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Utah high school kids turn a YA novel into a musical, all by themselves

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Olympus high school students attend a rehearsal for a musical based on the young adult fantasy book, “Heartless,” Friday, April 1, 2022.

Rehearsals are going well for the musical.Heartlessand the dozen students at Holladay’s Olympus High School are busy working scenes, singing lines and hitting octaves.

These students are the actors of the series, but they are also the writers, directors and production staff.

And they do all of this without adult supervision.

“We are a theater for young people, made by young people, for young people,” said Isabel Wilson, one of the musical’s writers, as well as co-director and costume designer.

Wilson is one of five classmates from Olympus High who read Marissa Meyer’s YA novel “Heartless” and bonded over it. Meyer – best known for her “Lunar Chronicles” series – tells the story of one of literature’s most recognizable and ridiculous villains: The Queen of Hearts, from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic “The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland “.

The student production will take to the stage at the CenterPoint Legacy Theater in Centerville, with two shows on April 22, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (both are sold out) — and the students will perform excerpts from the musical on April 30 at King’s Français Librairie on April 30, as part of Independent Bookstore Day. A live party is scheduled for May 14.

The students – along with Wilson, the original team includes Ellie England, Heidi Thomas, Ivy Robbins and Eleanor Boam – began working on the project in 2019 and have continued to work on the script over video calls during the COVID pandemic. -19.

The teens emailed Meyer’s assistant, and less than a month later they received a response expressing their support.

England – who plays Cath, the young woman who becomes queen – remarked that Meyer herself had suggested, in the Q&A section at the end of the novel, turning the story into a musical.

Wilson added, “This book feels like a musical, the way the emotions are written feels like music.”

Assemble the pieces

The script – or “book”, as they say on Broadway – could be the crown jewel of the whole creative enterprise. Cutting down a 464-page novel into a stage adaptation wasn’t easy. Originally, their screenplay was 180 pages.

The novel is written entirely from Cat’s point of view, so the young playwrights decided to add and change things to make it more holistic, such as adding scenes from other characters’ point of view. Wilson explains that they added scenes to make it clear to the audience that these characters aren’t “terrible people” and that they have a “motive.” Overall they stayed pretty close to the original.

Robbins – who is the composer, co-lyricist and musical director of the production – has composed between 15 and 20 songs, with Thomas, who is co-director with Wilson. Some were instrumental, some had lyrics. Robbins enlisted musicians from Olympus High School and recorded a score.

“I don’t really have a background in writing music,” Robbins said. “I play the viola, the violin and I can sometimes have fun on the piano. Writing music is more than something my ear does.

Wilson cited several influences for the costume design, including designs from Carroll’s time and film adaptations of the book – including Disney’s 1951 “Alice in Wonderland” animation and live-action version directed by Tim Burton in 2010.

“But then how can we diverge historically and make it look like fantasy,” Wilson wondered.

Wilson’s thought process for the costumes led to further questions: “How many costumes can I possibly give each character with enough time to change?” How many costumes do I need to tell the story? And how can I create the feeling of “Wonderland”, because the costumes are very environmental? »

The team also includes technical director Caleb Robinson and stage manager Jax Jessop, who work on lighting design, stage props and sets.

The effort impressed the author, who sent them an email of support. “The way you’ve maintained the heart of the story (pun totally intentional) while adapting it to the scene is just brilliant,” Meyer wrote. “The music is so powerful and dramatic, and I love all the lyrics to the songs…It literally gave me chills.”

Meyer told the students that if they continued producing him, she would like the chance to see him perform. True to her word, she said she was flying to Utah to see the show; she is also planning a book signing at King’s English on April 22.

What makes a villain?

The story of ‘Heartless’ follows a pattern set by the book (and musical) ‘Wicked’ and recently followed by Disney’s ‘Cruella’ – to dig into a notorious villain’s past and find out what made them as they are.

In “Heartless”, the story begins with Cath wanting to be a baker (prefiguring Lewis Carroll’s nursery rhyme pies), but her mother insists that she marry the King of Hearts.

Said Thomas, the musical’s other co-director, “It’s kind of the circumstances you’re put in because it goes with the whole ‘evil isn’t born, it’s made’ thing.” everyone is blessed with good or bad life experiences and it all depends on how you deal with them.

England noted that “every villain is a bit broken and something has happened to them that makes them that way. At the beginning of this story, you see Cath, [and] nothing will ever turn her into what she [ends up becoming] because he’s such a nice person. She is so broken inside by what happened that she becomes a completely different person.

The teenagers discovered that they were connected to different aspects of Cath.

“What I always love about Catherine as a character,” Boam said, “is that you read the book and she’s not a good person. She’s spoiled. She’s cocky. She’s a kid, and you sympathize with her anyway, because she’s passionate and you can relate to her.

Wilson added, “In a way, she’s a bit like us. She is in her older teens, [with] all of these ideas for his life, but little or no control over them because of the authority figures in his life.

Kenny Howick, who plays both the March Hare and the White Rabbit, said YA books like “Heartless” confront the real issues facing teenagers; in this case, there are mentions of Cath’s issues with body dysmorphia. “It’s a huge problem that builds up in self-esteem and how they view themselves,” Howick said.

Ava Hendrickson, who plays the character of Mary Anne in the production, said that “high school kids, we don’t listen to them, we don’t give them credit, and I think for her it’s the same. She grew up in this world where she has something she’s meant to be in. There’s this mold that everyone wants her to fit into.

do everything yourself

This student production of “Heartless” has no mold.

“We had so much fun creating it ourselves, going through our own ideas,” Hendrickson said. The team created many Pinterest pages for inspiration and moodboards and “it’s been complicated…but so much fun because it’s 100% ours.” … Not only has this never been done before, [but] there is no model that we can follow.

Regardless of their job titles, students tend to work together and create a studio environment. They bonded not only through their love of Meyer’s book, but also through the way they created a stimulating artistic space for themselves.

Thomas, who has been in theater all her life, said she hasn’t always been in positive environments – and, as co-director, “I really wanted to create a good environment for my cast, and I didn’t want that to happen. be like my past experiences.

Thomas and Wilson worked to make sure everyone was equally involved, so their cast gave input on what was going on in the script.

Boam, who serves as an executive producer and stars as Hatta (a variant of The Mad Hatter), said that when they started creating their Instagram and Tumblr pages for the project, the teenagers decided that what they needed was their own production company. They created one, called White Rose Productions, a nod to the Queen’s famous unpainted flowers.

One of the hurdles of directing “Heartless” was finding a stage that the students could use.

The production is not officially part of Olympus High School’s drama program, so school performance spaces were not available, they were told.

Details are disputed. A student said someone from the school administration told him he would have to pay thousands of dollars to rent the school auditorium. A spokesperson for the Granite School District said the administration would not charge students, but the school “was unable to find a time that did not conflict with what was already scheduled.”

The school’s reaction was “disheartening”, said one of the students, but they persevered. They rehearsed at Latter Day Saint churches, instead of one of two stages at Olympus High. Thomas said she remembers once thinking that if they could play the show in someone’s church building with just their parents in the audience, that would be enough.

Eventually, they landed at CenterPoint, where Boam’s mother is the costume designer. Boam’s mother helps the students here and there, but for the most part they handle everything themselves. This includes the production budget, which mostly came out of their own pockets and through fundraising – with some to help of Meyer.

They developed a following among fans of Meyer’s book, and their Instagram Account now has over 4,000 subscribers.

As showtime approached, the students said they were thrilled to finally be able to release their production to the world. They plan to use the proceeds from their ticket sales (which sold out in 10 hours) to take “Heartless” to a fringe festival or other venue.

For those who still doubt it, said Robison, the technical director, “if they say we’re a bunch of kids, then yes, they’re right. But, we’re a bunch of kids who did that.

“And,” England added, “a bunch of kids who will probably do it again.”