A musical based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility?
Makes perfectly sensible sense
By Sylvie Drake
There is an undeniable fascination with the works of Jane Austen that has propelled itself into some strong film and television adaptations of many of her novels. These range from Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice (many versions) to Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel.
Remarkable? Not entirely. There are good reasons. These 19th-century novels resonate in any age because they were the elegantly written soap operas of their day—and we’re all in love with love—at any age and in any age.
Now comes a first: a musical version of Sense and Sensibility. While several stage adaptations of Austen’s works have been attempted, “It’s the first time that a musical of Sense and Sensibility has been done on this scale,” said Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director of Sense & Sensibility The Musical, adding, “I do try to keep up with everything Jane Austen.”
Milgrom Dodge staged a workshop of this world premiere at last year’s Colorado New Play Summit, where it was greeted with such enthusiasm that the decision was made fairly quickly to give it a full production this year—with the same director and with all the bells and whistles it deserves.
“I fell in love with it the minute I heard it,” Milgrom Dodge acknowledged on the line from her home in New York City a couple of months ago. “I plan to honor the authenticity of the period, but at the same time I am the connection to today, which is sort of my mantra doing theatre,” she said, reaffirming something that was evident in her 2009 Tony®-nominated Broadway revival of the musical Ragtime.
“Why is this show different from all other shows? Why should we be doing it now? What makes it relevant to an audience today? I ask those kinds of searching questions,” she continued. “In this production the goal is to present a beautifully rendered period piece, in that we’re setting it in its own time. But we are not afraid to add some modern sensibilities.”
This importantly includes a chorus of society people serving much the same purpose that a chorus did in ancient Greek theatre. It’s the engine that helps move the story along. Milgrom Dodge sees it as the 1800s equivalent of today’s twitterers on their smart devices.
“No, we’re not pulling out cell phones,” she quickly reassured her listener. “Certainly we’re not doing anything anachronistic in that way, but in terms of the emotional presence that this chorus has in the piece, we want an audience to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, these people are just like twitterers.’ You know what I mean. They have that kind of nosy behavior, that sense of never-ending gossip, that need-to-know-everything that goes on today.
“They had no technology, but they had unbelievable word of mouth. The thing that’s exciting and challenging is that it sometimes took days to get the information from one place to another, whereas now it’s immediate. Everybody hears the same thing. So we’re in Portsmouth, we’re in London, we’re in the environs of England and we want to feel that people know and want to know everything immediately.
“That’s part of the charm of the piece in terms of the use of that ensemble. And,” she added, switching gears, “I’ve brought in an amazing design team for Denver.”
The team includes costume designer Emilio Sosa (known professionally as ESosa, of Broadway’s Porgy and Bess and TV’s “Project Runway”) and Broadway and opera set designer Allen Moyer (Grey Gardens, Twelve Angry Men). While the director does want to remain true to the early 1800s, she wants modern touches to liven up the production. Research at Chawton House, the Jane Austen library in Hampshire, England, showed demure shades of brown to be the rule for party clothes of the time. But…
“ ‘Brown doesn’t sound that exciting,’ I told Emilio,” she said. “He agreed. He has such a beautiful design eye, that we hope to bring in contemporary fabrics in bright colors that may not be truly authentic to the period, but that will add energy and sexuality to the piece.”
That, of course, is what theatre is supposed to do—not betray the truth but heighten it. Milgrom Dodge said she’s avoided watching the spate of Austen-based films in favor of more archeological influences: architectural renderings, drawings, paintings and props of the period. “I don’t want to be a plagiarizer of somebody else’s ideas; we’re creating this out of the historical material.”
As for the set, “We’re not in a proscenium theatre, we’re on a big thrust stage that presents a lot of opportunities as well as challenges. But the line of the script that turns out to offer a bit more of an option is when Edward Ferrars says to Elinor Dashwood how much he loves the country—the wild and the cultivated side by side. We took that as a cue to come up with a design that embraces both of those ideas.”
She demurred on offering more details. “I want people to be surprised, and yet I want them to feel that the choices [we made] are inevitable. Those ‘Aha!’ moments are what I hope for in the theatre. Powerful emotional responses. Of course they have to be there in the first place and this is the perfect show for them.”
The dancing in the production will be more or less book-ended by a country dance and a more formal high society harvest ball in London. But there is more. The ensemble/chorus, for instance, has specific movement.
“As a choreographer/director, I always approach my shows from a strong sense of behavior, gesture, movement,” Milgrom Dodge explained. “I like to say that you could come to my production and understand the story if the sound went out. I try to create a very strong physical core. It’s not artificial and not over-stylized; it’s as truthful as I can discover with each character.
“It also helps the transitions. We have a lot of places to go to, a lot of locations. The scenery will have to move…”
In late February, well before coming to Denver for the start of rehearsals, the creative team—consisting of bookwriter and lyricist Jeffrey Haddow, composer Neal Hampton, music supervisor David Loud and conductor Paul Masse—was putting in long hours in the studio going over the music and transitions. The real work had begun and Milgrom Dodge was feeling very good about it.
“I have information now; I now know what the physical production will be. Neal is working hard at creating musical transitions that may not have existed before. We had not factored in costume and set changes. Over the course of the last few days I’ve learned about new craft, new scenic gestures I want, new music that helps emphasize the arrival of scenic events.
“David Loud is an extraordinary, wise, beautiful, experienced music supervisor. I love this part of the work. Everyone involved is very flexible, very respectful of the work; the criticism is said with love and received with love. We feel strongly that we’re going into rehearsal with an extremely tight script. It’s all about tweaking now—adding new orchestrations, staying open. We’ll have a few preview performances and audiences will tell us what else needs to be done.”
It’s never easy to take a sprawling novel and reduce it to its essentials. Some of the Austen characters aren’t in the musical, yet their absence takes nothing away from the central story.
“It is Sense & Sensibility The Musical, not Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility,” Milgrom Dodge reminded us. “Neal’s music lets you feel that we’re in another time and place, but there are beautiful harmonics in the piece, certain chords that tug at my heart.
I believe,” she added almost wistfully, “that the best stories are the ones that are so specific to their time and place that they transcend it and become universal. Everybody loves love, everybody wants love and everybody feels bereft without it.”
By Dan Sullivan
Fences was, in fact, a considerable hit back in 1987, partly due to James Earl Jones’ giant performance as Wilson’s garbage-collector hero, Troy Maxson. But none of Wilson’s plays have broken box-office records or inspired major Hollywood movies. In fact Hollywood turned Fences down when Wilson had insisted they give it to a black director, Lloyd Richards.
Why, then, hang the Great Play tag around its neck? For many readers it could be a warning signal. Great Plays—aren’t they the ones the teacher made you read in high school?
Well, yes, but don’t be scared away. A truly great play (as distinct from a museum piece) starts with being a good story. Moreover, a durable one. This takes time to establish. Like the fence that Troy keeps trying to build (or keeps putting off building) for his hard-dirt yard, it’s not clear right away how a brand new play will stand up to the elements. One or two bad winters could reduce it to a pile of sticks.
The major hazard faced by an excellent-for-its-time script is change—new styles, new slang, a loosening (or tightening) of moral codes, political upheavals, everything that contributes to the sense that Broadway’s latest hit has become yesterday’s news.
Sometimes change comes slowly. We’re told that The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was still being performed in London as a contemporary play (in flapper dress) in the 1920s. Or change can come overnight. William Inge’s plays, beloved in the 50s, each followed by a smash-hit movie, were suddenly declared old-hat at the dawn of the 60s, not through critical whim but because the national mood had changed with a new man in the White House and a new kind of theatre in the Village.
Fences opened 25 years ago, but would anyone call it old hat? I call it a classic. Time-stamped, yes, in the same sense that Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman are, and every bit as permanent.
Fences was the first of Wilson’s ten-play cycle looking at African American life in the 20th century, each play representing a different decade. The year is 1957, just before the nation’s racial tensions will boil over. The scene is Pittsburgh, Wilson’s home town—indeed his old neighborhood.
The when-and-where of the story matter less than the who-and-why. Troy has a dead-end job with the city Sanitation Department, a job he’s trying to upgrade—with no hesitation at all, incidentally. He knows his rights.
We also meet his patient wife, his rebellious son, another son from a previous relationship, his shell-shocked brother and his best friend—all observed with Wilson’s usual close eye and sly sense of humor. Although some characters have fewer lines than others, everybody in this neighborhood is a somebody, at least to himself.
There are no white people, although Troy and his friends essentially live under white rule. But our hero’s blackness (central to the trap he’s in, and just as central to Wilson’s concern for him) counts for less, in my view, than our fascination with him as a character.
To apply an overworked term correctly, Troy Maxson is an awesome hero, several cubits above the pusillanimous Willy Loman and not far below King Lear, whom Shakespeare portrays only in his dotage. Wilson gives us Troy in full voice, always charging ahead and frequently messing up. You can see why his wife needs to be patient with him, and also why she puts up with him.
I discussed Fences with director Lou Bellamy before rehearsals started on his Denver Center Theatre Company production. Not only has Bellamy directed the play twice on his home stage—St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre—he’s also played Troy twice.
“The first time I hated him. Loathed the man,” Bellamy said. “I had had enough of fathers who hold their families hostage for the sake of a $50-a-week paycheck. Here’s this… throwback holding back his son from college. I also wasn’t sure I could handle the part.”
“Hate” or “Love” don’t seem to be part of the equation now. Bellamy has come to understand Troy’s anger at having been fenced out of a chance to play major-league baseball, made worse by a foul-up of his own. The director also admires Troy’s ability to take his life in hand and become a faithful husband (more or less) and a concerned father.
But here’s the rub. It’s the 1950s. Blacks by then could make a name for themselves in big league baseball and Troy’s teenage son, Cory, may have inherited Troy’s power as a hitter. But Cory’s starting to act up at home, starting to forget who’s boss around here. It’s up to Troy to bring him down to earth. No more sports. Tend to your chores. Stop dreaming. Grow up.
“Can I ask you a question?” Cory responds. “How come you ain’t never liked me?”
Troy’s reply is too penetrating to be quoted here. It’s not a measly little TV homily. It’s not even vaguely heartwarming. It’s an icy setting forth of the biological responsibilities of a grown-up man to his un-grown-up son, so pointed that fathers in the audience may want to salt it away for real-life use. What an orator Troy Maxson could have become in another life!
But Wilson isn’t writing about what might have been. Troy’s girlfriend is pregnant, and his new job on the garbage truck lacks savor. “He fights for it, but he’s not prepared to take it,” Bellamy notes. “He doesn’t even have a driver’s license. There’s a cost to be paid for these victories.”
David Alan Anderson will play Troy in Denver. “There are no shortcuts here,” Bellamy will tell him. “You have to find the father-figure in yourself. Is Troy trying to protect Cory because he knows how sports can set a young man up for failure or is he jealous that Cory’s getting the chance Troy never got from his own father? You don’t know, and that’s why it’s a tragedy.”
I asked Bellamy if Troy could be compared to Willy Loman. “It’s been attempted, but Willy fails from the inside, while Troy never gets that chance. I’ve had Japanese people grab me and say, ‘That’s my father.’
“That’s what gives the play resonance. But the actors have to be ensconced in a black reality.”
A story from a particular time that speaks to us here and now. A simple story with complexities enough to challenge the most masterful actor. Those are some of the earmarks of a great play, and Fences seems to grow wiser with every passing year.
Dan Sullivan directs the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and teaches at the University of Minnesota. He has reviewed theatre and music for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Minneapolis Tribune.
Playwright Lisa Loomer describes her Two Things You don’t Talk About At Dinner as “an often funny play about some serious things.” It is an improbably even-handed look at the extremely complex issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian situation—on the ground and in our dining rooms. Funny? Serious? You bet. Loomer’s assessment is on the money. Yes, people do tend to fly off the handle when discussing the ongoing conflict in that part of the world, but the play? It is often funny and it is about serious things. To honor the spirit of that fearless enterprise, we assembled some funny and some serious notes—and one cartoon—in support of Loomer’s efforts.
Civil Discourse — A Lost Cause?
Civil discourse is not about niceness. It is about respecting the other individual and having the ability to passionately disagree without being disagreeable. One of the hallmarks of a civilized society is that civility must be guaranteed and observed among those who will inevitably disagree. Civil discourse is fundamental to the fostering and protection of a civilized society.
It is about ensuring a safe environment in which people can express ideas without fear of attack. It is about tolerance for those who think differently. Yet it seems many in our society have come to regard the old saw “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” not as a proverb but as a truism—a license to say anything, regardless of what harm it might cause. Sadly, name-calling and bullying increasingly have become the accepted norm in daily human interactions.
As a result, not-so-civil discourse has become the one, true equal-opportunity issue. It crosses political lines, sparks acerbic debates about family, sexual orientation, roots itself in religious intolerance and ignores the right to exist of “the other”—other socio-economic classes, cultural and racial groups. Its common language is inappropriate, corrosive, insulting, hostile and aggressive.
It is mean-spirited behavior.
How do we re-establish the value of civil discourse? First, we must teach our children the tremendous power of words. Words have the capacity to build or destroy, empower or diminish, enable or disable. Words can support, inspire, motivate, stimulate, encourage. Or not. What words do we teach our children? Who should teach them?
The answer is all of us. Everyone. Regardless of differences.
Lisa Loomer’s Two Things You Don’t Talk About at Dinner touches on this subject by frontally addressing political and religious differences that are at the forefront of our lives and happen to explode at the Passover Seder that is the fulcrum of her play. For all the pernicious—and often very funny—exchanges, the outcome of the piece skillfully shows us a path to sanity. It may not be a total solution, but it does indicate that, given a choice, human beings prefer kindness to vilification, understanding to bullheadedness, peace to war, even at the dinner table.
We can refuse to be debased by uncivil discourse. We can restore faith in words that heal rather than wound, sometimes mortally.
—Portions of this text were excerpted from www.thefreelibrary.com
Braille for Jews?
Helen Keller was handed a matzoh, the first she ever touched.
As she felt it using her fingers to decipher what it was, she asked, “Who wrote this nonsense?”
A British Jew is waiting in line to be knighted by the Queen.
He is to kneel in front of her and recite a sentence in Latin when she taps him on the shoulder with her sword. However, when his turn comes, he panics in the excitement of the moment and forgets the Latin. Then, thinking fast, he recites the only other sentence he knows in a foreign language, which he remembers from the Passover Seder. “Ma nishtana ha layla ha zeh mi kol ha laylot.”
Puzzled, the Queen leans over to an advisor and asks: “Why is this knight different from all the other knights?”
Divorce Jewish Style
An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Forty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams.
“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and he hangs up.
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouts. “I’ll take care of this!”
She calls her father immediately and screams at the old man, “You are not getting divorced! Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, do you hear me?” and
The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “They’re coming for Passover and paying their own airfares.”
Letter follows. Start worrying.
Enfiha el kheir ma yermiha el ter: If it was beneficial the bird wouldn’t drop it (don’t expect something from him).
Ye khaf we ma yekh te shish: he knows fear but never recognizes shame (an unscrupulous person).
E’d sawaba’ak b’ad mat salem a’leh: Count your fingers after you shake his hand (he’s a thief).
A ed a la hassira we me dandel regleh: He is sitting on a carpet and pretends to dangle his feet (an obvious deceiver).
Ed-deeny el bakht oo er-meeny fel bahr: Give me luck and throw me in the ocean (with luck on my side, nothing can hurt me).
Ed ghadabou abl ma yetacha bek: Eat him for lunch before he eats you for dinner (do unto others before they do unto you).
Yeslam bo’okom, we khalou el kalam yehla: Bless your mouth and let the words get sweeter.
Yom assal, yom bassal: One day is like honey, one day is like an onion.
El khonfessa fe-e ou e she-e omm ghazal: To the cockroach, its child is like a gazelle.
This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company subscriber newsletter.
Hal Brooks has a highly diverse list of directing credits. Most recently, he staged Will Eno’s Off-Broadway Pulitzer finalist THOM PAIN (based on nothing) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at the Soho Theatre in London, and at the DR2 in NYC. The Whale, a new play written by Idaho native Samuel Hunter and developed at the Colorado New Play Summit in February 2011, presented some major production challenges for the director, many of which Prologue won’t reveal—to avoid spoilers. Brooks and Hunter were introduced to each other by their respective agents and have spent hours on the phone, by e-mail, and in person at New York casting sessions for The Whale, preparing for the play’s Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) premiere. We recently chatted with Brooks to get some insight into his working process, his collaboration with Hunter, and his thoughts on his first DCTC project.
DCPA: You’ve been associated with particular playwrights, such as Nilaja Sun, Don DeLillo and others, but you’ve also free-lanced a good deal. You seem to specialize in staging new and challenging work. How do you pick your projects?
HB: When I did Delillo’s Valparaiso a few years back, we had a nice [New York] Times review and I got a lot of meetings out of it. Tim Sanford [Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons] advised me to “find my writer.” And then I met Will Eno and I felt I had found my writer. But truly, as much as I would work with Will anywhere, anytime, realistically I need to keep working when I cannot direct his work—so I’ve modified Tim’s advice to read “find your writers,” plural. I’m always on the lookout for new voices. I’m constantly reading new plays, meeting writers. My agent, Val Day, does a great job of introducing me to new writers too. She was instrumental in putting me together with Sam Hunter for DCTC’s premiere of The Whale. I’m really excited about this project. I think Sam Hunter has become one of my writers.
DCPA: I’m sure each project has its own unique requirements—do you have an overall approach to directing?
HB: I always think the job of a director is twofold: honor the intent of the playwright, and tell a good story—or tell the story well. So in that sense the job remains the same. I’ve directed a play with a cast of thousands and budget of hundreds—but no matter the play or the budget, the need is to tell the story in the best way we can, with the resources we have. And The Whale presents huge challenges: how to tell this difficult story, full of anguish and pain and humor and humanity, to a new audience every night? How can the actors, with my help, find a way to make their characters real for themselves? Accessible to the audience? How to make the story matter?
DCPA: Can you tell me something about your working process with Sam Hunter?
HB: Sam and I get along very well—I’m experienced with developing and directing new work, and Sam is an exciting young writer who loves to keep working on his plays—modifying the script to accommodate actors and production needs. Sam is enjoying considerable success of late—his play A Bright New Boise has gotten fantastic reviews in both New York and Washington D.C., but his focus remains on the work. So—we do well together, since we both like to keep developing and refining the script.
DCPA: You two auditioned actors for The Whale in New York recently—did you see eye-to-eye on the actors who came in to read?
HB: We did! We saw some great people out there, and were pleased that we were able to get the cast we wanted. The central role of Charlie is especially challenging, and we were very lucky to find the right actor. We both knew who we wanted the minute he came in the door.
DCPA: In addition to last season’s Summit workshop of The Whale, the play had a reading last summer at Icicle Creek in Washington state—outside of the Denver Center process. Did Sam do any major rewrites as a result?
HB: Sam is always rewriting, based on what he sees in a reading or rehearsal—he’s always looking to focus the work, the characters. One thing that came out of the Icicle Creek reading was that he decided that he needed to put the kitchen of the lead character Charlie’s apartment onstage, for dramatic reasons. Originally the set was confined to Charlie’s living-room. This makes for some challenges for the set designer, but it helps move the play forward in an important way.
DCPA: Sam has set The Whale, like some of his other plays, in his native Boise, Idaho. His characters are mostly everyday people, in a generally conservative, small town environment. How does he find drama in what might seem overly familiar and in conventional settings?
HB: Part of Sam’s genius is to take these people and put them into extreme situations. He finds deep, universal themes that run through their lives—he avoids melodrama, though the play might be considered to be “kitchen-sink realism.” He also looks to tell the truth in ways that some audiences may find tough. And like any good playwright, he has a knack for finding interesting character relationships even in familiar settings. Sam never condescends to his characters—he clearly loves and embraces the people and their milieu. He knows them so well.
DCPA: The actors have to portray people who might not be terribly sophisticated and yet need to resonate as larger than life in some ways. There also are some big literary themes—the Book of Job, Melville’s Moby Dick—as well as discussions of organized religion. Will you look for ways to bring out these ideas?
HB: No. My job as I see it is to tell the story, let the characters and the audience find their own way to the heart of the play, which has plenty to say. Think of [Arthur] Miller’s Death Of A Salesman—those characters are garden-variety middle-class working folks—and yet their story has been told and retold, and has moved audiences, for decades. The Whale involves an outsider, a working man in extremis, trying desperately to reconnect to his angry, estranged teenage daughter, hoping he can help her, against her will, to a better life.
He’s surrounded by controlling people with their own motives. His journey is to get past the others and through to the girl while there’s time. The story might sound familiar, but the play has such richness and depth. My job in part is to help the actors find the connections with each other and with the story. Sam is a really strong writer, and I think The Whale is his most mature work. I’m really enjoying working on this project and being able to be part of Sam’s next step in his professional life as a playwright. I think Denver Center audiences will really embrace this play.
This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company subscriber newsletter.
I’m back in Kampala after a week in Gulu. It amazes me when I think back on everything that I experienced in that week! And it all happened because two years ago, back at my theatre, we decided to do a play called Ruined. There were many points of connection between Lynn Nottage’s play and my trip. Salima, one of the main characters in the play was abducted and forced to serve as a sexual slave to one of the militias. Many of WGEF’s women share that same horror story. Abducted persons, many of whom were children when they were taken, are still returning from “the bush.”
I met so many powerful women on my trip, survivors all, who share their strength with Mama Nadi. Karen Sugar, the founder of Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, keeps saying that women will always rise to the challenge when given the opportunity and some support. Given the example of Grace, who rose from the grim reality of the internally displaced person’s camp to win local elected office and hopes to run for Parliament in 2016, I’d have to agree with her. Some of the women are currently forming an agricultural union. Throw a drama festival and playwrights will emerge.
Watching the women perform their monologues, dramas and dances last Saturday affirmed not only the empowering effect of self- and group expression, but also the galvanizing effect drama can have on those gathered to witness it. This tradition of performing to heal a community goes back as far as the beginning of theatre itself. The theme chosen by the women of a woman’s right to own land, previously lurking in the wings, has now (post drama festival and town hall meeting) been pushed center stage. And there is no turning back.
So where does the Denver Center take its relationship with WGEF from here? For one thing, Karen is hoping to bring one of the rising playwrights to Denver this winter. What about bringing one of our commissioned women playwrights over for the festival? Or what about staging a play from the western canon with these women, a play that would connect with the social impulse behind their dramas and have a little humor, something say by Brecht or Dario Fo. It could be translated into the local language and adapted to have local resonance by one of the festival’s emerging playwrights.
To return to Ruined, the tragic fact is that in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo the conflict still rages. It has been called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Here in Uganda, now that the conflict has ended, women are busy trying to heal past wounds and move ahead with their lives. It’s extraordinary to see how far some of these women have already come. And it’s heartening to see the impact that theatre can have in creating a voice for women.