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 Sylvie Drake
Perhaps because we’re all in love with love to some degree or because we know the story so well, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is never far from the general consciousness or the pantheon of great plays. If anything, it may suffer from overfamiliarity, but the many versions of this story—in music, opera, ballet, theatre, film and musical comedy—reaffirm a persistent interest.
Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson says “everybody identifies with Romeo and Juliet and in some sense almost everybody wants to be Romeo and Juliet because [they embody] the emotional surge and intensity of the teenage years and the absolute kind of decision [we make] to love another person.
Besides, Shakespeare’s play is a tale of endless dramatic possibilities. It has fights, feuds, parental and societal intolerance, death and suicide—all the euphoric joys and profound problems that still bedevil us today.
So how do you approach staging something as well-worn and yet so vital and endlessly fascinating without retreading other people’s concepts?
“That’s the big challenge,” says director Scott Wentworth who staged the production you’re about so see. “Everyone has a scenario in their head. But Romeo & Juliet is a deceptively rich play. It’s not a closed room; it’s a mansion with many rooms.”
Shakespeare famously was never terribly interested in the process of coming up with a good story. If one existed that met his needs, why reinvent it? The origin of Romeo & Juliet was a novella by the prolific 15th century Italian Matteo Bandello, translated and transformed into a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) and recycled several times thereafter. It resurfaced in prose in 1582 in William Paynter’scollection of stories The Palace of Pleasure, which included other Bandello novellas and provided Shakespeare with handy additional plots, or partial plots, with which to enlarge his canvas (among them Twelfth Night and parts of Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline).
In spite of this varied provenance, Romeo & Juliet, written sometime between 1591 and 1595, is most readily identified with Shakespeare. And because it is so familiar, directors—Wentworth included—love to mine for fresh aspects of the story.
“One of the things I like to do with a Shakespeare play is to look at the end and ask, ‘what does he want to leave us with?’ With Romeo & Juliet, he wanted to leave us with the sense of a generation that sacrifices its young. That spoke to me. Equally interesting to me (and I think to Shakespeare) is the notion of Verona, of that culture. In many ways Shakespeare was always writing about Elizabethan London—for and about his world. Looking at it that way illuminates parts of the play that are often downplayed: how the society functions, what the economics are, how love and marriage figure into this world.”
Wentworth chose to set the play around 1600. In his view, the Montagues and the Capulets are venture capitalists. “Like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice,” he says, “they’re making money in business.” This aristocracy is cash poor, but owns land it sells off to the new money so it can continue to rule, while the new money loves to brush up to the aristocracy for snatches of reflected glory.
Exploring a love story in that context becomes more interesting, because it is not just about two individuals. It becomes political and cultural,” says Wentworth. “The sexual politics are important, which is part of the reason why I was not very interested in doing a modern production where the restrictions wouldn’t be as profound. To fully experience the play it’s helpful to understand the world it was written to represent.
“Shakespeare’s plays exist on two story-telling planes: narrative or horizontal and vertical or mythological. In the 21st century, we tend to be more comfortable with narrative or realism, and less interested in the vertical or mythological story that Shakespeare was interested in. At the end of King Lear, when Lear walks on with the body of the dead Cordelia, it’s an action in a narrative; but it’s also an image of tragedy with a capital T.”
Design may be one way to encompass the mythological: “I’ve asked the designer to abstract the space so it’s epic and not solely realistic,” he continued. “I wanted to have a realistic costume world but a scenic world that would provide access to the mythological story. You can do realistic acting on it—and we will when the text takes us there—but when the text seems to be saying that this language, this moment, is more mythic or psychological, we’ll have access to it in a way that a realistic setting might not give us.”
This marriage of realism and abstraction—opening up the play to engage more universal or bigger ideas and invite the audience to join the actors in that exercise—is the goal. Romeo & Juliet may be about the tragic love affair of two children, but it is also about the difficulty of achieving deep love in any world that puts up obstacles at every turn.
“With a play this rich,” adds Wentworth, “anything we can do to stretch an audience’s ability to listen by giving it the tools with which to do it, will broaden the experience for that audience. It’s in how we costume the actors, how we light and stage the scenes, how we use the music. It’s not about me telling them what I think the play’s about.
“My job in coordinating these many elements is to help people actively create the play they see—in collaboration with the actors, in the moment that they watch the play—so that they might totally engage with the production.”
But how, may you ask, does the interrelationship of fate and character move the play? How much does the one interfere with or influence the other?
“Interesting question,” Wentworth muses. “There’s an intricate and delicate relationship between fate or whatever you want to call it, and character. In the early stories on which the play is based, fate played a bigger role than in the Shakespeare. Wagner said that Romeo & Juliet is the exemplar of the Liebestod, the deathlove or lovedeath.
“It’s one of those German words that doesn’t translate well, but the connection between love and death is at the center of these kinds of stories. Fate in a way is the cumulative energy that a whole society creates. Romeo and Juliet just happen to bump into each other; the letter does not get delivered because of an accident; Romeo’s arrival before Juliet wakens at the end is terrible timing. If Juliet had had the imagination and maturity to be Rosalind [the feisty heroine of As You Like It], wear trousers and join Romeo in Mantua, she wouldn’t have died.
Because fate plays so heavy a hand, a lot of scholars think of Romeo & Juliet as a lesser tragedy than the so-called great later tragedies—the Hamlets, Macbeths and Lears—but Shakespeare was true to the genre. The individual character writing is incredibly astute. The creation of Juliet is a miracle. The nurse is a full portrait of a person. In this type of story, Time and Fate, with a capital T and a capital F, play an active role.”
It is also possible love itself was the driver. Could Shakespeare have been in love at the time?
“He may well have been. Whatever it was, it ignited that thing that he does and engaged his genius. He was able to create the greatest love story in the English language. That’s why to this day his plays always feel so real. They’re not always realistic, but they always feel real.”
This article was originally published in Applause program magazine.
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.