CENTERVILLE — Award-winning playwright Jill Santoriello spent more than 25 years getting “A Tale of Two Cities” from the words Charles Dickens penned on the page to the Broadway stage.
It’s a process she began when she was just 15 years old, but she didn’t fully see the fruits of her labors until her musical adaptation of Dickens’ tale hit Broadway in 2008.
“I think the messages of (‘A Tale of Two Cities’) are universal and timeless, but I wasn’t thinking so much about things like that when I started working on it as a teenager,” Santoriello said in an email interview. “But I wanted to (adapt) it because the story moved me and I believed it could be even more moving with music.”
Santoriello did more than write the music for “A Tale of Two Cities,” she also wrote the lyrics and book — the combination of the three being a feat only one other woman has completed in the history of Broadway, according to a news release from CenterPoint Legacy Theatre.
The theater recently mounted a production of Santoriello’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” which runs through Oct. 28, and has invited Santoriello to Utah to see the show, spend time with the cast and production crew and participate in a free question-and-answer session that is open to the public on Oct. 21.
“It’s rare to be able to have a talk-back session with a Broadway composer about her work and what’s important to her in it,” said Scott Montgomery, director of CPT’s production. “To be able to sit and talk with the author is a wonderful experience and unique for us here in Utah, and I hope people will take advantage of it.”
Santoriello and Montgomery became acquainted through mutual friends and met in New York City several months ago to discuss the show.
“For two hours in New York, we sat and talked about the intricacies of the show,” Montgomery said. “(The story is) very complex. It’s very complicated. Charles Dickens did us no favors in that realm. Jill pieced together this multilayered story so masterfully and has done it in a way that’s accessible and people can understand.”
Santoriello is a self-taught musician whose educational background is in journalism.
“Sometimes people who are trained (in music) feel like they have to follow certain rules. I didn’t know the rules, so I didn’t follow any,” said Santoriello, who began playing the piano by ear when she was 6 years old. “My lack of training didn’t make it hard for me to compose the music — I would just sit down at the piano and play — but it made it super hard for me to write the music down.”
Although it took Santoriello 25 years from when she wrote the very first notes of the musical’s score before it was produced on Broadway, the actual time spent writing the musical was relatively short.
In 1990, Santoriello asked her parents, who she lived with at the time, if she could quit her job and focus solely on the musical. They gave her a conditional yes: She had three months to get it done before she would have to go find another job.
“I wrote the first draft of the script and almost all of the songs that are currently in the show in three months,” Santoriello said. “What actually took so long was getting it produced.”
For more than a decade, she continued to work her day job — a programming job at Showtime — all while fine-tuning the show and working with her producers, who also worked full-time jobs and had other responsibilities.
“It was the first musical I had written and it was the first musical they were producing. We were all babies trying to learn the ropes and get the show to Broadway in our spare time, more or less,” she said. “I’m actually glad we didn’t get there right away. When I go back and look at my first draft, oh my, it isn’t pretty!”
The result of those years of work is a musical that received multiple Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Drama League nominations and was adapted into a PBS special “A tale of Two Cities — In Concert,” according to the CPT news release. “A Tale of Two cities” has since been produced throughout the world in locations from Seoul, Korea, to Germany to England and even in Utah with a 2011 production at Hale Centre Theatre.
Santoriello said her previous experience seeing the show in Utah makes her look forward to her time in Centerville this weekend.
“I love Utah,” she said. “I think it’s so beautiful and also that the musical talent in your state is off the charts.”
She’s been in contact with Montgomery throughout the process of CPT’s staging of “A Tale of Two Cities” and has high hopes for the performances and for her time engaging with the community.
“I hope the actors and community members will be moved by this amazing story that kept inspiring me for the entire 25 years it took to go from page to stage,” she said. “It’s one of the greatest stories ever told and in these troubled times, I think it reminds us that we can all change and be better people. We can all learn to forgive. It’s up to us.”
If you go
What: “A Journey to Broadway,” a conversation with Jill Santoriello
When: Saturday, Oct. 21, 1 p.m.
Where: CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, 525 N. 400 West, Centerville
How much: Free, open to adults and youths ages 13 and up