adapting His Musical Alice by Heart Into a New Novel

Interview   5 Things Steven Sater Learned Adapting His Musical Alice by Heart Into a New Novel
 
The Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening librettist lets readers in on his process of a new kind of adaptation.
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Steven Sater Curtis Brown

The adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into the musical Alice By Heart (seen at MCC in the spring of 2019) was difficult enough. So when producer Kurt Deutsch asked co-book writer and lyricist Steven Sater to consider adapting the musical into a YA novel, Sater felt reticent. “Frankly, the suggestion left me cold,” Sater admits. But he just wasn’t finished with Alice after the limited Off-Broadway engagement closed.

On February 4, Penguin Randhom House’s YA imprint Razorbill released the young adult novel adaptation of the same name: Alice By Heart. Here, Sater—who previously adapted a German play into his smash hit musical Spring Awakening—reveals the key to adapting a book into a musical and back into a book.

READ: Watch Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele Reunite to Read From Steven Sater’s Alice By Heart

On the difference between adapting Spring Awakening into a musical versus adapting the musical Alice by Heart into a novel:
“Every act of adaptation is also an act of translation. It is to transpose, to transport, the soul of one work into the body of another. It is also to prompt a conversation between different eras of time, between the differing cultural assumptions embedded within those different languages. It was in this spirit that I undertook the ‘translation’ of Wedekind’s great expressionist drama, Frühlings Erwachen, into a musical. The original play is so full of the unheard cries of young people, and the language of those cries in our own time has been—for generations—rock music, pop music. While I vowed to remain faithful to the great original play, I soon found that, once we had access through song into the hearts and minds of our characters, we engaged with them in a more personal way. Over time, we began to create distinct heroes’ journeys for Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz—journeys not present, unattempted, in the original.

John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele
John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele

“Adapting our musical Alice by Heart into a novel was a different task altogether. For starters, Jessie Nelson, Duncan Sheik, and I had begun by adapting a treasured book. How was I to honor Lewis Carroll’s classic text in turning our musical-in-progress into another book? For me, that entailed much more than tapdancing over lost songs and revising story beats. It was about transposing the soul of something theatrical into the form of a book and also about prompting a conversation, around the musical, between the two books.”

On the value of adapting Alice By Heart:
“It was hard enough trying to turn Carroll’s hallucinatory sequence of “curiouser and curiouser” incidents into a stage-worthy musical. But over time, perhaps against my better wisdom, something about the idea began to stick.

“At the beginning of Alice’s Adventures, the impatient young heroine famously wonders, “What is the use of a book... without pictures or conversation?” Pictures for a book based on our Alice musical I could well imagine. There were so many heart- stopping photographs, which we kept uncovering from our internet research, but the idea that genuinely sank its teeth into me was of a book as a kind of “conversation.”

“In our musical, Wonderland exists not as a separate world below, but somewhere within the heart and mind of a young girl. For me, the challenge was to employ all the riddling, linguistic play of Carroll’s original text to engage the reader in a new Alice’s brooding interior monologue, which is not exactly what you find in the original book!”

On adapting dialogue and lyrics to internal monologues and conversations:
“Like the original book, our musical focuses on Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. We infuse that story with romance, in the character of a 1940 London girl who faces a great trial of loss. As she revisits her classic adventures, the familiar Wonderland rituals come to function like stages of grief.

“The book is squarely set in the Tube Station shelter in 1940, though we fall down the hole of Alice’s memory—when she first meets Alfred at age 6, when he later falls ill, when the bombing happens. In addition, the novel admits the larger context of 1940 London: the evacuation of young children, the fireworks-like effect of the Nazi bombing through the night sky, the devastation of Alice’s beloved library, the rubble fields they walk through on leaving school...”

On finding form and what he cut from the musical for the book:
“Writing the novel compelled me to enter many more rooms in my head. Or, I should say: in Alice’s head. Though the book is written in third person, it unfolds entirely from Alice’s point of view. It’s as if Alice were always catching up with herself, watching herself in some story of herself.

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Molly Gordon, Colton Ryan, and the cast of Alice By Heart Deen van Meer

“At the same time, I felt charged to create a book which would serve as a companion piece for our show. I wanted to retain our pieces of the wordmusic of our Mock Turtles, of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, of the Trial. You would think this would be the easiest part of writing the novel—copying and pasting the sections of dialogue, adding the “he” and “she” and “they” saids. In fact, it proved the most challenging part for me.”

On conjuring atmosphere without set and costumes:
“One of the most notorious moments in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland feels, to me, painfully contemporary. In order not to rattle their despotic Queen and lose their heads, the Playing Cards 5, 7, and 2 decide to fake the news and frantically start painting the white roses red.

“I remember, years ago, sitting with Jessie in her office, deep in conversation about Alice. She was listening to music when she looked up with that visionary gleam in her eye: “What if, when the White Rabbit coughs, all the white roses turn red?” From that breakthrough, we built toward our show’s most emblematic moment: Alfred’s condition has worsened so much he has been carried out of the Tube Station by medics. But then Alfred reappears. Or does he? Pale and paler, in his frayed hospital gown, hovering within some limbo land, he looks almost phantasmal. Is he actually there or is he just Alice’s projection?

“In our show: White pages, torn from Alice’s book, begin to drift from above like falling rose petals. With the shifting of the light, all those white blossoms would turn red. All good, except... in our gorgeous production at MCC, we kept struggling to get a sufficient number of petals to fall for a sufficient length of time.

“In writing the novel: There were no issues with costumes, lighting, or set. In fact, I wasn’t so much adapting what we had done in our show as undertaking a fresh translation of the original idea we’d had. So I can write: “A mirage, or a miracle, was it?... See, up from the glinting-steel tracks, toward the trains, which, these slow- traveling nights, never passed; over the cold, umbrageous platform; over the empty cots; along the station walls; and curling luxuriant over the rafters and railings—bloomed the most resilient and royal white roses. Their faces peering argent from the dark, in silent protest of all the barbarous London loss. Roses. So many spotless white roses. Making of the makeshift shelter a kind of marvel: a subterranean wartime garden in bloom.”

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