Thirty years ago, writer Lisa Peterson teamed up with composer-lyricist David Bucknam to adapt one of Peterson’s favorite novels: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. “The language is gorgeous and probably one of the most fantastic descriptions of the experience of life that I’ve ever read,” Peterson gushes. (She’s not the only one who feels that way; in a 2015 poll by the BBC the novel was voted the 16th greatest British novel ever written.)
The Waves follows the lives of six friends as they grow up together, lose sight of each other, and find their way back to their childhood friendships. “The novel starts with first experiences—literally days-old experiences—of these six characters, but it follows them up into their middle age,” which is the focus of this adaptation, which is this year’s solo Mainstage musical playing Vassar College & New York Film and Stage’s Powerhouse Theatre and begins July 19.
Coincidentally, the process of writing The Waves mirrors its story: Peterson and Bucknam bonded over their love for this book and setting it to music, but then Bucknam passed away. Peterson shelved the project, but harbored a desire for people to hear Bucknam’s score. “There’s no recording of it, so we began this process thinking we were just preserving something,” she says. Recently, she found a way to come back to it and, through her collaborators, Bucknam’s creative sensibility.
She brought on Adam Gwon, a composer-lyricist and former student of Bucknam’s at NYU, to write additional music and lyrics. “He was the first person who told me that I should be a composer, that that was where my voice lived,” says Gwon. Then she recruited Tony nominee Raúl Esparza, another student of Bucknam’s as a creative consultant and one of the six friends. (He’s joined by all-star castmates Ken Barnett, Eleasha Gamble, Douglas Lyons, Tony winner Alice Ripley, and Tony nominee Lauren Worsham.)
“He reminds me a lot of David,” says Peterson of Esparza. “He has a similar kind of fast mind, but he’s injecting—as Adam is—a new perspective into it for me.”
But some elements remain the same, specifically Woolf’s voice in the piece. Because Woolf’s prose captured Peterson in the first place, she prioritized the preservation of the original words wherever she could.
“People will hear her language spoken and sung,” says Peterson, who also directs the project.
“Each of the six characters capture one part of Virginia Woolf’s personality,” says Gwon, “and they’re six very different friends, but when you look at them together, somehow they capture something about the human experience because they all go through these iconic, spiritual journeys.”
The Waves plays Vassar College & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theatre July 19–29. For tickets and information click here.