A small community theater company in Utah isn’t typically where you might expect to find the launch of an original musical based on an award-winning book. But that wasn’t about to stop Toni Butler, president of South Jordan-based Kensington Theatre Company. “I think that’s who we are,” Butler says. “We’re ambitious. Why not?”
That ambitious spirit inspired Princess Academy
, a stage musical version of Utah author Shannon Hale’s 2005 Newberry Honor-winning novel. Set in a fictional kingdom, it’s the story of a 14-year-old girl named Miri who is pulled away from her mountain home when a royal decree announces that the bride of the future king will come from her community, requiring all the adolescent girls to go into intensive training for their possible role as future queen.
Butler—who teaches theater at Early Light Academy, where Kensington’s theater space is located—had a convenient advantage when it came to getting the rights to the story. She and Hale had acted in community theater together, then had lost touch for a while before coincidentally both moving into the same LDS ward eight years ago, with Butler unaware that Hale had begun publishing her work. “I was at a party, and I said, ‘Hey Shannon, do you want to help me with the theater school?’ She said, ‘Oh no, I can’t, I have to tour.’ I had no idea. People were like, ‘She’s kind of famous.’ So I went home immediately and went, ‘I have to read these books that my friend wrote.’”
was the first of Hale’s books that Butler read, and she immediately thought that it had the makings of a musical. “So the next time I saw her, I said, ‘Shannon, this has to be a musical, the music is in the fabric of this story,’ and she said yes,” Butler says. “Then we got busy, but the idea was always there, and the OK was always there from Shannon, so I knew I had this little gem in my pocket when I needed it.”
Initially, Butler says, the adaptation process came extremely easily, but despite writing the first act of the adaptation in one night, she eventually got too busy to work on it on her own. That’s when one of Butler’s former East High drama students, Katherine Brown—who is also a member of Kensington’s board of directors—volunteered her services. Brown and her husband, Jefferson, began working on the rest of the adaptation, including writing the songs. Kensington Symphony Orchestra’s Michelle Willis subsequently wrote the musical arrangements.
As for Hale, she stayed out of the adaptation process, willing to let Kensington’s version—which is actually the fourth time a theater company has adapted Princess Academy
—be what it will be on a stage. “I’ve always believed that a writer does only half the work,” Hale says by email. “Seeing a movie or play based on your book is like getting to peer into someone’s head and see how they see your book. It’s a privilege. It may not be exactly how I see the story, but it’s no less valid.”
Butler acknowledged there are always challenged with adapting a book for the stage, noting for example that the story’s time frame was condensed from two years to one year. There was also the book’s unique element of “quarry speech,” a mode of communication among Miri’s people that has proven to be one of the tougher staging nuts to crack in allowing an audience to understand its significance while still making sure they know what is being said.
Butler has confidence, however, in Brown’s beautiful songs, which Hale also found moving the first time she was able to see a rehearsal. “[I] heard words I wrote, set to music, sung in harmony,” Hale says. “I got chills. I choked up. It was beautiful.”
That’s the emotional response Butler is hoping for in a work that she describes as “an ode to the people who love [the book]. This is our gift. … When I read the book, I saw this play. I hope fans, who have a picture in their mind as well, love what they see.”
Kensington Theatre Company
11709 S. Vadania Drive, South Jordan
Dec. 9 – 21
$12-$15; purchase tickets here