|Cayman Ilika (and Nick DeSantis) and Matthew Posner in Persuasion (Erik Stuhaug)|
(World Premiere musical)
July 12 to August 19, 2017
Taproot Theatre is undertaking a brand new effort for their company, but one that is already looking to pay off solid dividends. Friday night, they will open a world premiere musical in their “summer musical” spot. Tickets are already getting difficult to buy on select popular dates!
Why? It seems a whole lot of people like Jane Austen stories and the fact that local musical-writers Chris Jeffries (music and lyrics) and Harold Taw (book) have chosen to musicalize her novel, Persuasion, is making a lot of folks very excited.
Persuasion is Austen’s last book, published just after she died in 1817, and is the moodiest of her canon. Her heroine begins the book as a kind of “past her prime” older sister who had been persuaded (see the word, here, suggesting the title of the book and musical?) to dump a suitor, Wentworth, at the usual marriageable age of 19, because her godmother Lady Russell convinced her that he was not an appropriate alliance and it would haunt her and her children to be brought socially low by the match. However, ever since, she has regretted her choice.
Of course, Wentworth left for “the war” and became a captain and also wealthy and is now a much more eligible match. Eight years later, he arrives home again. But she is convinced that he could not possibly want to have anything to do with her.
Don’t mistake this for a drama, though. It’s got a happy ending, and a lot of funny bits.
Jeffries and Taw used the somewhat somber and moody premise to introduce the first moments of their piece. Jeffries says, in an interview with both, “This book is hard to stage. But that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do it: because it’s a good challenge.”
Taw adds, “As a craftsperson, Austen is unparalleled. The novel is moody but there’s still incredible precision with structure. That was fun. It’s biting and funny and dark. She wrote in 1816 (contemporaneously). It felt like ‘right now,’ to us. I like this because of the darkness. I like dark subject matter.”
Jeffries says, “The roots of comedy are in ancient agrarian celebrations of winter turning into spring – the goddess that loses her love and then he comes back to her. One of the oldest stories every told. Anne (Elliot, the main character) is in the middle of premature winter, early frost. By the end, it’s like midsummer night and she’s in full bloom. And the crops are gonna be fine. It’s that elemental of a story.
“(When we started working on the musical,) I felt the big emotions needed big music and I was excited to write big music but I had no idea what wheelhouse the music should live in. My starting point of reference was the gorgeous folk ballads of the British Isles. The music that introduces the two main characters was inspired by the mode and feel of old folk songs to express their heartbreak and longing, and to help link them as kindred ‘old souls.’ But they sing in other styles too. I love ballads, but a musical score needs variety and effervescence. Luckily there's also plenty that's energetic and buoyant in English and Celtic music and dance - from Elizabethan music to fizzy operetta.”
Taw agrees. “What kind music world would it live in? I didn’t see it as “period music” or putting a novel on stage. It had to be reborn as a musical, a different art form. That darkness, nostalgia, regret, fragility of life that Austen wrote about, she was looking at the world differently, internally. Anne’s thoughts instead of lots of dialogue. And looking at the seasons. It takes place autumn to spring.
“Austen never depicts them young; you just know that they were once young. Now, Anne has wasted away. You see the reflection on the meaning of life.”
Asked about some nuts and bolts of the process they went through, Jeffries describes, “I was pretty clear from the beginning what the song moments were, but what worked for actual songs in those moments was not clear. There are places where we decided (after we wrote a song), this doesn’t need to be sung after all. And it was a matter of the right song for that particular moment. What kind of song was before it? How long did we wait between songs?”
Taw says, “We had a strong agreement about the peak places where songs were needed. Always in service of the story. Very character oriented and story oriented. When things didn’t work, it was because it didn’t get at the things we were shooting for.”
Jeffries and Taw give an example of a song they feel reflects a pivotal moment in the show. Taw says, “The first version was a Lady Russell song.” Jeffries says, “It was a quartet for a long time. Now it’s a long solo with interludes because (another character) is the one we needed to hear from.” Taw says, “That was a kind of breakthrough in character development.”
They describe that the main characters go through a journey of rediscovering each other at a new period in their lives. Jeffries says, “Austen tells you that they’re soul mates. They share a depth the other characters don’t reach. You buy it as a reader, but on stage we need to see that they’re recalibrating their views of their relationship. They thaw over time.
“Their relationship is better now because they’ve grown up. They’ve learned not to take it for granted because they know how hard it is to live without it."
Taw says, “The novel was criticized because Austen says, at the end, if two young people want to be together, no one should stop them. People thought that was a terrible moral. It’s embracing the uncertainty.”
Jeffries gets philosophical. “It doesn’t have to be a person. It could be a vocation or a passion. Something you’re ‘persuaded’ to set aside that that you realize you don’t want to live without and don’t have to. This story could be taken as a metaphor for having had something precious in your life that you set aside or gave up on because you told yourself that other things were a priority. But you always missed it. I hope this story says that it’s not too late to find that precious thing again, and be all the richer for having survived without it.
Taw adds, “Or having suffered. In Persuasion, you get the sense that they are more worthy of each other because all was lost.”
They’ve already received feedback that is giving them hope that a wide range of audiences will enjoy the production. Jeffries says, “There’s a self-selecting audience that thinks they’ll love it and a self-selecting audience that thinks they’ll hate it. We hope we will surprise a lot of people in the second category and they’ll end up having a great experience.”
Taw says, “The Texas workshop (we did) had a lot of high schoolers in the audience, which were not our target audience and I heard a lot of them say they didn’t expect to enjoy this. ‘I thought I was going to hate this!’ but didn’t. High schoolers had a perception of what seeing an Austen show meant. They were surprised how much they liked it!”
Jeffries sums it up. “Austen scholars love it, and so do high schoolers. I feel like we did our job!”
For information and tickets, go to www.taproottheatre.org or call 206-781-9707.