There’s a proud tradition of making sprawling novels into blockbuster musicals (Les Miz, Phantom, the list goes on). Would-be adaptors get a little literary street cred, ready-made characters, and a tested plot. Spectators get a new variation on a beloved story. This year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival features a couple of new novel-musicals attempting the page-stage leap with varying degrees of agility. A fluffy version of Pride and Prejudice gives harmless entertainment without telling us anything new about Austen’s much-adapted masterpiece; a woeful rewrite of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris provides a vivid reminder of the crucial difference between reading books and watching plays—if a novel is terrible, you can just stop reading and throw it away.
The Austen industry is booming. If you’re in the mood for a little Pride and Prejudice, there’s the novel (with or without zombies), TV and movie versions—even books and movies about other people that like Jane Austen. So Pride musicals were probably an inevitable development (a quick Google search reveals several making the rounds). But with all the ways to get your Austen fix, do we need them?
The title of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical implies the novelist herself has approved the project from beyond the grave. But this is very much Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs’s show. (They collaborated on the book, music, and lyrics). Their version adds a frame in which Austen herself, scrambling for new material, reworks an old manuscript into Pride and Prejudice—giving her draft a second chance just like Darcy and Elizabeth get a second chance at love! As she does, the characters come to life, singing and dancing the new novel while she takes stageside dictation and occasionally butts in with editorial comments—apparently Austen’s characters were so three-dimensional she didn’t actually need to tell them what to do.
Aside from being egregiously naïve about writing (authors just sit in awe while their creations figure out the story for them!), this device doesn’t add much: Must we have our own Pride prejudices confirmed by discovering that Austen herself liked Elizabeth best, or that she thought Mr. Collins was a little creepy, too?
Most of the show’s virtues belong to the source material: Pride’s story of thwarted love and near-despair redeemed by second chances is pretty irresistible in any form. When Baker and Jacobs stick to the book, the adaptation hums along competently from well-known scene to well-known scene. But their additions suffer by comparison with Austen’s sparkling style.
Austen’s narrative also jars against musical form. After all, the book is about the almost-tragic consequences of hidden feelings and wrong impressions. It’s hard to sing well about English reserve and 19th-century politesse. The characters are flattened into caricatures: Darcy is gruff, Elizabeth is vivacious, Mrs. Bennet is a marriage-mad harridan. The economic and social pressures that make marriage a necessity for Austen’s female characters fade into the deep background.
More comfortable belting out strong emotions than burying them beneath genteel surfaces, the performers get better late in the piece, when misunderstandings are cleared up and fervent declarations made. It’s actually quite beautiful to see Elizabeth and Darcy singing to each other the passionate feelings they’ve concealed for so long.
Les Enfants de Paris, a misconceived adaptation of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris—a/k/a The Hunchback of Notre Dame—makes for a far less pleasant evening. Moving the plot of the novel to 1950s Paris during the Algerian revolution, collaborators Stacy Weingarten and David Levinson create some seriously risible situations. The action centers on a complicated love polygon: Pierre, a garret-bohemian composer and our narrator, loves Esme, a fiery Algerian with nationalist sympathies (we see her waving placards). Esme’s crushing on Phillippe, a noble French soldier. But Phillippe’s engaged to Fleur, a snobby cabaret singer. Got all that? There’s more: Pierre’s brother, Claude, a villainous priest, has a yucky fetish for Arab girls—especially Esme. As you might imagine, the whole mess doesn’t turn out well for anybody. (There’s no hunchback here at all, but Michel, a deaf orphan with a secret past stands in.)
The authors want to have it both ways—making a statement about violent culture clash without creating any unsympathetic characters. Mostly everybody’s so gosh-golly-gee-whiz likable—they seem to have moved to France by way of Ohio—you wonder how post-colonial conflicts occur at all. The characters hang out at hookah bars, make little jokes about each other’s foibles—it’s like a Left Bank version of Friends. It’s lust—and sinister priests—not imperialism that eventually causes bloodshed.
The music, by Levinson, is a serviceable pastiche of Middle Eastern and French tunes. But his lyrics are so clunky it’s like being smacked in the head with a rhyming dictionary: “She was beautiful and fair/I saw her on the square.” And Weingarten’s book is even worse: shackling a melodramatic plot to laughable dialogue that sounds like it was translated literally from another language. Whether the characters are French or Algerian, they all speak fluent cliché.