January 28

March 15, 2020

CST’s Courtyard Theater

book, music & lyrics by Paul Gordon
adapted from the novel by Jane Austen
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Note from the Composer and Lyricist

Why Emma Sings

Notes from Composer and Lyricist Paul Gordon

In plotting out a musical, the first thing I always ask myself is: do these characters sing? And really, why do we want to hear them sing, even if they do? To the second question, I will simply say that art is subjective and we all have our particular tastes. But the first question to me is more interesting. I’ve seen many a musical where I was thoroughly convinced that the answer to that question was a resounding “no.”

When I first considered turning Emma into a musical, I pondered the idea carefully before running to the piano. Having seen several film versions and read the novel, I wanted to make sure it had an inherently musical ethos simply beyond being a “period piece.” It soon became apparent that not only did these characters sing, but they sang quite effortlessly.

Jane Austen’s brilliant comedy provides the perfect bedrock for a musical. In Emma Woodhouse we have a protagonist who can’t help but be completely mistaken on almost every point, and yet through Austen’s penetrating humor she remains surprisingly sympathetic to the reader. Musicalizing her felt natural, and Austen’s biting wit and intelligence lend themselves quite naturally to lyric writing.

The makeover of Harriet Smith, Emma’s devoted protégé, was also ripe with musical possibility. Her affection for the lowly farmer, Robert Martin, was superbly appealing for creating repeating motifs that would somehow imply the innocence of love and thread Emma’s continued wrongheadedness about her friend’s future.

Of course, the Knightley–Emma relationship was the most appealing aspect of all. Here you have Austen creating truly one of the first romantic comedies in literature. She shapes the kind of banter that would later be emulated by Hepburn and Tracy, and paved the way for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally and countless other films to follow in the same genre. (Yes, there was Beatrice and Benedict, but Knightley and Emma have their own unique charm and are as contemporary today as they were in the early nineteenth century when Jane Austen conjured them up.)

When I started to create the score I didn’t necessarily determine in advance what style the music would be written in. I mostly let the story guide me, and I tried to take my cues from the characters themselves. It all felt quite natural. What has emerged, I hope, is a sound tinged with my early influences: Lennon and McCartney (leaning towards George Martin’s alluring strings to "Eleanor Rigby") and of course the amazing Stephen Sondheim who, simply by listening to his genius, has taught me everything I know about writing for the theater. . .

But of course my first and main collaborator is Jane Austen. I don’t take lightly the presumptuousness of my assuming a partnership with her. And since she can’t be here to scold me on the creative liberties I have taken, I must leave that to our audiences and our critics. All I can say is that the production you see today is truly a labor of love, for Jane Austen and for the characters she has created. And as to whether or not these characters sing: perhaps they will let you know themselves.

Reprinted with permission from The Old Globe.

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