A Book About a Book: Alice by Heart by Steven Sater
For a long time, books were my everything. To be fair, I had a rather unusual childhood. Bedridden due to respiratory ailments, I was regularly shuffled from home to the hospital, and was rarely allowed out — rarely even attended school. But my mother, who’d returned to college to complete her degree, used to read Shakespeare to me. And my older sister would let me in on what she’d learned that day and bring me books from the school library. For those sublime few afternoon hours when they read to me, books truly were my everything.
Thankfully, by age thirteen, I’d emerged from my oxygen tents and plastic-coated bedroom. But then, just after my twentieth birthday, a serious accident left me hospitalized again: strapped onto a Stryker frame, which resembled an ironing board, and which turned me from my back to my front every two hours, night and day. Banishing all film and TV, I taught myself ancient Greek, and read every novel I could fit my page-turner into. (Nineteenth century British novel, primarily — Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Charles Dickens…)
Over the long months of recuperation, those books not only were my world, they expanded my sense of the world — of how to live within the world. They provided, in Sontag’s phrase, an ‘education of the heart’.
Many years later, in the flush of success of my musical Spring Awakening, my agent proposed that Duncan Sheik and I adapt Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a musical. Initially, the idea left me cold. I had no desire to transform Carroll’s subversive, dream-like narrative — its hallucinatory sequence of ‘curiouser and curiouser’ incidents — into some Wizard-of-Oz-like fable about coming home again. Then one day, something hit me. I remembered how much Alice’s Adventures had meant to me as a child. I knew, too, the Cheshire delight my daughter felt when I read it to her. It struck me that we might center a musical around the power of a book — to show how a work of literature can nurture us even in the darkest of times. How a beloved childhood book can remain with us, even as we leave childhood behind.
With our writing partner and director, Jessie Nelson, we eventually found a setting for our musical: 1940, the Nazi bombing of London during the Blitz. Bombed out of her home, a young girl, Alice, huddles in a makeshift shelter in a Tube station, with only her beloved book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to help save the life of the ailing young boy she loves.
Six years into work on this show, our producer proposed that I create a tie-in book for it. This time, I truly recoiled. Why ever would I attempt to transmute our musical monster-in-progress back into a book? A book meant to sit on a shelf — or at least on my shelf — beside Carroll’s classic, transgressive text?
Over time (and perhaps against my better wisdom!) my producer’s request for “a picture book — or something like that” — began to stick. The idea of a book about a book. It was something I heard in that inadvertent echo of Lewis Carroll’s text…
At the beginning of Alice’s Adventures, the impatient young heroine famously wonders, “What is the use of a book… without pictures or conversation?” Pictures for a book based on our Alice musical I could well imagine. Fresh illustrations, to be sure. But also there were so many heart-stopping photographs, which Jessie and I kept uncovering from our internet research: Londoners taking shelter in Tube Stations during the Blitz of World War II.
So, pictures there were — plenty. But the idea that genuinely sank its teeth into me, that began to live within me, was of a book as a kind of “conversation”. A new Alice book in conversation not only with the original Alice books but also with so many books I had loved — books which had gone through hard times with me. A kind of testament to what those stories had meant to me.
From the beginning, I envisioned this book as a kind of mosaic. Or perhaps as my own sort of web — a stitching together of all I wanted to keep myself from forgetting. After all, that was the brunt of our story really. That in the midst of war and destruction, when all our dwellings can be turned to dust, there remains still what we carry with us. The memory of all we’ve felt or understood. Something like a book we’ve learned by heart.
Steven Sater won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score, the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album, as well as the Olivier Award for Best New Musical for Spring Awakening. His other musicals include Alice By Heart (National Theatre of London, MCC); The Nightingale (La Jolla Playhouse); Prometheus Bound (music by Serj Tankian, A.R.T.); Some Lovers (music by Burt Bacharach, the Old Globe). His plays include Arms on Fire (Steppenwolf New Play Prize); New York Animals (Bedlam); and a reconceived musical version of Shakespeare’s Tempest (Lyric Hammersmith). Additionally, Sater works as a poet, screenwriter, and a pop lyricist. He has created television projects for HBO, Showtime, FX, and NBC, and is currently creating a musical TV pilot for Amazon.