An Uplifting Tale: The Light Princess

MAY 6, 2014

By adapter Lila Rose Kaplan

Illustrations from The Light Princess

I’ve loved the story of “The Light Princess” for as long as I can remember. My Mom gave it to me when I was a little girl. It’s a novella, so it comes as a stand-alone little book, which was perfect for a little girl who loved to read. The illustrations in my edition are by the beloved children’s book writer Maurice Sendak. It’s about a girl who can fly. It’s funny, romantic and moving. What more can you ask? It was and still is one of my favorite stories. At the beginning of the story, the Princess has no gravity, which means she is free from sorrow, fear, and suffering, but she is also free from love. At the end of the story, she finds her gravity, saves her prince from death, and discovers love. Even at a young age, I was struck by the Princess’ discovery that one needs gravity to find love. How marvelous, a romantic fairy tale about a young woman who learns to connect to the ground and be strong and passionate!

Scottish author, poet, and minister George MacDonald wrote this delightful tale in 1864. MacDonald was a prolific writer and a mentor to Lewis Carroll and other Victorian writers. He said, “I write not for children, but for the childlike whether they be 5, or 50, or 75.” His prose is light in tone, but it delves deep in meaning. More than a century before Pixar, MacDonald envisioned magical, funny, and touching stories for both adults and children. We used MacDonald’s vision as an inspiration for our musical adaptation. We like to say that our show is for young people and for people who remember being young.

I grew up on musicals. Shows like A Chorus Line, City of Angels, Guys and Dolls, and Anything Goes were my introduction to the theater. I was from the suburbs and there was nothing I loved more than going to the city and seeing a world burst to life onstage full of song, dance, and story. You could go anywhere and be anything in a musical. I listened to endless soundtracks. As a teenager, I memorized Pippin, Chess, Rent, Godspell, and Ragtime, just to name a few. I had musical posters on my walls. At the end of high school, I wrote my first play. It was produced and I found that I loved writing for the stage. For years I pursued playwriting and the summer after my Off-Broadway debut, I had this sudden pang. How I missed musicals! It was time to write one.

I have always thought The Light Princess would make a wonderful musical. The characters are lively and the story is dramatic and theatrical. There’s romance, magic, adventure, and humor. I approached my friend, the fabulous composer Mike Pettry, whose songs capture both the fantastical and everyday aspects of life. He’s funny and honest in his songwriting. He’s not afraid to be silly. He can write in many different musical styles. I know I’ll laugh and also feel something deeper if I listen to a song by Mike. I tend to write bittersweet comedies that explore the mysteries of human relationships, so our voices balance each other well. In short, we were a great fit.

Mike and I have had a generous and organic collaboration. Our first meeting was at a Scandinavian café a few days before Christmas in 2009. Over hot chocolate and smoked fish, we adapted the literary story into a dramatic one. We focused on the Princess. Her transformation is the heart of our show. She discovers love, pain, and uncertainty. She gives up her innocence (her ability to fly) in exchange for real connection with another person (her gravity). Her journey is such a beautiful encapsulation of the experience of growing up. We made the dueling Wisemen into narrators as a humorous way into the story. It was important to both of us to preserve the witty tone of the novella. We used the King and Queen’s marriage to provide a more mature foil for the young love of the Prince and Princess. We wanted a fabulous villain in the Witch, but we didn’t want her to be evil for no reason. So, we gave the Witch a romantic history with the King. It gives the Witch some humanity and makes her vulnerable, while still being deliciously evil. Also, it creates a love triangle, and those are always fun on stage. Finally, we made the Prince into a musician in search of a song. His journey mirrors the Princess’s. He finally writes a love song at the end when he’s willing to give something up for the Princess.

One of my favorite things about the show is how each character has his or her own musical style. Mike has created wonderful songs that will make you laugh and cry alongside the characters. We are so thrilled to be staging The Light Princess at A.R.T. this holiday season and share it with you and your family!


Lila Rose Kaplan is the adapter of The Light Princess.

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