In January of 1911, three immigrants from Denmark bought nearly 10,000 acres of land in the Santa Ynez Valley. They named it Solvang—meaning “sunny field”—and they advertised it as a Danish colony. It worked.
This year marks the 100th birthday of the “Danish Capital of America,” and to celebrate, Solvang is launching a full season of centennial events. The crowning glory of it all is My Fairytale, a musical based on the creative life of one of Denmark’s most famous figures: Hans Christian Andersen. The show premiered in Copenhagen in 2005, but its creators have adapted it for this, its U.S. debut. One of the men behind the music and lyrics is none other than Stephen Schwartz, the creator of the wildly popular musical Wicked and one of Broadway’s most prolific and successful composers. My Fairytale comes to Solvang’s Festival Theater August 26 for a month-long run.
Last week, Schwartz spoke on the phone about songwriting, the challenge of translation, and turning dark stories into family entertainment.
Your first opera premiered in Santa Barbara in 2009, and now My Fairytale has its U.S. premiere in Solvang. Any connection? When I was in Santa Barbara for the premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I had some contact with Mark Booher at PCPA, and that’s when we began talking about doing My Fairytale for Solvang’s centennial. I’d written the music originally for Hans Christian Andersen’s bicentennial in Denmark in 2005, where the show was, of course, performed in Danish.
Tell me about the process of translation, first into Danish and now back into English. The first time around, I worked very closely with the Danish team—they were wonderful translators. By the time the show premiered, I could speak Danish fairly well. Not all the songs are mine; the others were written in Danish originally. In order to do the production here, I had to translate those songs into English for the first time. So that was fun—I got to return the favor.
Andersen’s fairy tales can be quite dark; “The Little Match Girl” and “The Little Mermaid” both end pretty badly for the young heroine, although the Disney versions downplay the tragedy. How have you dealt with that balance? You’re absolutely right. As part of this process, I went back and read all of Andersen’s fairy tales and discovered ones I’d never known. I’d say the darkness is more of a European sensibility, and particularly a Scandinavian one. We tend to soften things here. My Fairytale isn’t particularly dark, though there is a character based on one of Andersen’s darker stories, “The Shadow,” which is about a shadow who wants to take over the life of the man to whom he belongs. We don’t know that story very well in America.
Can you talk me through the basic plot without spoiling anything? It takes place at a time in Andersen’s life when he was just starting out as a writer. He had an enormous desire to be successful and to be accepted in high Danish society, and there was a question about whether being a writer of fairytales was a good way to accomplish that. So this is a fantastical journey through the world of his imagination that he undergoes in order to figure out what to do with his life.
He’s accompanied on this journey by his shadow, and by a mysterious boy he meets along the way. We call it a family show: An adult audience will appreciate it at a more psychological level; the kids will appreciate the characters and the adventure.
How do you start in on writing a new song? The first thing is to solve the story itself before any writing on my part gets done. It’s not like my collaborators present me with the finished play and then I start writing the music. First, we come to a collaborative agreement about what the story is and how we’ll tell it. During that process, we figure out what parts of the story will be told through song.
Can you recall a particular moment when a song came to you? Is it like hearing a melody in your head? Yes, exactly. I get some snippets of melody, and it kind of gathers. I don’t think there was a particular moment where I was, like, smiting my forehead and saying, “By George, I’ve got it!” and running to the piano, but I think the first song I wrote for this show was “On the Wings of a Swan,” from the end of the first act. And the rest of the songs followed from there.
What has been your favorite part of this process? Well, it’s been really fun for me to see this show in English. The production here is extremely imaginative: The costumes and sets and puppets are all pretty remarkable. I just got here yesterday and saw a dress rehearsal—there’s a lot of really cool stuff I didn’t even know was going to be there.
Anything else you’d want audiences to know? My Fairytale is definitely not just a children’s show. No matter what our age, we wonder about our place in the world and what to do about it. That’s really what this show is about.
My Fairytale plays at Solvang’s Festival Theater August 26-September 25, with an opening-night celebration on Saturday, August 27. For tickets or more information, call 922-8313 or visit pcpa.org. To learn more about the Solvang Centennial, visit solvang100.com.