Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson on the whimsical music of 'Between the Lines'
Romantic. Quirky. Dreamlike. Fun. That describes Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson's signature songwriting style. The composer-lyricist duo are behind the animated musical comedies Olaf's Frozen Adventure, Central Park on AppleTV+, and now, the Off-Broadway fairytale musical Between the Lines, based on bestselling author Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha van Leer's novel. They've become the team to call for whimsical earworms you'd bust out at a Disney-inspired karaoke night.
Samsel and Anderson met in 2010 at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a program that's brought together successful writers like Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Tony Award winners for Ragtime, represented off Broadway this fall with A Man of No Importance) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez (who composed both Frozen movies, including the Oscar-winning tune "Let It Go").
"We call it love at first write," Samsel said. "It's really important for the theatre to have female songwriting teams, and promote these female-driven storylines about women, told by women."
They both worked as nannies while writing these stories in their free time — until 2014, when Picoult came calling. One out-of-the-blue email exchange and "three-hour epic dinner" later, the duo was tapped to compose the stage adaptation of Between the Lines. The premise was right in the songwriters' wheelhouse: a fantasy story about a lonely teenage girl, Delilah, whose favorite book's world comes off the page and blends with her real one, offering her a chance to rewrite the story of her life with a happier ending.
"The story really resonated with us because we had also been those teenagers who escape into fiction," Samsel said. "We have been those people now who still escape into fiction when things aren't going their way. Everyone has had a period of their lives where they are choosing fantasy instead of facing their reality."
That idea also drives their latest project: the world-premiere musical adaptation of The Book Thief, another story about a girl who discovers the power of books to change her life. Picoult and the Between the Lines musical's book writer, Timothy McDonald, are their collaborators once again. It's premiering in London now, but they hope the show will come to New York soon.
In the meantime, there are a few weeks left to catch Between the Lines's before it closes September 11. It will end an eight-year chapter of the duo's life (it would have been six had the pandemic not delayed the show's planned 2020 premiere), one that marked their New York stage debut and even got them the Olaf's Frozen Adventure gig. They shared that story, their musical inspirations, and the importance of new musical theatre with New York Theatre Guide.
How did you get connected with Jodi Picoult?
Kate Anderson: We had just written a show called Camp Wish No More. We've done it with NYU. And we thought that was going to be our ticket to our career, and instead, nothing happened. We felt like we were starting from scratch. One day, we got this email in our inbox from Jodi Picoult, and I immediately recognized her name and called Elyssa as I was sprinting over to her apartment — we lived eight blocks away. We both hugged each other on her stoop and just cried because this felt like the moment that everything was going to change, and it really was.
[Picoult] emailed saying she had been through our whole website and she was obsessed with our songs, and would we be interested in reading this book and possibly coming aboard to write the songs if it became a musical? She overnighted it to us and we read it immediately. We had a million ideas. We met with her and had a three-hour epic dinner where we also became kindred spirits and best friends forever. Which is weird to say, but truly, Jodi is our family now.
There's a line in the show that says books come into your life exactly when you need them. And that's exactly what this book did for us, because it completely changed our story over the next eight years.
What musical styles and/or artists inspired the sound of the show?
Anderson: It is extremely Disney-influenced because so much of it is a fairytale. Elyssa and I grew up with the classic Disney canon: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, the [Alan] Menken and [Howard] Ashman reign. A good portion of the show is influenced by that. The cool thing, though, is that we have this whole other world. Half the show is set in modern day, so we wanted to keep that sound really fresh and really modern. As the two worlds blend together, it becomes this whole other sound that's a mashup of the two. It's still influenced by musical theatre craft we have learned from the greats — Menken and Ashman are the two, obviously, that come to mind. But it's a hybrid: It's the reality and the fairytale.
Elyssa Samsel: One of the major themes is being stuck in a story that you don't want to be in and wanting to break out of the character that you feel like you have to play. That is also touched upon in the music. The music breaks out of genre and has fun and becomes its own contemporary, fresh sound, in the same way that the characters are able to break out of their boxes and become the people they really want to be.
What is your favorite song from Between the Lines and why?
Anderson: My favorite song is In My Perfect World. Not only because of the chemistry and the fun that Jake David Smith, who plays Prince Oliver, and Arielle are having on the stage during that song, but I love that he is allowing her to tell him what her perfect world looks like. You can tell that it's the first time she's putting words to the things that she's going to set into motion later. There's funny lines in that where she's telling him, "Here in my world, the men wear aprons and take the children to school, while the women come home from their fulfilling careers." There's a little bit of feminism in that statement, and it gets a big laugh every night. I love that. That's the message that is in the show.
Samsel: My favorite is "A Whole New Story." It's the Act One finale, and once you hear Arielle Jacobs sing it, you'll understand why it's my favorite. She has the most incredible instrument, vocally, and I love the song because Delilah, in that moment, is dreaming of what a whole new story would be like. It's so important that we do that for ourselves. I's important to realize that we all deserve a whole new story if we want one. I love that she is finding her power in that song. That one's already on Spotify, but the good news is all of the songs that are our favorites as well will be available on Spotify soon this fall as a cast album.
How has composing Between the Lines been different from composing for TV and film?
Anderson: When you're writing a musical, it is this ever-evolving, living, breathing thing. It's completely different than Olaf or Central Park in that, when you're writing something for TV, we always have deadlines. You're oftentimes writing a draft and maybe rewriting it, and all in all, the whole process takes about a year or two. When the work is due, it's due because the animators have to get to it.
Samsel: Back in 2014, we had already gotten the job to write Between the Lines. We got that job because we had written three spec songs to audition, and those spec songs ended up being part of the package we sent to Disney when we were auditioning to get the Olaf's Frozen Adventure job. It's very much in line with how we love to write, which is fairytale, musical, romantic, optimistic, funny, quirky. So if we hadn't had those three songs to get to Disney, I don't know that we would have gotten Olaf's Frozen Adventure. Fun fact on top of that: those three songs that we wrote to audition for Between the Lines and ended up getting the gig? Those are still in the show.
Anderson: The very first song we wrote was Ally McAndrews — that leapt off the page at us from the book. The second song we wrote was Between the Lines, the title song, which is when Delilah and Oliver first meet. The third song was A Whole New Story, which is the end of Act 1.
What do you want fans of your other work to know about Between the Lines?
Samsel: We've got an incredible mother-daughter story, really powerful friendships within the show, quirky characters, a message that encourages anyone to live the story they want if it's not the story they're in, and some really fresh new songs. That is rare in the theatre world right now, to have a new musical that's not based on a movie. It's important that people go and support new theatre like this if they want to see more of it, because this is a really tough time for the theatre industry. We got extremely set back due to Covid. Not only with the first production being delayed two years, but then even in this production, we got hit by Covid very hard. So if people like Olaf's Frozen Adventure, if they like Disney, if they like fresh new musicals, this is the show for them to go see and support.
Anderson: It almost feels like new original musicals are in danger of going extinct if we don't support them now. We have to continue to prove that there is a hunger and an audience for new work that's not based on a huge title equity, or written by a huge, gigantic pop star. I think that audience is out there. This is the time that we really need people to buy tickets, buy them ahead of time, prove that that new musicals are still truly the heartbeat of why people love Broadway. It's truly the heartbeat of why theatre is so important, because it's new stories, it's new voices, and it's new perspectives.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Originally published on