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

Teens from Olympus High put their spin on ‘Heartless,’ a book about the Queen of Hearts, with the author’s blessing.

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

Rehearsals are well underway for the musical “Heartless,” and the dozen or so students from Holladay’s Olympus High School are busy workshopping scenes, belting lines and hitting octaves.

These students are the show’s cast — but they’re also the writers, directors and production staff.

And they’re doing it all without adult supervision.

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

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

The students’ production will hit the stage of CenterPoint Legacy Theatre in Centerville, with two shows on April 22, at 2 and 7 p.m. (both are sold out) — and the students will perform excerpts from the musical on April 30 at The King’s English Bookstore on April 30, as part of Independent Bookstore Day. A livestream party is planned for May 14.

The students — along with Wilson, the original team includes Ellie England, Heidi Thomas, Ivy Robbins and Eleanor Boam — started work on the project in 2019, and kept workshopping the script over video calls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

England — who plays Cath, the young woman who becomes the Queen — noticed that Meyer herself 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 felt like music.”

Putting the pieces together

The script — or “book,” as they say on Broadway — might be the crowning jewel of the whole creative endeavor. Cutting a 464-page novel down into a stage adaptation wasn’t easy. Originally, their script was 180 pages long.

The novel is written entirely in Cath’s point of view, so the young playwrights decided to add and change things to make it more holistic, like adding scenes from other characters’ viewpoints. Wilson explains they added scenes to make audiences understand that these characters aren’t “terrible people” and they have a “motive.” Overall, they stuck pretty close to the original.

Robbins — who is the composer, co-lyricist and the production’s musical director — put together between 15 and 20 songs, along with Thomas, who is co-director along with Wilson. Some were instrumentals, some had lyrics. Robbins enlisted some high school musicians from Olympus, 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 mess around on the piano sometimes. Writing music is more of just something that my ear does.”

Wilson cited several influences for the costume design, including drawings from Carroll’s era and movie adaptations of the book — including Disney’s 1951 animated ‘Alice in Wonderland” and the 2010 Tim Burton-directed live-action version.

“But then how can we diverge historically and make it feel like fantasy,” Wilson asked herself.

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

The crew also includes technical director Caleb Robinson and stage manager Jax Jessop, who are working out lighting design, stage props and scenery.

The effort impressed the author, who sent them a supportive email. “The way you maintained the heart of the story (pun totally intended) while adapting it for the stage is just brilliant,” Meyer wrote. “The music is so powerful and dramatic, and I love all of the song lyrics … It gave me literal chills.”

Meyer told the students if they ever went forward with producing it, she’d love the chance to see it performed. True to her word, she said she is flying into Utah to see the show; she’s also planning a book-signing at the CenterPoint Legacy Theatre between the two showings. The tickets to the signing are available free.

What makes a villain?

The story of “Heartless” follows a pattern set by the book (and musical) “Wicked” and followed recently by Disney’s “Cruella” — to dig into the past of a notorious villain, and discover what made them the way they are.

In “Heartless,” the story begins with Cath wanting to be a baker (foreshadowing the tarts of Lewis Carroll’s rhyme), 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 placed in because it goes with the whole ‘evil isn’t born, it’s made.’ Everyone has the chance to have good life experiences or bad and it’s just about how you handle them.”

England noted that “every villain is a little 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 she’s such a kind person. She gets so broken inside from what happened that she just becomes a completely different person.”

The teens found they related to different aspects of Cath.

“What I always love about Catherine as a character,” Boam said, “is you read the book and she’s not a good person. She’s spoiled. She’s pretentious. She’s a brat. And you sympathize with her anyway, because she’s passionate and she’s relatable.”

Wilson added, “in a way, she’s sort of similar to us. She’s in her older teens, [with] all these ideas for her life, but little to no control over it because of authority figures in her life.”

Kenny Howick, who plays both the March Hare and the White Rabbit, said YA books like “Heartless” confront real issues teens face; in this case, there are mentions of Cath’s problems with body dysmorphia. “That’s a huge issue that builds up within self-esteem and within the way that they perceive themselves,” Howick said.

Ava Hendrickson, who plays the character of Mary Anne in the production, said that “high school students, they’re not listened to, they’re not given credit, and I think for her, it’s the same. She’s grown up in this world where she has something she’s expected to be. There’s this mold that everybody wants her to fit in.”

Doing it all themselves

This student-run production of “Heartless” doesn’t have a mold.

“We’ve had so much fun like coming up with it ourselves, going through our own ideas,” Hendrickson said. The team has created many Pinterest pages for inspiration and moodboards and “it’s been tricky… but so fun because it’s 100% ours. … Not only has it never been done before, [but] there’s no template we can follow.”

Whatever their job titles, the students tend to work together and create a workshop environment. They have bonded now not just over their love of Meyer’s book, but over the way they have created a nurturing artistic space for themselves.

Thomas, who has been doing theater her whole 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 this to be like my past experiences.”

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

Boam, who is executive producer and plays the role of Hatta (a variation on The Mad Hatter), said that when they started creating their Instagram and Tumblr pages for the project, the teens decided what they needed was their own production company. They created one, called White Rose Productions, a nod to the Queen’s famously unpainted flowers.

One obstacle to getting “Heartless” onstage was finding a stage the students could use.

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

The details are in dispute. One student said they were told by someone in the school’s administration they would have to pay thousands of dollars to rent the school’s auditorium. A spokesman for the Granite School District said the administration wouldn’t charge the students, but the school “couldn’t find a time that didn’t conflict with what was already scheduled.”

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

Ultimately, they landed at CenterPoint, where Boam’s mother is the costume designer. Boam’s mom is helping the students out here and there, but for the most part, they’re running everything on their own. That includes the production budget, which mostly has come out of their own pockets and through fundraising — with some help from Meyer.

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

With showtime approaching, the students said they are ecstatic to get their production out into the world at last. They plan on using 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 them, said Robison, the technical director, “if they say we’re a bunch of kids, then yeah, they’re right. But, we’re a bunch of kids who did this.”

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