Andrew Lippa is a man of many identities, including composer, lyricist, actor, singer, and yes, ordained interspiritual minister. But despite an award-winning career in the theater, he still considers himself a bit of an outsider.
“I am a quadruple minority,” he says. “I’m a gay, Jewish, left-handed Macintosh user. I have gone through life slightly different from a lot of people. Growing up, I wanted to be chosen for the team, but I was a fat kid and never got picked. I am no longer fat, but that old version of me helps me relate to characters who struggle and have to overcome adversity.”
And that is precisely why he was intrigued when he was originally approached about composing the score for an adaptation of “A Little Princess,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel about a girl who suffers at a British boarding school. Lippa, who jokes that he “didn’t read the novel when I was a young girl,” related to protagonist Sara Crewe when he picked it up as an adult. “On the surface, it’s the story of a girl with an undaunted determination and a spectacular imagination,” Lippa says during a phone interview from New York. “Underneath, it is about the notion of what it takes to really, truly stand up for yourself. You don’t have to be a girl in Victorian England to learn that lesson.”
He signed on to the project, and the musical debuted in California in 2004. A revised version of “A Little Princess” makes its New England premiere Nov. 21 at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. The production is Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s first at the Strand since being named “resident company” of the theater by outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino in July. It’s yet to be seen what Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh plans for the Strand.
Meg Fofonoff, Fiddlehead’s executive producer and artistic director, says the musical “is a story about heart and, more than anything, the ability to believe in yourself.”
The original 2004 production featured a powerhouse creative team. Directed by Susan H. Schulman and with a book by Brian Crawley, the musical was expected to go to Broadway, but never opened there. The Fiddlehead production will feature a 13-piece orchestra and a cast of 30. The budget tops more than $200,000, Fofonoff says. “I’m a big believer in pulling out all the stops,’’ she says. Her production of “Ragtime” at the Strand last year had an even bigger budget and a cast of 40.
She invited Lippa to see the production and give a talkback to the audience. His husband, David Bloch, hails from Framingham, and the couple will be in town to celebrate Thanksgiving. “The truth is, it’s good timing,” says Lippa, who will attend the Nov. 29 performance. “Who in America doesn’t wonder, ‘What are we doing on Friday night of Thanksgiving week?’ My family needed something to do. Most people go to a movie or order Chinese food.”
Lyricist Crawley will attend another performance later in the run. Lippa, who almost always writes both music and lyrics, as he did for “The Wild Party” and “The Addams Family,’’ says he and Crawley developed a rather unusual form of collaboration. They sat in a room together, and “I would go into a crazy trance,’’ Lippa says. “I would start yammering nonsensical syllables and play the piano. It was odd to have someone else in the room.” They recorded the sessions, and Crawley would go off and write lyrics.
The pair took many liberties with the novel, which unfolds in colonial India as well as England. The musical moves the setting to West Africa from India and features an appearance by Queen Victoria, who is not in the novel. The score is a pastiche of classical and African music, with “a healthy dose of contemporary music thrown in,” Lippa says. He and Crawley reunited to revise the musical in 2011, when they performed a concert version at Texas State University.
Lippa grew up thinking he would have a career as an actor or singer. “I have a beautiful voice,’’ he says matter-of-factly. His plan changed when a University of Michigan classmate named Jeffrey Seller (who went on to produce “Rent”) convinced him to write a musical. The show, called “Our Heroic Man,” was based on “Jack and the
Beanstalk” and other tales, and several professors encouraged the budding composer. “The music was just plain awful,’’ Lippa says. “I can’t understand what my teachers saw in it, but their encouragement convinced me to give it a try.”
At 48, the composer has since carved out a life and career in the theater, and, like Sara Crewe in “A Little Princess,” stays true to himself. A few years ago, he felt a void, so he enrolled at the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York and was ordained as a minister. He has performed weddings and funerals, and most recently, he conducted an interfaith Rosh Hashana service in the upstairs bar at the Neil Simon Theatre, where his new musical “Big Fish” is currently playing. “All service is selfish, and all altruism helps you more than the people you help,’’ Lippa says of his ministerial calling.
The renewed focus on spirituality helps him in his “crazy career.” “Big Fish” received tepid reviews when it opened in October. (It is set to close on Dec. 29.) “I’m disappointed, but the lesson for me is that I have no control over it,’’ he says. “I have control over the music and lyrics and how we present them. It’s not that I don’t care, but I can’t get caught up in what other people think.”
As for “A Little Princess,’’ he is looking forward to seeing the production. Fiddlehead has cast seven young actresses in roles that were originally performed by adults playing children. The minister-composer will likely have some advice for the youngsters in the cast. “I would encourage them to weather every no, because show business is filled with no,’’ he says. “It takes a lot of no’s to get to yes.’’Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.