A Musical, Dear Reader

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

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.

Gordon worked on the project for about a year and a half before making a demo tape in 1992. "I have a recording studio at my house, so I had the luxury of recording the whole thing," he says. "And the L.A. cast of 'Les Miz' was around, and I knew some of them, and they sang on it. I mixed theater singers with pop singers." The demo was three hours long, he says, and much of it is still included in the show, though in somewhat different form.

Among the singers was Anthony Crivello, star of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," who would later play Rochester in the Toronto production. Crivello sent a copy of the first demo to Caird, who happened to be in L.A. at the time.

As a Tony-winning former associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Caird often receives proposals for new musicals. But Gordon's piece stuck out from the pack. "The first thing that attracted me was Paul's music," Caird says in a separate interview in La Jolla. "I instantly felt that I was listening to very theatrical music. It's the feeling that the music is capable of arresting an audience, that it has theater in it, even before you listen to the words. It's very similar to how I felt when I [first] heard Claude-Michel Schonberg's score for 'Les Miserables.' "

Gordon and Caird met to talk it over. "He went through the script very methodically and corrected my spelling, like with a red pencil," recalls Gordon. "Then he would say things like, 'This isn't really 19th century.' . . . 'This is very American.' "

Caird remembers that he felt the project had potential. "My first chats with him were to suggest rather tentatively that the lyrics would need a lot of work," he says. "I even suggested he might need another lyricist to work with because he was more a composer than a lyricist. He insisted that he just needed a bit of time to do some work. He came back with five of the songs completely rewritten, and I realized that his appetite for change and learning and to be a collaborator was very keen." Caird agreed to be part of the project and expressed interest in writing the book. The two met in both England and the U.S., as their schedules permitted.

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Chief among their challenges was to find a way to translate the novel's first-person narrative to the stage. "Charlotte Bronte is pretending to be Jane Eyre writing the novel about herself," he says, and the challenge was to add to that a narrative structure that doesn't entirely rely on one woman telling the story. "You actually have other characters who've got to have a life."

Initially, Gordon used a Greek chorus effect, but Caird thought that mechanism wouldn't hold up over an entire evening. He suggested that in addition to playing their own parts, each member of the ensemble could occasionally act as narrator, and also take on the voice of Jane--similar to what was done in "Nicholas Nickleby."

"The problem with autobiography in the theater, unless you're doing a one-woman show, is that if Jane is telling the story, then during the most potent moments, when she must be lost in and vulnerable to the story, she can't keep jumping out because there's no tension in it. So the device of using the ensemble helped a lot with that because it lets the central actress stay in the moment."

The other problem, of course, was simplifying Jane's life, which takes many twists and turns in the novel. "We had to contract the story to something more manageable in theatrical length," says Caird. "So we switched around events and sort of brought things forward."

"Jane Eyre" received a staged reading at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1994. Approximately a year later, a workshop production was mounted at the Wichita Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas. The show opened in its first full production in December 1996 at the Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto, produced by David and Ed Mirvish.

The staging boasted the talents of set designer John Napier and costumer Andreane Neofitou, the same team that worked with Caird on "Les Miz"; both have also returned for "Jane Eyre" in La Jolla. The title role was performed by Marla Schaffel, who re-creates her part in La Jolla, along with a number of other cast members. Crivello, however, has been replaced by James Barbour as Rochester.

Reviews in Toronto were decidedly mixed. New York plans were scrapped, and the creators went back to work to retool and streamline the piece. "I felt we'd grown too big," says Caird. "I mean, whatever else 'Jane Eyre' is, it's fundamentally an intimate, emotional, small-scale work."

The cast was reduced by approximately one-third, down to nine women and five men. The number of musicians in the orchestra was also scaled back, from 17 to 12. In early 1998, Schwartz joined the team as co-director. "They had already done a lot of changes and rewrites to Toronto," says Schwartz, a New York-based director whose work focuses on new musicals. "But since I've come on board, they've done, and we collectively have worked on, a lot more."

Schwartz joined the team in anticipation of a September 1998 production at Tennessee Repertory Theater. But that production was scrapped at the last minute when the Mirvishes withdrew from producing the project.

A new set of producers, along with the La Jolla Playhouse, soon came along to pick up the ball, but the show's fate is by no means definite. Despite a public announcement that it will open on Broadway in late fall, it has yet to be booked into a theater, and the creative team's optimism is still guarded.

"Our producers are committed, they're determined," says Gordon, with a sincere-yet-wary resilience worthy of Jane herself. "But for me, until we have a theater, I'm not counting on anything."

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"Jane Eyre," La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD campus, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 29. $36-$45. (858) 550-1010.

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