Sense and Sensibility

April 8

June 7, 2015

in CST's Courtyard Theater

based on the novel by Jane Austen
book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon
directed by Barbara Gaines

Q&A with the Creators

As they began the rehearsal process, Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, composer Paul Gordon, and Creative Producer Rick Boynton shared their thoughts on their new musical Sense and Sensibility with CST's Director of Education Marilyn Halperin.

Marilyn Halperin: Let’s begin with perhaps the most obvious of questions: why adapt Sense and Sensibility into a musical?

Barbara Gaines: Rick and I had gone to San Francisco years ago and saw Paul’s musical of Austen’s Emma, and we both fell in love with his writing, and we pursued him.  I wanted to do Sense and Sensibility because, in part, Paul was passionate about it. But I have a sister and I love her very much. The story takes on a resonance when you feel what Elinor and Marianne feel.

Paul Gordon: I have no sisters and I’ve always longed to have them. That’s probably why I wrote it. I’m very drawn to this story. The relationship of the sisters was very moving to me, very theatrical--and also very musical. I think Jane Austen’s writing in particular lends itself to being musicalized. As a composer, I felt the innate musicality of the characters’ emotions and how that would connect with music. Musicality is subjective, but there is a lyricism to the way Jane Austen writes--

BG: As in Shakespeare.

PG: As with Shakespeare. The poetic language of a nineteenth-century author lends itself to musical retelling—and I also think there’s something about a female-driven story that quite lends itself to music. You can make a film of almost anything. You can write a novel of almost anything. But musicals, in my opinion, have to be created from the stuff of music.

Rick Boynton: Paul has a true gift for melody and for connecting emotion with melody and with lyrics. He also has a gift for synthesizing a novel to its essence.

MH: Wearing all three hats—of author, lyricist and composer—at what point do you decide you’re at a fork in the road and dialogue gives way to song?

PG: I read the novel once first and then go back and imagine the first song. How are we going to start the show? Then, what happens next? Here’s the information that I think we need and I write the scene with dialogue. And as I write the scene, it occurs to me that this moment could be sung: we’ve reached a point where the emotion of the scene is better served with singing. In musical theatre post-Stephen Sondheim, we’ve all learned that songs are best served furthering the action. That said, sometimes there’s a song that stands still: because it’s emotional, because it’s giving you back-story for the character, or because it’s giving you a different, deeper insight into the character that only music can achieve.

MH: What does this collaboration between the three of you look like as each of you becomes involved at different moments in the creative process?

RB: I look at a play without over reading the book so that I can see it as someone coming to this experience for the first time. I see my role as helping Paul, whose vision is so strong and whose voice is so signature, to shape the story: so that there’s dramatic build to the end of the first act, so that there’s a character arc, so that we care about the people and invest in these relationships. Barbara, of course, does this, too, but what she brings to the process is the director’s eye, to take what’s on the page and envision it onstage. As Barbara lives in the script, she has these images, she sees how these scenes and transitions happen and how the juxtaposition of scenes will work.

BG: I couldn’t have said it better. I see it visually. Paul deciphers Austen’s essence, magically distilling the plot and its many characters into a few, essential story-tellers. And then Rick comes in, clarifying every moment, like seeing through a window that was a bit foggy before.

PG: A great dramaturge, which Rick is, allows someone like me to excel. He lets us know what makes sense, what resonates, what doesn’t. And it’s wonderful for me to have both of them: a visionary director and a great dramaturge guiding me.

RB: Once she and Paul are working with the actors, it’s not “create by committee” at that point. It can’t be.  Barbara’s the director in the room, Paul is writer, and they’re working together. It’s for me to come in with a fresh perspective as they ask the question, Is this working this way?

MH: Paul, will you continue to revise book, lyrics or music during the five-week rehearsal process?

PG: Absolutely. I will be rewriting until Opening Night. I don’t have a piece I’ve written that I’m not still working on, because theater is like a sculpture that you continue to work on until the end of your life. Good actors always inform you about what’s working and what’s not. Ultimately during rehearsal, they come to understand their character more than you as the writer, and you have to trust that. That doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say, but it does means that you listen. When they have difficulty with a section, you pay attention.

MH: What are you discovering this story that you couldn’t have without that music?

BG: I can’t even imagine the story anymore without the music. I will never think of the story and not hear the songs “Stowaway” or “I Wish Him All Imaginable Happiness.” For me, the story and Paul’s songs have become one. And I do believe that the vast majority of people in the audience will forever connect Paul’s music with this story.

RB: Just as Paul said earlier, there is a point in the storytelling when one can get a richer and, hopefully a more immediate, experience through the music. A theme comes back from the first act. We don’t have words, we just have that theme. We can layer in that subtext. That’s what music does, right? Music is elevation. When words are not enough, you have no choice but to sing.

PG: I’ll give you one example. There’s a moment in our play where Colonel Brandon gets the news that Marianne is getting married. In the novel you know he’s in pain and then we move on to the next scene. In our play, “I Wish You All Imaginable Happiness” becomes a song. The lyric tells the story and you feel his pain in a way you might not reading the novel or seeing the film. If we’ve done our jobs, you will feel that depth in a way that you feel in no other adaptation and that’s why we’ve made it a musical.

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