Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton on The Great American Mousical — Interview
October 17, 2012
I am honored and delighted to present this interview with both Emma Walton Hamilton and her mother, Julie Andrews. What a gift they have given us all in agreeing to this interview!
As those of you who are regular readers of my blog know, my Wednesday focus this fall is the upcoming musical production, The Great American Mousical: A Musical Love Letter to Broadway, at the Norma Terris Theatre in November (full details below). Julie and Emma collaborated on the original book, which was published in 2006. Now, Julie will direct the stage production, and so is hard at work with rehearsals at this very moment. I deeply appreciate them taking the time to answer my questions in such depth.
Julie Andrews is known around the world for her stage, screen, and singing career. Rather than mention the movies she usually is linked with in biographical information, I want to highlight my favorites, which are among her lesser-known works, but which I believe deserve equal billing. The Americanization of Emily (1964), That’s Life (1986), Duet for One (1986), and Our Sons (made for television, 1991) are some of her finest work, and I highly recommend them. Julie is also a prolific author, who began writing for children in the early 1970s. Her first two books, Mandy and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, are still in print, still in demand, which says a great deal about the quality of Julie’s writing. For the past 15 years or so, she has collaborated with her daughter Emma, and together they have written many delightful picture books and middle grade novels. Julie is also a passionate advocate for the arts, and for children’s literacy. For further biographical information, please see the website of the Julie Andrews Collection.
Emma Walton Hamilton got her start in theatre, and is now an author, freelance editor, educator (in both the arts and in writing for children), speaker, and advocate for the arts and literacy. With her mother she has written many picture books and middle grade novels. She is also the author of the excellent literacy resource Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. Emma is the director of the writing program for middle grade and high school students, YAWP (Young American Writers Project); she teaches Children’s Literature at the Stony Brook Southampton University campus; she has developed an online/home study course in picture book writing, Just Write for Kids; she is the founder and driving force behind the fantastic resource and educational online site, The Children’s Book Hub; and Emma and I co-administer the Children’s Book Hub Facebook Group. For further biographical information, please see Emma’s website.
And now, let’s find out what Julie and Emma have to say about taking The Great American Mousical from page to stage…
BETH: For any of my readers who aren’t familiar with The Great American Mousical, would you give us a brief overview of the plot? I’d very much like it if you’d also share how the idea for the book came to you. (I love that story.)
EMMA: The story revolves around a troupe of theater mice, who put on their own shows beneath a venerable Broadway theater. There are all the classic characters from a theater company – the glamorous but slightly past-it diva, the handsome cad of a leading man, the loveable character actor who can’t remember his lines, the soubrette with a heart of gold, the wide-eyed intern and so forth. The mice are busily preparing for their annual New Year’s Eve fundraiser performance, and rehearsals are in their usual state of chaos when suddenly the theater is threatened with destruction and the leading lady disappears. Somehow, the show must go on, of course… and there are all sorts of love triangles and dramas and adventures, but we mustn’t give away too much!
JULIE: The ideas for the story originally occurred to me when I was performing in VICTOR/VICTORIA on Broadway. A mouse was discovered in our wardrobe department, and I asked if someone kind might put out a humane trap and release the creature in the suburbs or the countryside. Something was said about there being a number of mice beneath Broadway theaters, and suddenly a light-bulb went off in my head.
Emma was originally an actress-turned-theater producer, director and educator. We’d been writing together for a while, and agreed it would be fun to collaborate on a project about Broadway mice, since we could both write from such a basis of knowledge. We wrote the book as an affectionate tribute to the world we know and love – but we also hoped to provide young readers with some incidental arts appreciation.
After the novel was underway, I was taping for the PBS documentary “The History of the Broadway Musical” in a grand old Broadway theatre. I was in the dressing room and, brazen as you please, a little mouse popped out, wandered around and, finally, ambled out the door heading for the stage. I took it as a good luck omen for the book… (but was rather glad I wasn’t moving into that dressing room for any length of time!)
BETH: How and when did you decide to develop Mousical into a stage musical? Was that part of the plan all along?
JULIE: Not at all! If anything, we hoped it might one day lend itself to an animated film, but the challenge of the different perspectives between the mouse world and the human one, plus the potential awkwardness of actors playing mice on stage just made a musical adaptation unimaginable to us. We never even considered it, until our friends at Goodspeed Musicals reached out to us.
EMMA: The producing team at Goodspeed had been friends and colleagues of ours for years, and became all the more so when Mom’s production of The Boy Friend at our theater in Sag Harbor was subsequently produced there, before going out on National Tour. We’d sent them a copy of the book when it first came out, simply because it was about the theatre and we thought they might appreciate some of the inside jokes. Nothing could have amazed – or touched – us more than getting a phone call from Bob Alwine, the producer at Goodspeed, saying they would love to commission a stage adaptation, and to have Mom direct it.
JULIE: It took us a couple of years to find the right creative team to partner with us on the adaptation. We consider ourselves truly blessed to have found the wonderful composer/lyricist team of Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, and our terrific librettist, Hunter Bell. We’ve spent the past two years working with them to develop the book and songs for the production, that are both faithful to the original novel and also bring some delightful new insights and details to our little story.
BETH: Could you briefly describe the process of taking a book like Mousical from page to stage?
EMMA: As Mom mentioned, it starts with finding the right creative team. It’s really the producer’s job to assemble that, with input from the director and, in our case, the originating authors. Goodspeed invited several different composer/lyricist teams to submit a trial song, and while they were all wonderful, Marcy and Zina’s piece was just irresistible. Then Bob recommended Hunter Bell to us for the libretto. We met him, and he was so simpatico that everything just clicked.
JULIE: We had a lot of preliminary meetings, and there were many months where Marcy, Zina and Hunter would go off and write, and then we would all get together and read or listen to what they had so far, and discuss it. We would brainstorm next steps and they would go away again and keep working. Gradually, everything began to pull into focus and our meetings became more frequent – always fun, accompanied by a lot of music, snacks and tea and grounded in a true spirit of collaboration.
Eventually we realized we needed to have production designers involved with the development of the show, since so much depends upon how we get back and forth from the human world to the mouse one, or from the theatre to the various other locations in and around New York City. Since Emma’s Dad (and my ex-husband) Tony Walton, happens to be one of the best designers on Broadway and had done the illustrations for our book, we felt it had to be him – and happily, he agreed. We were then joined by the wonderful Tony Award-winning choreographer, Chris Gatelli, and the esteemed lighting designer Richard Pilbrow, so the conversations became more specific and the work more complicated.
EMMA: We did three developmental readings of the piece along the way; the first one out at Goodspeed, before we even had a completed working draft of the show. We heard the script read by the actors who were performing in Goodspeed’s production of Mame at the time. Marcy, Zina and Hunter sang the songs that existed up to that point. Then we did a similar reading at the Southampton Writers Conference, with actors from Ensemble Studio Theatre and our creative team sang once again, and finally, we did two readings in NYC. That was the first time we heard the show read and sung by the performers who would be playing the actual roles, and it was thrilling! Each reading was hugely informative for us all, in that it revealed what was working and what wasn’t, where we needed to cut a song or a scene, or add one, and so forth. And that work continues as we head into rehearsals.
BETH: Did you ever consider doing the adaptation yourselves, or did you always intend to have someone else write it?
EMMA: We talked about it briefly – but it takes a very specific talent to adapt something for the stage. As much as we both know about theatre, we’d never written for it – and we all felt that ultimately it would be better to have another member of the creative team who understood the challenges of dramatic structure that are unique to the stage, and musicals in particular. Not to mention that it would have taken a huge time commitment, something that neither Mom nor I were really able to do, given the other professional and personal commitments in our lives at the time.
BETH: I wonder how I would feel, watching something I had written being interpreted into a new form by other writers. What was it like to watch this happen? Did you have editorial input along the way?
EMMA: It’s really thrilling. There are these characters, who live inside our heads for so long, and then they begin to exist sort of one-dimensionally on the page. They materialized on a whole new level when Dad did the illustrations for the book, so that was the first “interpretation”… but to hear them speaking and singing, and to see them living and breathing and three-dimensional is wonderful and rather surreal.
JULIE: We have had a lot of editorial input… I’m afraid we’re rather interfering in that regard, but Hunter is one of those rare individuals who is truly collaborative and non-defensive. He’s not threatened in any way, and he brings so much of his own humor and talent to the table, that it has really turned out to be a joyful collaboration for us all. Of course Marcy and Zina are hugely collaborative as well, and generous about respecting our initial vision of the book.
BETH: I know it was not merely familial loyalty that led you to choose to collaborate with Tony Walton for both the illustrations of the original book and for scenic and costume design for the stage production. He is a Tony Award winner in his own right. What are some of the differences and similarities in working with someone in the roles of co-authors and illustrator, and then director, co-author, and designer?
EMMA: Probably one of the main differences is the level of input we needed from Dad in terms of conceiving the show, versus the novel. He didn’t really begin the illustration process until after the book had been written – but we really needed his expertise in the early stages of conceptualizing the show, because the design affects everything – especially in the second act. He had some brilliant ideas about how to solve the perspective problems, for instance, which informed us as to how the scenes might unfold.
JULIE: Happily, the three of us know each other so well, and have collaborated so much, that we speak a kind of shorthand, if you will. But for me, the challenge has been when and how to separate my co-author hat from my director hat. It’s hard, because we know the characters so well, and yet we have to be willing to let go of cherished moments that work in the book but may not be particularly “stage-worthy.” It’s a balancing act.
EMMA: For me, as the only one from the original creative trio for the book whose role hasn’t changed, it’s been about supporting Mom in terms of knowing what we need to be loyal to and what we’re willing to give up, being receptive to all the new ideas that are brought to the table, and being available to answer questions along the way about through-line, character arcs, thematic issues, etc.
BETH: Building on that question, many of my readers are writers themselves, whether published or not-yet-published, so they understand some of the workings of the writing and publishing process. In bringing your book to the stage, you have added a much larger creative team, cast and crew to the mix. What is it like to see your creation interpreted and brought to a new form of life by so many other people?
EMMA: I think because Mom and I both have a background in the theatre, and also because we collaborate as authors, we are both very comfortable with – and used to – the collaborative process. We have a general rule for our collaboration that has also been the foundation of our work with the creative team of Mousical, which is “the best idea wins.” Generally speaking, everyone seems to know it when they hear it!
JULIE: Hunter and Marcy have both brought so many new insights and creative touches to our characters that delight us. For instance, the character actor, Harold, is now the uncle of Pippin, the intern, which wonderfully raises the stakes when it comes to Harold’s concern for the boy. And Hysterium, who was always something of a newsbearer in the book, now has this wonderful expression that he uses all the time – “Newsflash!” – that is even the basis of a song.
Adding actors to the mix has provided a new level of discovery for us, and we are learning even more about the characters from them. That’s one of the great joys of collaboration when it works; the thing takes on its own life and sometimes surprises everyone involved.
BETH: What are your hopes and dreams for “The Great American Mousical” beyond the run at the Norma Terris Theatre?
JULIE: The Norma Terris is Goodspeed’s second stage, so this is actually considered a workshop production, which means we will continue to work on and develop the piece all through its run. The hope is that it might go on to enjoy a run on the main stage, or perhaps go out on tour, or even enjoy a commercial run. We won’t know for sure until we see what we have… and we’re just thrilled to have come this far with it.
EMMA: That said, it would be lovely to see the show enjoy further life at other theatres, or even be licensed for school productions one day.
BETH: Is there anything you would like to add?
JULIE: I think it’s important to add that while the original book was conceived as a middle grade novel, the show has happily become a musical for all ages. The music and lyrics are wonderfully sophisticated and the story is so multi-dimensional that there is something for everyone to enjoy.
BETH: In closing, I would like to thank you once again for participating in this interview. I look forward to seeing the production in November. In the spirit of the mice of Mousical, may I say to you both, and to all involved in bringing this project to the stage, “Break a paw!”
EMMA: Thank you, Beth. And thank you for all you do to support the arts!
TICKET INFORMATION: The Great American Mousical will be on stage at the Norma Terris Theatre, Chester, Connecticut, from November 8 to December 2, 2012. Tickets may be purchased by phoning the Box Office, 1-860-873-8668.
GIVEAWAY: As with all the Wednesday Mousical posts this month, any comment on this post will be entered into a random draw to be held November 7th for one of three copies of Julie’s and Emma’s middle grade novel The Great American Mousical. (Full disclosure: these are remaindered copies, and have a small mark on the lower edge of the pages, which doesn’t interfere with readability at all. They are hardcover copies.)