After reading James Baldwin’s 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” for a paper on Paris as a gay haven, Julian Hornik ’17 was inspired to begin writing a musical based on “Giovanni’s Room,” which opens tomorrow night at the Off-Broadway Theater. The News spoke to Hornik, the composer and lyricist of the musical, and Emma Hathaway ’17, who wrote the book for the play, to learn about the duo’s hopes for the show as well as the process of adapting Baldwin’s novel for the stage.

Q

Have either of you ever adapted a book for the stage before?

JH

I had written, in high school, my Anne Frank musical. I wrote a rock opera based on Anne Frank, so I’ve adapted a book before, but I’ve never adapted from a book and worked with a collaborator, so that was a new thing — and it worked beautifully. We not only got along as friends, but we had the same sensibility.

Q

Can you tell me a little bit about the plot of the story?

EH

David, an American ex-pat in Paris, proposes to a woman, and she says she has to think about it. While he’s alone, he meets this bartender, Giovanni, and it becomes a relationship that forces him to face a part of himself that he’s been repressing for a very long time. He’s forced to make a choice.

JH

He ends up choosing her, but really can’t let go of the part of him that’s been awakened [a euphemism for the character’s homosexuality]. Ultimately, he ends up with no one.

Q

What were some of the challenges and innovations in adapting the book into a musical?

JH

One of the big difficulties with this book in particular was the fact that so much of it is narration told in the past tense. A lot of these songs are story songs, people talking about something that has just happened. When I wrote it, pretty much every song was just that. Then putting it on its feet, you start to realize that gets a little boring. So thankfully I worked with Emma to set the scene up where it becomes a commentary, so there’s some tension in there that’s not just [the narrator] talking.

EH

At the beginning, it was me trying to incorporate the songs Julian had already written into the book. Once we started collaborating, we [came] up with concepts for the songs together.

Q

A few weeks ago, a student put on a staged reading of Frances Willard’s diaries, which are read in the popular lecture course “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History.” Why do you think it is important for contemporary plays to discuss American gay history and are these historical narratives still relevant today?

EH

Even though it’s set almost exactly 60 years ago, it’s still so extremely relevant. There’s this wonderful quote from a review of the piece from the 1950s that we think really sums it up well, saying that what Baldwin manages to do is to tell a story not just about sexuality, but about humans. It’s about this human story and the way that he crafts it.

JH

It still resonates. It’s not about sensationalizing anything. It’s about making completely normal this love story.

Q

Have you learned more about the book after putting together the musical?

JH

We wouldn’t have taken the time to write this show if there wasn’t enough in that book that we love that we could keep loving it. Occasionally, I would go back and read pages, and I remain awed by Baldwin’s use of language. He had this spectacularly unique combination of biblical and jazz writing. The other thing we thought about more is how brave [Baldwin] was, that in his time, he would be willing to tell this story which is not just daring because it has this gay content, but is even more daring in the way it’s presenting it as something that should be so familiar to people. That could have been so scary to so many people, but Baldwin did it so artfully that it was exactly what it was meant to be, which is human.