Director Pam MacKinnon—best known for her adaptations of straight plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—had “deliciously ambiguous” feelings when she was presented with the opportunity to adapt Amélie, the whimsical 2001 film starring gamine French actress Audrey Tautou, into a stage musical. “I thought the movie was beautiful and funny and touching, but also at times infuriating,” MacKinnon recalls. “I wanted to know more about this young woman, and at times she seemed at a purposeful remove.” Intrigued by the opportunity to “get inside her head and heart more,” MacKinnon took on the project with playwright Craig Lucas, songwriters Dan Messé (of the folk band Hem), and Nathan Tysen. She was eager to pay tribute to, but not literally replicate, the movie, which tells the story of an ingénue who orchestrates the lives of those around her and eventually falls for Nino, a similarly eccentric young man who works as a clerk in a pornography shop. “It’s a beautiful movie on cinematic terms, which demanded that in the telling of the story,” MacKinnon says, “so yes, we have projections. But we didn’t want to put the movie onstage. We wanted it to have a handmade feeling; Amélie’s imagination comes from a handmade aesthetic, so that became very important to us.” Also crucial: casting a star capable of inhabiting the title role’s charms, which they found in spades in Hamilton Tony-nominee Phillipa Soo (she’ll play opposite charming Broadway up-and-comer Adam Chanler-Berat’s Nino).
The new musical comes to Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theatre December 4, with a Broadway transfer already planned for the spring. “The task was to create something that honored the luminosity, color, and whimsy of the movie while keeping the movement and scale intimate and changeable,” says set designer David Zinn, who will employ puppets and projections as part of the show’s stage magic. Though the movie’s music was one of its most memorable elements—very accordion-heavy, very French—MacKinnon says Messé and Tysen did not want to replicate that, instead creating “true pop songs for the theater.” Soo, for her part, is eager to take on a role that inspired her onscreen (and, unlike Eliza Hamilton, doesn’t require a corset). “She was a pillar of inspiration for all quirky girls,” Soo said of Tautou’s Amélie. “She inspired me to be unique, and to wonder at the stories of strangers walking by on the street—to see the world in all its prismatic beauty.”