'Amelie' Musical Star Previews Show's "Fantasy Feel" and "Vocal Fireworks" (Q&A)

Amelie Musical Production Photo H 2015
Kevin Berne

Amelie Musical Production Photo H 2015

"It seemed to me like something that would translate perfectly into a musical because of her moments of fantasy," Samantha Barks tells THR. "If you completely loved the film, you're going to love the musical."

“I like to look for things no one else catches,” says Amelie in the eponymous 2001 French film, which nabbed five Oscar nominations and became a massive foreign-language hit for Miramax. But will the cult favorite, which follows an innocent young waitress coming of age in a whimsical version of modern-day Paris, catch the eye of theatergoers as a new musical adaptation debuts?

Directed by Pam MacKinnon (a 2013 Tony winner for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the production from Berkeley Repertory Theatre (American Idiot) features a book by Craig Lucas (An American in Paris), music by Dan Messe of the Brooklyn neo-folk indie ensemble Hem, and lyrics by Messe and Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting). If the tryout run goes well, it seems fair to speculate that Broadway might be next.

And starring in the title role is Samantha Barks, the “vocal powerhouse” mostly recognized for playing the lovelorn Eponine in Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les Miserables.

“I’ve enjoyed exploring a softer tone of my voice,” Barks told The Hollywood Reporter just before beginning previews Friday night in Northern California. “Yes, the story is about a quiet young girl who’s trying to find her voice, but she’s not so much shy or doesn’t know how to communicate. She’s more socially isolated. … And there are still moments that are 'vocal fireworks.'”

Ahead of the show’s official Sept. 11 opening, the following is THR’s edited chat with Barks about what to expect from the new musical, why Amelie remains timeless and how she’s responding to those who protest the adaptation, including the film’s “disgusted” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Why did you audition for this show?

I remember the film vividly. It’s so vibrant and the story is beautiful, and it seemed to me like something that would translate perfectly into a musical because of her moments of fantasy. And when I first heard only two or three songs, the style and tone were exactly how I’d pictured it, and I fell instantly in love with it. It really feels like you’re going along with her journey and exploring inside her head. If you completely loved the film, you’re going to love the musical.

What's admirable about Amelie the character?

A lot of people can relate to her because it’s an interesting journey of stepping into adulthood. I left home early, when I was 17 or 18, and it’s so exciting to be this independent person in this world, and you take every moment for yourself. But as you step into your mid-20s, where I am now, you stop to realize how important it is to connect to people. Yes, it’s great to be independent and on your own journey, but also the relationships with family and friends that you create along the way are the ones you take with you forever.

Amelie comes to Paris to start her new life, and she does good deeds for everybody anonymously and thinks that can be her thing that connects her to other people — but of course, she’s doing them anonymously, so she’s not actually connecting with anybody. That personally resonated for me. Anybody who’s at that age or been that age can relate to finding yourself in this huge world, where you fit in and how you connect with others.

How would you describe the music?

The music has a folky-ness and a contemporary feel to it, and it’s definitely got Parisian tones. It’s whimsical and magical in places, when she creates these fantasy worlds that let her escape from her reality, whether it’s with a gnome or a goldfish. Even before I had seen any staging or read any scripts, the music informed me of the world we’d be creating: somewhere between real life and fantasy, which is where Amelie lives half the time.

I’ve enjoyed exploring a softer tone of my voice. Yes, the story is about a quiet young girl who’s trying to find her voice, but she’s not so much shy or doesn’t know how to communicate. She’s more socially isolated, so she has moments where she’s singing inside her head. And there are still moments that are “vocal fireworks” even though she might be singing to herself, like an inner frustration.

What’s a favorite musical moment in Amelie?

Young Amelie’s story has got more of a fantasy feel, like how a child would see things. As the story matures, the music matures, which I love. The moment I first enter as adult Amelie, it goes from whimsical, beautiful music into real life — very rhythmical, with great percussion. It’s called “What Am I Waiting For?” That was the most challenging number to master, but it’s probably my favorite. Everybody is in the cafe, singing together but on their own rhythms — some are slower, some are faster. I think it reflects the monotonous tone of everyday work, and it’s a really blunt shift into, this is who she is now.

How does the show handle the movie’s heavy narration?

We have narration throughout by different characters who pop up. It’s an ensemble piece, and everybody helps move the story along. It’s like it all has a destiny, so one part locks onto the next and then the next.

And does the film’s hypervisual aesthetic translate onstage?

The costumes and the set definitely keep that feel. There are so many vibrant moments. Every scene has a theme, so you’ll have pops of color as the scene changes that completely transport you to a new place, like the transition from Amelie’s home in the suburbs, which is green, into her work life, which is yellow. And the set is like a maze with so many nooks and crannies — you have that phrase, right? — and the pieces that come up or down have a lot of surprises. You never know how the set is gonna morph into the next scene.

Some were upset about this stage adaptation, including the film’s director, who said he hates musicals and only signed off for charity’s sake.

I don’t know — I’m just super excited about the project, so I’m just completely immersed in absolutely trying to do the best job that I can do, and be true to the storytelling.

How do you hope audiences feel after the show?

I hope they feel they’ve been a child again and watched somebody grow up with them. The journey in Amelie’s head is so much fun for me to go through every day, so I hope they feel they’ve been on a magical journey.