Roll over Victor Hugo and tell Gaston Leroux the news. Jane Austen wants a place on the Great White Way.
A musical version of Emma recently closed at the Old Globe Theatre in Los Angeles, and there are already a number of singing and dancing adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Now Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, has been turned into a musical by Jeffrey Haddow (book and lyrics) and Neal Hampton (music). The show will receive its first full scale production at Wellesley College (April 26 through May 1) as a step toward a future New York production and to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the book's publication.
Why Wellesley? Staging the Austen musical offers a compelling opportunity for interdisciplinary synergy, an ambitious collaboration involving the music, theater, and English departments that enlists the talents of Wellesley College faculty members, students, alums, and theater professionals in the Boston area. When Hampton, a faculty conductor, approached Nora Hussey (director of theater) and Marion Dry (director of music performance) with the idea of the college mounting a production of Sense & Sensibility: The Musical, they quickly saw that it offered possibilities that went far beyond those of a professional production at the college's summer theater.
"Wellesley College has an arts council for the first time," explains Dry, "and here was a terrific opportunity for us to work together and learn from each other. At this time in education, there is a tremendous amount of interest in finding the common ground in different disciplines. The production is extracurricular, but those involved are learning an enormous amount, especially those of us who have been doing this for a long time. We are bridging gaps and finding our way to new areas of interest."
The cast is chockablock with members of the Wellesley College community, from Dry, who plays the gossipy Mrs. Jennings to Karen Wilcox, who is retiring from Wellesley's financial-affairs office, in the role of Mrs. Dashwood, and current as well as former students taking on major parts or singing in the 11-member chorus. The orchestra is led by Jenny Tang of the music faculty and includes some of her colleagues, and the production is directed by Hussey.
"This kind of experiential, immersive learning is a new thing for us," says Dry, "because it involves so many different parts of the college community."
As for the concrete value of mixing and matching, the alumna Kirsten Scott, who plays Elinor Dashwood, testifies to how much can be gleaned from working with a wide range of performers. "I have gotten to know the students and faculty involved," she says, "the young professionals as well, and we all have the same challenges: to practice together, to understand what works in a scene and what doesn't. We are thrown into a group populated by so many different kinds of people with so many different kinds of backgrounds, and we end up learning from one another. It is a cliché, but it is true."
Both Dry and Scott insist that there is nothing formulaic about Sense & Sensibility: The Musical. They are enthusiastic about the sophistication and charm of the adaptation, which raises the question of why the book has been made into a musical only once before.
"Most of the energy has gone into creating musical versions of Pride and Prejudice—there are five current productions going," says Hampton. "The irony is that Jane's book is so tightly put together it is difficult to cut. In a musical you have to leave out a tremendous amount of the text: My collaborator and I saw opportunities for compression in Sense and Sensibility. We start a third of the way into the novel, delivering huge amounts of exposition in a five-minute song. If we had dramatized the early chapters, the show would have been four hours long. Right now we are at two and a half hours with intermission, which is where we want to be."
In terms of the Austen industrial complex, the challenge for Haddow and Hampton is to come up with a fresh version of the romantic yarn that doesn't copy the extra-dramatic decisions made by earlier film and TV versions, especially director Ang Lee's popular 1995 movie. "Emma Thompson's screenplay makes a lot of smart choices in terms of adding extra material to Jane's book," reflects Hampton. "You don't want the old cease-and-desist letter if you make the same choices."
And then there is the challenge of Austen's legendary sharp wit, which is found in the narrative's descriptions rather than its dialogue. "Elinor and Marianne do lots and lots of yearning for others, and two and a half hours of yearning isn't much fun. That is why Mrs. Jennings is there so prominently—she carries a lot of the comic freight, skewering people with her sardonic comments. The chorus, representing the sensibility of society, offers biting commentary as well, and then we have the requisite evil people."
Dry adds that "the chorus evokes the period brilliantly. In its numbers, Haddow and Hampton give you a firm sense of the society of the time. One fine song contains the line that 'as you go about your life you must always seem bored.' Otherwise you look too eager, too obvious in your search for mates with money."
One of Hampton's major influences as a composer is Stephen Sondheim, so there was never a possibility that the show's music would go in a Masterpiece Theatre direction—the score is resolutely contemporary. "The music of the 1790s in England tends not to be terribly dramatic," the musician explains with a smile. "You are mindful of certain tonalities and the way they use chords, and we have a song from the period, which we adapted and moved around. But everything else is appropriate to our time."
The scholarly component of the production, symposia focusing on Austen's writings, will no doubt keep an eye on issues of fidelity to the novel. "When you try to do something like this in an academic environment, you want the biggest bang you can on the academic side," says Dry. "The students should get as much as they can out of it because it is connected to the curriculum and to our mission as an academic institution."
Any fear that the Austenites will revolt? "We haven't had any death threats yet from Austen experts," laughs Hampton. "Past presidents of the Austen society who have been at earlier readings have given us their imprimatur. We will see what the Austen scholars here think about our adaptation." Once Sense & Sensibility: The Musical weathers the reaction from theatergoers and academics, it will look for productions elsewhere.
"We have an option with a producer and are assembling a production team," says Hampton. "We are in talks with a major director to join the project and are raising money as well. This is the kind of show that should build a reputation first, so we are taking it to regional theaters before, God willing, heading to New York." The staging at Wellesley will jump start the buzz. And if Sense and Sensibility: The Musical reaches the Big Apple, can song and dance versions of Mansfield Park and Persuasion be far behind
Bill Marx teaches in the writing program at Boston University. He edits the New England cultural magazine The Arts Fuse and World Books for PRI/BBC's The World. To learn more about the musical, and listen to selections from it, visit http://www.senseandsensibilitymusical.com.