During the run of The Light Princess, a world premiere musical at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, I was interviewed about what it's like being a multi-instrumentalist, what it's like developing a new musical with the composer and the lyricist in the show, and why I'm writing Cherry Orchard.
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The multi-talented Emily Gardner Xu Hall is currently delighting audiences in THE LIGHT PRINCESS as the Queen. Get to know Emily better and her experience working on this world premiere musical in our interview.
You are more than a triple threat. You are an actress, writer, composer, singer, instrumentalist, director… How do you juggle all of that?
That’s very nice of you. I don’t really know how to answer that. These things are just what I do, what I have done, and what I aspire to do better. I take a lot of lessons.
Some things I’ve done longer than others. I started music at 4, my first poem was published across the UK when I was 9 years old, my first composition was commissioned when I was 15. And then I started acting in college and continued to study acting at NYU Tisch’s Graduate Acting Program, after having met some amazing professional actors when I was singing in Coram Boy at the Royal National Theatre. One craft informs another, and you just keep working to be a better craftsman and maintain your joy.
I think in a parallel universe I’m a Shakespearean academic who only wears tweed, loafers and tweed accessories. Who occasionally finds a cobweb in their hair. Or maybe a construction worker.
What inspired you to write a musical adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. (The music is beautiful, by the way.)
The play sets me on fire, and I think I want the world to burn in that same fire. The Cherry Orchard is a really complex, political,emotional play that doesn’t get as much time in the sun as The Seagull. It resonates with so many parts of my life and my politics: it’s about love and death in the family, but also about social change and a class system that is crushing everyone. It’s about ethnicities mixing up, something I know lots about from my life. It’s about survival and financial crisis, and home. It’s about the effects of the widespread social constraint of women.
But my as-yet-untitled Cherry Orchard musical isn’t musty old skirts looking glum at a picnic. It’s a pop musical full of love and comedy.
What excites you most about The Light Princess?
I mean… I have never been asked to act, sing, play piano, guitar, viola and accordion all in one show. So that is crazily fun! Alex Bechtel has written some fun and gorgeous music which is a joy to play and sing. But once it starts, it’s a crazy ride to get on. It’s like Song, Piano, Scene, Viola, Scene, Accordion, Song… You certainly don’t want to grab the wrong instrument at the wrong time!
The audiences are just going crazy at every performance of The Light Princess! There’s so much to enjoy for kids and for adults. Every audience responds differently, and I think that’s testament to the writing: Tony Lawton has written a strong story that offers milestones and hidden Easter eggs to enjoy along the way. You can hear how invested the audience gets as the play goes along! I almost want to tape an audience’s responses secretly… is that allowed?
How does it feel to be performing in a world premiere?
It’s been a pleasure to workshop the play with its creators, and then to perform the show with both the composer and librettist. I was privileged enough to sneak glimpses into the writing process, and then grow the show into the full production: it’s really satisfying to be able to ask the creators about how best to serve their piece. But part of how fun this process has been is definitely the warm environment created by director Steve Pacek, and the amazing culture of high-quality children’s theatre that artistic director Terry Nolen has cultivated at the Arden.
What instrument do you play in the show?
I sing, and play piano, viola, guitar and accordion. Oh yeah, and a slide whistle.
What are you most excited to share with audiences?
The design of the show is so unique; it really allows the story to bloom. Cotton candy costumes by Jill Keys, fun and unexpected lighting by Oona Curley and this storybook set by Nick Benacerraf — to walk onstage is really to walk into the world. It’s quite easy to step out of the mundane and into the pop-up book world of this fairy tale.
I enjoy sharing with the audience… the gift of my mellifluous voice! No. That was a joke that another cast member made yesterday. I enjoy sharing my weirdo chipmunk monster, who gets enchanted by the witch and joins the party.
One thing I’m not responsible for, but which I’m always excited to share with audiences is: the THUNDER! Audiences are always asking about how the thunder is made, and the answer is really that it’s an instantaneous collaboration between sound designer Rick Sims, the set, the lights and the amazing Stage Manager Kate Nelson. But that answer doesn’t really explain how magical it feels!