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A Musical, Dear Reader

Still searching for love, Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre' returns in revamped form after a coolly received premiere.

July 25, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

LA JOLLA — Can a plain and penniless 19th century orphan girl find happiness and success as a Broadway-bound musical?

Nothing is ever easy for Jane Eyre. In Charlotte Bronte's 1847 classic novel, she undergoes many trials and tribulations before ending up in the arms of her beloved Rochester. And "Jane Eyre," the musical, hasn't had an easy time of it either. But if the novel's story is precedent, perhaps there's a happy ending in sight. The show has its American premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse tonight, with hopes of moving to Broadway in the fall.

Set in early 19th century England, "Jane Eyre" is the story of a girl destined to a life of servitude who grows up to become a governess at Thornfield Hall, home to the mysterious Edward Rochester. Jane falls for Rochester, and they are to marry, but the wedding is derailed at the last minute by news that Rochester is already married--to a madwoman living in the attic.

Jane leaves Thornfield and finds a new life for herself with a minister named St. John Rivers. But just when she is about to accept the minister's proposal of marriage, she hears her name called on the wind and returns to Thornfield, which has burned in a fire set by the crazed Mrs. Rochester, who has died in the blaze. Rochester, however, is merely blinded, and he and Jane are at last united.

In 1990, composer-lyricist Paul Gordon ran across a synopsis of this story on the back of a paperback in an airport kiosk. He took a copy of the novel with him on the plane and was sold on the idea by the time he hit Page 10.

"I just couldn't get through the novel fast enough," Gordon remembers. "The character of Jane Eyre was so strong and powerful, and the theme of forgiveness and the romantic aspect and the spiritual aspect of the story were very appealing to me. There are a lot of musicals that I feel shouldn't have been musicals, but this one screamed music to me instantly."

The musical first appeared in Toronto in December 1996, opening at the same time as another musical, the much larger and more lavishly funded "Ragtime." "Jane Eyre" received a great deal of spillover attention from visiting journalists, but the comparisons were mostly unfavorable. There was talk of Broadway at the time, but plans soon fizzled.

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The current production, with music and lyrics by Gordon and libretto and additional lyrics by John Caird, was co-directed by Caird and Scott Schwartz and is a fully reworked version of the Toronto production.

"One of the things that we did in Toronto was try to perform the novel on stage," says the affable Gordon, a pop songwriter by trade, during a break from rehearsing on the UC San Diego campus. "Inevitably, it was an evening packed with everything that the book has, just about. Now we're no longer trying to perform the novel on stage. We've taken more liberties with our storytelling, and we've condensed certain aspects of the story.

"The show is no longer composed through," Gordon continues. "It's not necessarily a traditional book musical, but it's more in that direction. There are now many scenes and spaces in the show where there is no music at all."

Gordon has worked closely with musical theater veteran Caird throughout the project. "One of the most essential facets of being involved in musicals is you've got to be able to collaborate with enthusiasm," says Caird, who is best known for co-directing, with Trevor Nunn, "The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables." "And that means never becoming too precious about your own contribution.

"One of the fundamental differences between opera and musical theater is that opera starts with a score," Caird continues. "Musical theater is story-led, rather than being led by the score. So the book writer, the lyricist, the composer, the director, the cast all have input into how the story works."

Gordon, whose songs have been recorded by such artists as Bette Midler, Amy Grant, Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones, Vonda Sheppard and others, had one musical to his credit already, a piece called "Greetings From Venice Beach" that he wrote with Jay Gruska and Janit Baldwin, which was staged in a Hollywood warehouse in the 1980s. But he thought he was ready to have another go at the genre. "I had seen 'Les Miz' and 'Miss Saigon' and some of those shows, and I just wanted to find a classic piece of literature to see if I could musicalize it," he says.

Gordon's first attempt at a libretto consisted largely of excerpts taken directly from the novel. "Truthfully, wherever I could find a passage that would sit on the music that I was writing, I would use it," he says. He included dialogue, but only by working it into the score.

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