With “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Book-It Repertory Theatre takes on a host of challenges, from mounting a pop-rock musical to adapting source material dense with stagecraft-confounding magic.
If you’re adapting fantasy novel “Howl’s Moving Castle” for the stage, how exactly do you create a faithful representation of its titular building, an ambulatory behemoth with portals to four locations?
The answer is simple. You don’t.
“We had to walk away from the literalness immediately,” said Myra Platt, the founding co-artistic director of Book-It Repertory Theatre and the adapter and director of the show.
‘Howl’s Moving Castle’
Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones; adapted by Myra Platt; music and lyrics by Justin Huertas. Through Dec. 30 at Center Theatre at the Armory, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $15-$50 (206-216-0833; book-it.org)
Book-It has previously produced shows with musical elements (most recently, a reprise of Berkeley Breathed’s “Red Ranger Came Calling” in 2010), but “Howl’s Moving Castle” is its first full-scale musical, already an ambitious undertaking. Add in the fact that the source material is dense with stagecraft-confounding magic and is beloved in two iterations — British author Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, and the 2004 animated film based on it by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki — and you have a host of challenges on hand.
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“It was crazy to do it, but it was so seductive and so fun that we had to jump,” Platt said.
Though she hadn’t seen the film or read the book before spotting “Howl’s Moving Castle” on her stepdaughter’s bookcase, Platt said she was attracted to its strong heroine and a story about taking charge of your own destiny.
After securing the rights to adapt the novel, Platt immediately thought of two collaborators: Sara Porkalob, who stars as Sophie, a teenager who gets turned into an old woman by a witch’s spell, and Justin Huertas, who wrote the music and lyrics.
Huertas wrote and starred in “Lizard Boy,” an original sci-fi rock musical produced at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015. A lean, comic-book origin story, “Lizard Boy” had three characters and was written over the course of three or four years, Huertas said.
“Howl’s Moving Castle” has 11 cast members, and he started writing the songs just six months ago.
An intimidating process became a lot more manageable during August’s Festival of New Musicals at Village Theatre, when Huertas brought five songs to the staged reading and got to hear them performed by a full cast.
“I finally heard all of these voices in the room, and suddenly I was just like, ‘I know exactly what this musical is,’ ” he said.
He wrote seven more songs that week, and the pace has barely slowed since, with a pop-rock score that’s swelled to 30 numbers.
“The music has been really key to our storytelling,” Huertas said. “There [are] some things that only make sense because we’re singing them.”
For Platt, the addition of songs continually helped focus the purpose of scenes. Before Huertas had written a note, she adapted the entire book as a play. A young-adult novel barely more than 200 pages in larger print seemed like a fairly simple proposition.
Not so much.
“I thought I’d be able to wrestle it to a simple story, but the truth is, there’s so much plot,” she said. “If you pull [out] a thread, suddenly a lot of it doesn’t make sense.”
When Huertas came on board, he began substituting songs for scenes or consolidating several moments into a single number. Three weeks before opening, that process was continuing, but not quite gelling was a climactic battle between Howl (Michael Feldman) — the reclusive wizard whom Sophie befriends — and the dreaded Witch of the Waste (Kate Jaeger).
“I’m watching it, and just squinting the whole time,” Huertas said. “Myra’s like, ‘What does this need?’ and I’m like, ‘I think this whole scene is a song.’ ”
He left rehearsal early, wrote the song that night and the cast learned it the next day.
For Book-It, whose rehearsal process is collaborative and fluid, this wasn’t too unusual. Scripts will often change daily, and at the eleventh hour, Platt said.
“That’s our running joke: ‘Oh, we’ll finish this on opening,’ ” Huertas said.
With all the logistics involved in a musical, that process is considerably more daunting, but watching something emerge organically from the collaboration makes it worth it, Platt said.
“It’s a little like a spell,” she said. “There [are] all these different ingredients that are being tested and put into the spell, and we have moments when the spell explodes — until we find the right concoction.”