Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In a Jane Austen Kind of Mood: First Impressions

The impetus was Persuasion, one of two novels published posthumously by Jane Austen’s brother, a novel like the others of hers that I’ve read (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma) which concerns themselves with upper middle class society’s foibles and moral strengths. In this case, it is a Miss Anne Elliot who foolishly spurned the love of her youth at the persuasion of a trusted friend, only to realize after an eight-year absence and the withering of her youthful beauty, how much she loves him and longs to spend her life with him.

Bear with me, this is getting to Broadway.

Even for men less than interested in pure love stories of the Nicholas Sparks ilk, Jane Austen’s works interest for their psychological complexity, for their astute observations of timeless human behavior, and for their well-crafted stories. While reading a Jane Austen novel or watching one of the many fine film adaptations, it’s easy to fall into a Jane Austen kind of mood.

This is how I arrived at thinking of First Impressions, the 1959 Broadway musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which reverted the work back to its pre-publication title, what Austen named it before revising the work and, presumably, before finding the depth and spirit of the work, as evidenced by the generic nature of the title First Impressions and the psychological depth of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen on Broadway
The OBCR of First Impressions (recorded though the show only reached 84 performances, according to Peter Filichia in Let’s Put on a Musical) was released on CD by DRG for the first time several years ago, and just as I’m sure a number of other Austen fans did, I too put it on my high priority list of CDs to obtain.

The story of Pride and Prejudice concerns the Bennet brood of daughters, a liability at a time when inheritance rights of estate (how the upper and upper middle class obtained wealth) passed solely from male heir to male heir, meaning that when Mr. Bennet dies, his wife and daughters will be left without money or status. Despite their precarious situation, second-eldest daughter Elizabeth is determined to wed for love, leading her to spurn the proposal of the very wealthy Mr. Darcy, whom she perceives to be lacking in character and heart. Only after spurning him, however, does she realize that she has been blinded by her own pride and prejudice (just as he was initially blinded by his own) and has passed on her chance for marriage to a man of strong character and great a capacity for love.

First Impressions: The Plot
In studying the OBCR, it’s not fully easy to say where the show might have gone wrong. The book is by the talented Abe Burrows, and, according to Filichia, is “a much wittier book than has been alleged, with incisive dialogue and characterizations,” though in Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, historian Ethan Mordden asserts that Burrows attempted to re-write Jane Austen, which was not a wise choice (for the record, since the production rights are licensed by Samuel French, the libretto can easily be purchased online or, I’m sure, from the Drama Book Shop). Whichever the case may be, the cast recording fails to ignite the heart or romance of the story.

Plot-wise, it’s difficult to fault Burrows’ adaptation of the story, which seems rather wisely pared down, at least as it reads in the liner notes. Yes, it does seem to lack the breadth of time required by the love story—since the novel builds romantic interest through the disparity between when Elizabeth spurns Darcy, discovers his true character, and the time it takes for there to be reconciliation. This lack of time also seems to rush through several key plot points which could hinder the effectiveness of the plotting—the quickness in which characters are introduced and brought into the conflict takes away from the gradual building of relationships upon which the story depends. Jane Bennett and Charles Bingley, for example, hardly register at all on disc.

First Impressions: The Score
Where the show seems to have fallen short most unforgivingly, however, is in the score by Robert Goldman, Glenn Paxton, and George Weiss. In short, First Impressions doesn’t make for a great listen. The fault for this lies in several categories.

First of all, as others have pointed out, the show followed My Fair Lady from 1956, and as effective as Rex Harrison’s ‘arold ‘iggins (to put it in the cockney persuasion) was in speaking his songs, it is ineffective here despite its somewhat extensive use. This is, after all, a musical, and one should be able to expect a full evening of music, and if the audience must hear one star speak his way through “Why Can’t the English?,” then it should at least be followed by “Wouldn’t It be Loverly.” Unfortunately, there is nothing here to rival the latter to justify the former.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a strong concept to have Darcy and Elizabeth speak their way through “A Perfect Evening,” in which they first dance together, because it almost seems fitting for the tone and mood. But yet again, that silly genre title of musical makes it seem so ill-fitting, particularly when not perfectly executed and when all-together too commonly used (Hermione Gingold of A Little Night Music fame—speaks her way through “Five Daughters,” “Have You Heard the News,” and sings in her own unique way on “As Long as There’s a Mother” and “A House in Town”). When Elizabeth and Darcy do sing, the musical requirements of the song don’t always allow them to fully shine vocally, as if stepping above speaking but not fully singing, as in “A Gentleman Never Falls Wildly in Love,” and “I Suddenly Find it Agreeable” (which also resorts to talking in rhythm in spots). Midway through, you want to scream, “Just sing already!”

It’s also interesting to note that the score carefully graphs the first half of the plot—from when Bingley arrives in town through Mr. Collins’ buffoonish proposal—but seems to unravel quickly thereafter, so that the general direction of the plot is clear, but the particulars of what happens doesn’t appear in silhouette as in most cast albums of this era.

And I would guess that it’s fair to say that the score simply never rises above being flat. Certain songs—“Five Daughters” and “As Long as There’s a Mother”—might rise above if they weren’t mired in a score of speak-singing so that their clever lyrics (such as Mrs. Bennet proclaiming of her daughter, “It’s not that I’m not proud of them / It’s just there’s such a crowd of them”) didn’t seem, as Mr. Darcy says elsewhere, “common, common, common.”

Reflections on the Future of Jane Austen on Broadway
Paul Gordon, who so beautifully adapted Jane Eyre, has an adaptation of Emma circulating among regional theatres (with no apparent plans for Broadway), but as of now, there seems to be no viable Broadway-bound Jane Austen musical. It does, admittedly, seem odd that as Jane Austen experiences a bevy of movie adaptations of her works (even new adaptations of titles that have already been recently filmed), there has been no Broadway adaptations in almost fifty years.

But then, maybe that’s not so surprising after all. The success of any literary adaptation is dependant upon the writer’s ability to condense a story without sacrificing too much or the wrong elements, and Jane Austen’s novels tend to be long and detailed. Furthermore, there’s the challenge of matching Austen’s eloquent language and wit, not an easy task in a medium that relies heavily upon simplified character types and songs with big emotions that might reduce Austen’s work to typical musical comedy or pop opera, neither of which are fitting for Austen’s stories. This isn’t to mention the lyrics, which would need to be of appropriate wit and lyrical beauty (paging Mr. Sondheim?).

Still, when another Austen show reaches Broadway, I want the CD.

the Broadway Mouth
July 2, 2008

1 comment:

Mags from AustenBlog said...

Here's the MySpace page for a musical version of Pride and Prejudice, with some song samples.

My understanding is that there is a really good chance of this play going to Broadway next year. Fingers crossed! I went to a reading last year and it's quite wonderful. And I'm pretty particular. ;-)