Classic literature has been an inspiration for musical theater since the form’s early beginnings. Some of the most well-renowned and unique works of the stage are, in fact, adaptations of novels– Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera, for starters– though some musicals couldn’t manage to translate the book’s success into an audience. This year’s Doctor Zhivago was supposed to thrill audiences with its sweeping epic romance, but instead closed shortly after receiving no Tony nominations. And I’d be remiss to not plug the 2000 adaptation of Jane Eyre, which was successful enough to be represented at the Tony Awards and dig itself into the hearts of Eyreheads like me and Norma.
Now, Jane Austen is receiving the musical treatment with Pride and Prejudice at Theater for the New City. Written by John Taylor Thomas and Lissa Moira, who also directs the show, Pride and Prejudice is a faithful adaptation of Austen’s culture-defining romance. If you don’t already know the plot, it will probably sound familiar from the thousands of stories influenced by it in the past two centuries. The clever and independent Elizabeth Bennet plays a game of “will they, won’t they?” with the equally stubborn though ultimately tender-hearted Mr. Darcy. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s sister Jane seeks out the love of Darcy’s friend Bingley. Together the various romantic relationships in the book explore the ways in which love is complicated and threatened by miscommunication, status, preconceptions, and a lack of self-awareness. However, all is guaranteed to be set right for these deserving lovers and we can walk away with order and happiness restored.
Thomas and Moira follow the novel to a tee and are hindered by their attentive approach. They include many a minor character and scene that could have easily been cut. Even though there have been cuts to the musical since I saw it, it still clocks in at a burdensome three hours: Darcy doesn’t even make his first proposal to Lizzie until Act 2. And despite the detailed adaptation, Austen’s wittiness, subtlety, and humor is lost in the dialogue and you never quite feel like you’re getting much else other than exposition.
The musical numbers, sung admirably by a talented cast, have quite a classic feel to them and could have been the simple romantic ballads of lovesick crooner. Unfortunately, they don’t serve much in the ways of character development. In fact, I would argue that the lyrics, in fact, generalize the characters into tropes instead of providing them with the specificity and depth they so deserve. Darcy’s first song, for example, only reiterates his yearning without providing it with any particularity or context– the song could have been sung by nearly any lovestruck character in any show. Likewise, Jane’s song renders her a silly, infatuated woman, making her into a broad cliche instead of a complex, sympathetic character. For all its run time, the characters hardly find their voice.
There is no doubt that this musical has its work cut out for it and further development to go. Luckily, at its heart, it has a resounding story to guide its efforts.