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.”