Is the world flat? Can a lion be blue? Gertrude Stein's whimsical kid's book finds new life onstage

Rose: A New Musical expands on the book's search for answers for what the creators describe as "a kids' show for grown-ups and a grown-ups' show for kids."

Rose: A New Musical expands on the book's playful search for answers

Rose ensemble. (Cylla von Tiedemann)
Gertrude Stein's The World is Round. (HarperCollins)

Soulpepper's latest undertaking, Rose: A New Musical is adapted from Gertrude Stein's 1939 children book, The World is Round. The book follows the lives of Rose and Willie as they discover the world. Is it round? Or flat? Can a lion be blue?

The pages in The World is Round are illustrated in cotton candy blue and pink, which creators Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson translated onto the stage via the set design. "The main colours that you're going to see a lot of is that very shade of pink. The blue that offsets that is the blue of the curtain," says Ross. "In a sense, the book is opening when the show starts. You're hit in the face with those two great colours which make the book so unique and great."

The visual element of a children's book makes for the perfect inspiration for a play, especially the contrasting colours in The World is Round. "We've made a lot of departures from the book but we always wanted to make sure that we paid proper homage to the book itself — so the visuals, the pink and blue, are a great nod to that," adds Wilson. "It's unlike anything else I've seen in a book and now that I've seen in a play."

One of the departures from the original text is that in Rose: A New Musical, Rose is unable to say her name in a town full of people who know who they are and are able to vocalize it. Although this plot isn't included in Stein's original narrative, the existential question of "who am I?" runs through the book, and is captured in Ross and Wilson's production. "Rose was a rose, she was not a dahlia, she was not a butter-cup (that is yellow), she was not a fuchsia or an oleander, well Rose wakes Rose, Rose had not been asleep oh dear no," writes Stein. Rose: A New Musical expands on Rose's search for answers, peppering the play with hard questions. "The questions [Rose] asks are not questions that have easy answers," says Wilson. "We tried to address that with the show. 'How to live' is not a simple question."

From left: Sabryn Rock, Hailey Gillis, Raquel Duffy and Rose ensemble. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

The lyrical tempo of Stein's prose makes for a sensible adaptation to stage, especially as a musical. Wilson cites the 75th-anniversary re-printing as inspiration for the musical. "Mike and I had been wanting to work on something that would be for a wide audience that would include both adults and children. We both really loved The World is Round — it hit a chord with us both," says Wilson. Ross explains that they wanted to re-create the sense of a tumbling journey in Stein's text throughout the play. It's "a kids' show for grown-ups and a grown-ups' show for kids," as he puts it. Similar to Pixar's success in capturing audiences of any age, Ross and Wilson aimed to create a work that they would like to see as much as their children would (they mentioned that their kids have become big fans of the musical, listening in and singing along as the pair workshopped it).

Rose: A New Musical is Ross and Wilson's first time collaborating on an original play, and they attribute their success working together to their opposing qualities. "We share a lot of the same tastes; we've been friends a long time. It's made things open and easy," says Ross. Adds Wilson: "While we share a lot of tastes, and [want] similar outcomes of what we want the show to do, we have a lot of different strengths. We have different backgrounds."

Left to right: Raquel Duffy, Alana Bridgewater, Jonathan Ellul and Michelle Bouey. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

In this way, the play is a bit autobiographical, with the character of Willie mirroring Ross's definite ability to make snap-decisions, while the searching character of Rose corresponds with Wilson's brainstorming strengths. "We are Rose and Willie — it's a kind of yin-yang thing," says Ross. "It really works. We balance each other in great ways."

Rose: A New Musical. To Feb. 24. Soulpepper Theatre Company. Toronto.

About the Author

Tatum Dooley is a contributing editor at The Site Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Canadian Art, Lenny Letter, Maisonneuve, Real Life Magazine, The Walrus, and Quill & Quire. She lives in Toronto.