When I called up musical theatre writer Justin Huertas to talk about his latest musical Lydia and the Troll, which was scheduled to receive its world premiere at Seattle Rep this month, I was curious to know how he describes the show—outside the world of marketing blurbs and elevator pitches.
“I feel like I haven’t really settled on the exact thing I want to say every time,” Huertas said. “So this is a great question because it’s going to be fun and spontaneous. Let’s see!”
What he settled on is this: Lydia and the Troll is a new musical about a singer-songwriter named Lydia who lives in Fremont, Seattle. She’s in a really exciting place in her career—on the verge of becoming the successful recording artist she’s always dreamed of. But she’s blocked, both in her writing and by the toxic and codependent relationship she’s in with her boyfriend. And in the midst of all of this, she meets a kind stranger who offers her a chance to cross over—into success and away from this relationship.
And because it’s a Justin Huertas musical, there’s a signature dash of Pacific Northwest magic.
[Editor’s Note: This interview took place in February, before Lydia was canceled due to COVID-19. Justin Huertas will be hosting a virtual event on May 13 in celebration of this musical. More information can be found at the end of the interview.]
Danielle Mohlman: A lot of your work is grounded in Pacific Northwest legend and what it means to be from Seattle. I’d love to talk about how place inspires your work.
Justin Huertas: As a patron of the arts and consumer of all kinds of media—in the movie theatre, on TV, and on my laptop—I get to see so many different kinds of stories. But I’m always so frustrated about the fact that I never see stories that are set in Seattle. I’m from here. I grew up here, and I think this place is magical. The fact that we even have a giant statue of a troll under a bridge collecting a life-size Volkswagen Beetle—I think that’s super magical. I’m someone who grew up on superheroes and comic books and fantasy/sci-fi stories. And I just want to create those kinds of stories for Seattle because I think we deserve it. When people think of Seattle, they think of Starbucks and Amazon.
And they think of rain and, you know, the stereotypical things.
Yes, yes. Yep.
And I feel like I do see TV shows that try to set themselves in Seattle and then you see palm trees in the background and you’re like, “Oh, they didn’t even shoot it here.” It’s so frustrating.
Oh, absolutely. I was really excited about the film Chronicle with Michael B. Jordan. It was a found footage kind of superhero movie where these teenagers gained superpowers. And I was so excited about it because I saw the trailer and there was the Space Needle in the background and there’s shipping yards and I was like, “Oh, this is going to really feel like Seattle.” And then straight up the first thing in the movie is the two main characters carpooling together to go to school. And they pass a sign that says “Entering King County.” And I’m thinking, “You drive across county lines to go to high school? This is ridiculous.” And that’s the moment they lost me.
You’re like, “That’s not how the school system works here.”
Yeah. I mean, I applaud the effort. Thank you for trying things, for putting the Space Needle in your movie. But I want real Seattle. That’s why I’m so eager to put all kinds of Seattle landmarks in my shows.
I know you’ve been pretty open on social media about the fact that Lydia and the Troll was supposed to be in the 2018-19 season at Seattle Rep, but was delayed to keep the team together. Can you talk more about the value of that extra time—and the value of being able to continue to work as a team with your director and co-creator Ameenah Kaplan?
Yeah, definitely. At the tail end of our first workshop, Ameenah was offered the position of resident director on The Lion King national tour. And our hands were tied, she had to take that job. But Ameenah didn’t want to leave our project behind. What we were making started off as this kind of bare bones story about transformation and this singer-songwriter who’s trying to find her inner voice. And in this particular workshop, I had cast my friend Sarah Russell, who is a Black woman. And over the course of that workshop, Ameenah, who is also a Black woman, pulled me aside and said, “You’re writing this story for anyone and you’re having this amazing actress play this character. But what happens when you write specifically for a Black actress to play this role?”
And through that encouragement and collaboration, the story took a completely different turn and became about Lydia understanding herself not only as a singer-songwriter, but as a Black American in the music industry, in this interracial relationship that she’s in. And Ameenah is credited as my co-creator as well as my director because so much of what the story became is because of her.
What is the driving force behind your writing? What motivates you to work on—or daydream about—your musicals every day?
For a while, I thought I was writing for my inner child. I’m looking at my own bookshelf right now and there’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Howl’s Moving Castle, X-Men and Steven Universe, all on this shelf. And for a while, I wanted to create all the superhero stories I wish I had growing up—stories about people of color, queer people, Filipino people. The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion was a huge thing for me because I got to write a Filipino single mother. My own mother was a single mom for a little while. And that was really important to me, to normalize all the things that I never get to see in any kind of media or on stage. Hearing Tagalog on stage—hearing a Filipino mom ask, “Did you eat?”—already that’s enough for me. There are so many things about my own identity that I feel could stand to be way more normalized. Which is why I’m excited that my first couple of musicals had queer relationships in them.
I want to write stories that young people can connect with. We can all, in some way, identify with people of different cultures—or people of different sexualities and genders—and be able to find the universality in those things while still really respecting and loving the specificity. If it’s a Filipino mother constantly feeding her daughter spam and eggs, that might not be something that everyone can identify with. But I’m sure we can identify with a parent or guardian who is that enthusiastic about feeding their kids. I’m excited about putting these complex identities on stage—and putting them in hero positions for young people to see.
Join Justin Huertas here or on Seattle Rep’s YouTube channel as he shares songs, stories, and more on what would have been the opening night of Lydia and the Troll. Watch the full concert on May 13 at 5 p.m. PDT.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.