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Tuesday, August 7

Creating Pride and Prejudice, the Musical: An Interview

"Welcome to our neighborhood! Do you find it satisfying?" sing the inhabitants of Meryton and its environs as Pride and Prejudice, the musical, opens. With these words the listener is in for a rollicking good time. Later as Bingley and Darcy sing, "If you don't have a missus, something will be amiss...If you're a single he, you've got to land a she," you sit back and relax, wanting to hear more.

This musical does not disappoint. Towards the end of the finale I wanted to learn more about the music and the play itself, so I contacted the creators Josie Brown and Rita Abrams. They kindly answered my questions, which sit below with their answers.

If you are curious to listen the music, Josie and Rita are featuring one full song per week on their website. Click here to enter.

You had so many wonderful scenes to choose from in P&P, how did you distill the musical down to the essence of the story?

JOSIE: The beauty of Austen is that she gives you enough narrative, plot and dialogue to play with. In that regard, the job of the playwright—the one who adapts the story for the stage—is to peel back and condense redundant scenes or unnecessary characters, and pare down Austen’s dialogue, all the while keeping the essence of her thought. The story must be told in around two hours—and with no more than 10-11 characters, for some productions. Almost impossible for an Austen story, right? Considering dialogue and songs, that only allows for 12-16 scenes, over two acts with an intermission. Each scene—each song—must move the plot along, and reveal the essence of the characters. Needless to say I had my work cut out for me, as did Rita when it came to the songs.

The voices on your recording are marvelous. Tell us, how were they chosen? Tenor for hero? Soprano for heroine? Or were other factors at work?

RITA: Yes, we were fortunate to get such wonderful singer-ACTORS! As for choosing the vocalists, we were also lucky that our singers had wide ranges which in some cases could cover several characters. Each character has a definable essence that relates to vocal quality, e.g. Darcy, the weightier of the male leads, needed the depth, richness, even darkness of the baritone. Bingley, being the sunnier, lighter part of the two, suggested the tenor range. The same can be said about their female partners. Elizabeth has more complexity and fullness to her character, while Jane mirrors the brightness and simple optimism of her Bingley. Their voices needed to reflect these qualities. As for the more comic characters of Mr. Collins, Charlotte, Mrs. Bennet, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the choices came down to who could do the most convincing—and humorous--renditions, and I tailored the arrangements to suit their voices.

I love the wit in the Mr. Collins and Catherine de Bourgh songs. You really captured their characters in just a few short minutes. How long did it actually take to write these songs?

RITA: Thank you! I'm so glad you share our love for these characters, and their renditions. I didn't time the writing of each song, but I will say that of all the many songs and shows I've ever written, these songs are the closest to my heart, and therefore were the most challenging and painstaking to compose. And forgive me for being presumptuous, but I actually felt like I was in collaboration with Jane Austen, and that because I took the task so seriously, she would have been pleased with the results.

How did you two hook up? Were you friends before you wrote this musical or is this a professional association suggested by an agent or representative?

JOSIE: We met through a mutual friend—John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. My husband, Martin, and I were working with John on various editorial projects when he was approached by Rita to do a musical based on his bestseller. I’d already seen several of Rita’s cabaret shows, and had always been in awe of her tight, witty wordplay. Now, couple that with her genius at melody and harmony…AWESOME. So of course we encouraged John to say yes to Rita, and we were mandated with overseeing that project, which ran for a year in Las Vegas. During that process I knew someday Rita and I would collaborate on something. However, between our schedules—my books, her commercial songwriting and cabaret shows—it had to be a project worthy of the time and effort. Certainly P&P is that—and I feel we’ve done it justice.

Pride and Prejudice has always been one of my most enjoyable perennial reads over the years. As a novelist, I’ve admired Austen’s ability to achieve depth in both character and plot. Though it wasn’t my major, I’d been a student of musical theatre, and one night after reading P&P, I felt compelled to use the medium of musical theatre to tell this wonderful story. I grabbed my computer and started outlining it as such.

At the time I was not aware that Abe Burrows had tried it, too—back in 1959! That specific project, entitled "First Impressions," actually made it onto Broadway—alas, to mediocre reviews. In the interim we’ve discovered that there are at least another two or three versions floating around. That’s okay. In the end it is the creators’ abilities to tell the story in a compelling way—through word and song—that will win the hearts and minds of producers. And I’ve no doubt that our version is a winning combination.

Are the words to the musical written first, or does the music inspire the book?

JOSIE: I wrote Act I a year-and-a-half before Rita began composing the music and working on lyrics. Listening to the music, I’m sure you’d find it hard to believe that it took me a while to convince her that she was perfect for this project!

After she cleared her schedule and had re-familiarized herself with the novel—and fell in love with the story again, of course!—Rita read the script, and we met weekly. My job then was to complete Act II, and to be a sounding board for her. During these four-hour sessions, we’d read the script out loud a portion of the script out loud page-by-page, taking special note of any of the “placeholders" I’d put in for the songs, and discuss the emotions the song there should evoke. By the time we next met, Rita would have portions, if not all, of the songs written. I found it a wonderful collaboration. We were both open to suggestions, dialogue or lyric edits.

RITA: When Josie brought the idea of this musical to me, I was just starting several different projects, including a new show of my own. Having had some bad experiences with collaborators, who happened to be of the MALE persuasion, I was excited by the idea of working ALONE. However, Josie's enthusiasm and optimism were infectious and irresistible. And I finally overcame my reticence, leapt into the Austen universe, and have never looked back. The collaboration turned out to be as joyous as the creation. By the way—my favorite part was when Josie would read the script she was working on in the full voices of the characters. I think she should do her own one-woman version of the show.

Oh—and to the question of which comes first, the words or the music--for me, it happens both ways. For Mr. Collins' "What is a Man to Do?" the form of a tango sprang to mind immediately, and the words followed. But in pondering the complex grief of the rejected Darcy, I felt that he knew he could never find another woman who would stretch, challenge and gratify him the way Elizabeth would have—and thus the title "The One I Could Have Been With You."

Where has this musical played? Are any new shows scheduled in the near future? Where?

JOSIE: The musical was just completed this winter. Already we have several known regional theatre companies considering it for an ’09 premiere, so it’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. Of course, Ms. Place will be the very first on our list to email when that happens.

If anyone wants to arrange for Pride and Prejudice, the musical in their community, what steps will they need to take?

JOSIE & RITA: We welcome them to listen to excerpts at and then contact us at our email address: . All serious interest will be coordinated with our theatrical agent, Bob Freedman, of the Robert A. Freedman Dramatic Agency.

Do you provide oversight and suggestions during the planning stages?

JOSIE & RITA: We will be happy to work with any producer or production entity, in any capacity.

Thank you so much for your insights. I can't wait to see this production in person!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful interview. I have always wondered how musicals are written.

Icha said...

PP the musical! Oh, how I wish they would come to Australia! Or such an act here. I want to see the acts...

Anyway, thanks a lot for the article, Ms Place!

Vic said...

Thank you, becca. Icha, I am sure that if someone in Australia wants to put on the production, Rita and Josie will be amenable.

Meanwhile, I hope you listen to the songs that are featured each week. My favorites? Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And the last song is so memorable. This music really bears repeated listening! Let's hope the CD becomes available soon!!