What makes a novel sing?
by Paul Gordon

It's always subjective whether a particular novel, film, short story, poem or just an idea out one's head, will or will not "sing". I've been amazed over the years at what source material people have been willing to musicalize. Stephen Sondheim has certainly been the most daring. Who else would have imagined that John Wilkes Booth could break out into song? Or that the Westernizing of Japan would be an entertaining evening? (It was for me).

Other creators of musicals have trotted off the beaten path as well. Remember those guys who took that Victor Hugo classic and made it into one of the most successful musicals of all time even with that downer title? And I applaud new composers like Adam Guetel, who had the audacity to write a musical about a Kentucky Hillbilly trapped in a cave that boasts one of the more remarkable scores of recent years. Or Parade - tough subject matter, pulled off with grace and wit. With that said, most people have at least one eyebrow raised upon hearing that Jane Eyre, the cherished English novel, has been turned into a Broadway Musical. Not so much because it's daring - but rather more to the point - how dare they?

It all started rather innocently. The pop musical I had been working on for years was going nowhere. I suspected it was because my writing partner and I were having trouble with the book. I wanted to put it down for a while and work on something that I knew already had a classic, proven story. So I started looking. My requirements were pretty simple. It had to be uplifting with an inspiring message, it had to have a female protagonist and most importantly - it had to be in the public domain. (I had no money and I wanted to feel free to plagiarize). I boiled my search down to three novels I had never read. Jane Eyre, Little Women and Villette. Needless to say, I never got around to reading Little Women or Villette because by page ten of Jane Eyre I was in tears and I knew this was the musical I wanted to write.

To me, some characters sing and some don't. I've been given various scripts recently to look over with the idea of musicalization - but I usually walk away thinking that the characters themselves have no reason to sing. But with Jane Eyre, I knew from the onset that these characters did. For one thing, Charlotte Bronte is one of the most gifted writers in English literature. Her words are pure poetry and everything she writes has it's own rhythm and melody. Most of the time I couldn't help myself from writing a song as I was reading from the page. I could hear melodies in my head as I would read her words. I felt like we were collaborating. I have rarely ever felt so inspired as when I was working on Jane Eyre that first time around.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of Jane Eyre, it takes place in nineteenth century England and is about a young woman, destined to a life of servitude, who possesses no wealth, beauty, talent or class but has a keen intellect and a rich spiritual life. She becomes the governess in the house of a man who has wealth and station but is wounded spiritually. Through a series of events their relationship is fostered and then challenged. Finally, as the main themes of the novel reveal themselves (forgiveness, faith and courage) their powerful love overcomes all obstacles and endures. But the real inspiration of Jane Eyre is Jane herself. It is after all, her story that we get swept into - and it is her journey that moves us and finally transports us to a place where we are finally able to connect with not only our romantic nature, but our spiritual nature as well.

Again, I think it's very subjective what we look for in musical theater. Personally, I need to be moved emotionally in order to become truly engaged in the story telling. So what attracted me to Jane Eyre, ultimately, was it's moving story. Trying to recreate that on stage in a Broadway musical is, of course, the challenge. One of our past mistakes in trying to achieve this was that we tried to do too much. There is an abundance of gifts in the novel Jane Eyre, and in earlier mountings we felt inclined to include most of them. But theater, happily, is a learning experience and we have been fortunate to have learned from each staging along the way. Now, as we move to Broadway, we remain true to the story of Charlotte Bronte, but we are no longer attempting to perform the novel on stage. Rather, we are committed to good story telling while remaining true to the spirit of Charlotte Bronte's intent.

One of the strongest themes of the novel that moves me emotionally is the theme of forgiveness. In the story, Jane is severely mistreated by her aunt, Mrs. Reed, who is resentful that her dead sister's daughter has been left in her care. Later, when the young Jane is sent to a horrific charity school - she meets an older girl, Helen Burns, with a rich spiritual life, who teaches her the lessons of forgiveness. The child Jane, of course, is unwilling and ill-equipped to understand the true meaning behind Helen's message. Later in the story, when Edward Rochester's secrets are revealed and the marriage between Jane and Rochester is called off, Jane feels betrayed and flees, even risking death - to escape from her own pain and the memory of her beloved Rochester. But through another series of events, Jane is finally able to fully understand the words of her childhood friend, Helen Burns, and ultimately returns to Rochester and forgives him.

It all begs the question: Why should anyone sing?

To illustrate why, we must go back to the novel and look at the scene between Jane and Helen. It's all there - Helen explaining to Jane why we must forgive our enemies and turn the other cheek. In the narrative from the novel, this takes place as a sort of question and answer session that the two girls are having. As I read the passages for the first time, it occurred to me that it would be even more powerful if Helen were able to musicalize those feelings, and thus the song "Forgiveness" was born. What the song does, is not only allow Helen to go beyond words to express an emotion that is enhanced by the music, but it also allows the authors to punctuate the main theme of the story - forgiveness.

Another moment in the novel that was pleading to be turned into a song was one that I missed entirely in my first reading, but John Caird, the co-director and book writer of Jane Eyre, saw immediately. It is when Jane first hears of Blanche Ingram - Rochester's intended bride - and Jane decides to sketch two portraits. The first is of herself - to remind herself how plain she really is, and the second is of the beautiful Blanche Ingram - to remind herself of the beauty, class and grace that Mr. Rochester obviously requires in a bride. Thus, In the song "Painting Her Portrait", Jane is able to go deep within herself and expose her own wounds musically in a way that reaches beyond just dialogue. It comes at a point in the show where we desperately want to know what Jane is feeling. This is not a conversation that she is going to have with Rochester. The best way to know how she is feeling at this moment - is through song.

But if it's a musical, where's the dancing? Where's the humor? Is there a chandelier?

Different musicals offer different gifts. What we aim for with Jane Eyre is to create an intimate musical with well developed characters, good story telling and emotional music. (We're asking our audience to think, to imagine - and to become involved emotionally.) That is our intent. Audiences will decide for themselves what we ultimately will have achieved. With that said, the design of Jane Eyre, by John Napier, is integrated in the action with a kind of fluidity that serves the story telling. (And yes we do have a chandelier, but we have no helicopter). As for humor, we've taken a few liberties and made the character of Mrs. Fairfax, the widow who runs Rochester's household at Thornfield Hall, more comic than she is in the novel. Our reason for doing this was quite simple; the character had all the qualities necessary to be comic, (portrayed wonderfully by Mary Stout) and because of the seriousness of the story, we felt a little comic relief would be a nice diversion. Once we've had a light moment, it's easier to ask the audience to go on the rest of the journey with us. And no, there is no dancing. (Well, there's a ballroom scene but you should probably just go see Contact if you want the real thing).

So, you've said some nice things, but really, what makes Jane Eyre sing?

The bottom line is this: Do the characters reach a place emotionally where the best way to communicate their inner feelings is through music? I say yes. Of course, if you're going to sit down and just read the novel (and you don't have any producers in your living room) then no, you don't ever have to get up and sing any of the pages. But if you're putting it on a stage - then absolutely - music is the perfect vehicle by which to draw out the complexities of Charlotte Bronte's characters in order to bring them to their emotional peak. This is merely my opinion, and as I have spent the last ten years attempting to do this along with my collaborators, it is an opinion I hope others will share.

_________________________________

Tickets go on sale Monday, July 10, for the eagerly anticipated Broadway premiere of Jane Eyre The Musical, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Previews begin November 7 for a December 3 opening. Tickets are available online through Ticketmaster or by calling Ticketmaster at 212.307.4100 or 1.800.755.4000


Wanna' talk to others about this column or anything else theatre related? Check out All That Chat!








Past Rialto Columns

Search What's New on the Rialto




Privacy Policy