When Alice by Heart officially opens February 26 at MCC’s new Off-Broadway home, it will be the culmination of almost a decade’s work for co-book writer Jessie Nelson, co-book writer and lyricist Steven Sater, and composer Duncan Sheik.
Nelson, who also directs the new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, first met Sater when looking for a collaborator with whom to work on an animated film. Invited by Nelson to a benefit for Theater Geeks of America, Sater was so taken with the youth organization that he and Sheik began workshopping their then-burgeoning musical adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic with them, bringing Nelson on as co-writer.
“Initially, it was just Steven, Duncan, and I saddling up and working with this really young group of kids,” Nelson says. “The first year was an investigation into what we could do to make a fresh and new take on the Alice material. Slowly, over nine years, we did all these different workshops until we landed here.”
In Alice by Heart, Alice Spencer and her friend find refuge from the London Blitz by immersing themselves in their favorite book: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Throughout the process, Nelson has relished being both writer and director. “It’s wonderful!” she says. “I can get an idea for what will enhance a scene as a writer and then work it with Steven, sculpt it on the actors. This piece is very unique and so it’s nice to be able to take the ideas in my mind and help realize them more.”
And though Nelson has nine years of drafts and productions under her belt—including a workshop staging this past summer at Vassar College & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theatre—she and Sater frequently return to their initial ideas for scenes and moments.
“It’s a really original piece and there was no road map for it,” she says. “It’s sometimes returning to our early impulses or retrieving a line we may have let go of in the process.” Of course, during those years, all three had various other projects happening; for Nelson, it was opening Waitress, for which she contributed the book. But she’s delighted that New York City audiences will now have the chance to experience Alice by Heart.
“This piece needed that time,” she adds. “It’s like a good pasta sauce. It needed a lot of time on the burner.”
Alice By Heart plays at Off-Broadway’s Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space at the Newman Mills Theater (511 W 52nd Street between Tenth & Eleventh Avenues) in a limited engagement run from January 31 through March 31, 2019.