Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Musical Emma

I’m not sure what I had against the idea of a musical version of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, but it seemed like a really bad idea to me. It isn’t that I think costume drama and musical theater shouldn’t mix (Phantom of the Opera puts that idea to rest, not to mention Kiss Me Kate), it is just that Jane Austen’s story is small and quiet and subtle and the musical theatre genre tends to be big and loud and, well, not subtle.

But what do I know? Paul Gordon had previously converted Jane Eyre to the musical stage and at the time it seemed like a decent idea to me. The Bronte novel is melodramatic in the same way that Phantom of the Opera is melodramatic. It seemed perfect for adaptation in an age of big, dramatic, operatic musicals. But, in the end, I didn’t like Jane Eyre and found myself wishing Gordon had left it where it belonged – on the shelf. Maybe that’s why I was doubtful when I heard he had pulled Emma off the shelf and placed her in the spotlight. I had a chance to judge for myself when it appeared in my subscription series at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis last week.

I like Emma although it is not my favorite Austen novel. Some people complain that Austen always writes about the same thing – women and marriage. But I think they miss the point. Yes, I think Austen always writes about the same relationship, but I think the relationship that interested her was the relationship between women and money. And how a woman's relationship with money affected her view of life and her choices, including choices about marriage. And while some of her novels focus on one woman, she usually ends up exploring multiple women in multiple circumstances.

In Pride and Prejudice she explores the viewpoints of women currently living a life with access to money but with the knowledge hanging over their heads that they will lose it all once the man of the house dies - a sword of Damocles if you will. In Sense and Sensibility she explores the viewpoints of women born with money who have lost it because the man of the house dies. In Mansfield Park she explores the viewpoint of a woman born without money because her mother, from a wealthy family, made an ill-suited marriage out of love and without regard to money. In Persuasion she explores the views of a woman who earlier in life was persuaded to forego a love relationship with a poor man. (I leave out Northanger Abbey because I honestly don’t remember it very well.)

In Emma, Austen creates a heroine who has no financial concerns. This offers Emma a freedom that other Austin characters can only dream of. Unlike the other Austen heroines, Emma has no need to at least consider marriage as a means of keeping a roof over her head and food on her table. In other ways, Emma's financial independence puts limits on her life. She is expected to set an example and to act charitably. Perhaps because of boredom with the usual projects engaged in by wealthy young women Emma makes a project of her friend Harriet Smith and determines to find her a suitable husband.

In contrast to Emma, Austen creates two other characters: Jane Fairfax, an attractive, educated and talented woman who has no money and is facing a future as a governess, and Mrs. Weston who was, in fact, Emma's former governess and but who is now happily married. Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Weston combine as two sides of a typical Austen heroine. Jane Fairfax, a woman with all the talents necessary to be a woman of leisure but who has no money and is facing a bleak future unless she can marry well. Mrs. Weston, now living the life of relative leisure after a lifetime of work, all because of a good (and, fortunately, loving) marriage. It is in fact Emma who has brought this blissful married state to Mrs. Weston by introducing her to the man who became her husband, a man of greater means and higher station than Mrs. Weston could have expected to marry. And it is Emma who, it turns out, could deny Jane Fairfax this blissful married state to Frank Churchill, a man of greater means and higher station than Jane Fairfax could expect to marry, if he were to fall in love with Emma.

In even greater contrast, Austen creates Mrs. and Miss Bates, relatives of Jane Fairfax who are living in what used to be called genteel poverty, a poverty that is growing each year. Although fairly ridiculous in some ways, they are mostly objects of sympathy in the novel. A turning point in Emma's personal development is when Emma humiliates Miss Bates by making an offhand critical comment about her only to be taken to task for this by Mr. Knightley who points out to Emma their poverty and their need for her charity and her friendship.

I see Emma in some ways as part cautionary tale. Although not as wealthy as Lady Catherine DuBourg from Pride and Prejudice, Emma's desire to direct others in their life choices is similar to Lady Catherine's. And when Emma is rude to Miss Bates, it is possible to see where she could go down the wrong path and end up like the rude and interfering Lady Catherine. Fortunately, Mr. Knightley was created in the role not only of love interest but of conscience for Emma and brings Emma to a realization of her faults.

As a subject for a musical, the story turned out to be surprisingly well suited. Its pace never dragged although the show clocked in at about two and a half hours. I don't think they dropped any of the major plot points out of the story and each of the characters was well developed. It is a show that is a dream for women actresses - seven principal roles for women. The actress who played Emma's protege, Harriet Smith, stole the show.

It is not, however, a great piece of musical theatre and that is because the music is melodic but completely forgettable. I heard no one humming on the way out. I'll close with a sample. This is the song sung by Mr. Knightley as he realizes his love for Emma (he is thinking aloud, so she can't hear him):