"When I first tackled 'Jane Eyre,' my initial reasoning was (to take) public domain material that was immensely popular 200 years later," Gordon said. "But when I started to read these novels, especially Jane Austen, and really diving into her world, I found it truly inspiring. She is a brilliant writer, the social manners that she writes about I feel pertain to today. Her sensibility — no pun intended — is quite modern."
TheatreWorks is staging Gordon's musical adaptation of Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," about the trials and triumphs of sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, through April 3 at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre.
"It's kind of an intimate production and Paul has written a beautifully intimate show in terms of the music and the focus of it. It's not huge production numbers. It's really about these characters," said TheatreWorks Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley, who's directing "Sense and Sensibility."
The show tells of the Dashwood sisters, who have recently been thrust into tough financial straits through a combination of inflexible inheritance law and selfish relatives. The sudden change in circumstances doesn't help matters when each sister falls in love, with plenty of complications.
But much as romance figures in the story, it's the sisterly bond that the show highlights, Kelley said, characterizing the overall story as a "romantic drama."
"There's still a lot of comedy in it, but the focus is on deep emotions and how to get through life with the support of someone you absolutely trust and love deeply, and that's the way the two sisters interact," Kelley said.
Elder sister Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) is pragmatic and hesitant to reveal her emotions, while the bubbly, artistic Marianne (Antoinette Comer) sometimes overshares. But as different in temperament as the two sisters are, their love for each other helps them make the best of their sudden lack of fortune.
"Marianne is so feisty, which is why I loved writing for her because I saw sort of a pattern in her that I could develop with certain musical motifs, that would expand her energy and her sort of franticness. And her rebelliousness really was exciting to write for," Gordon said.
"With Elinor, that was an entirely different challenge — writing for a character that is silent, that is quiet, and that is reserved, and that doesn't speak all her thoughts. And yet, for musicals, that's sort of prime material, right? Because in musicals, you have the opportunity for a character to express what they're thinking."
Musical theater may finally allow Elinor to share what she's feeling, at least with the audience, but setting Austen's famous prose to show tunes might seem like a tall order. The challenge of matching music with Austen's language is something that Gordon described as a "joy."
"Her wit is amazing, her language is amazing. Why would you change it? When I'm writing the book scenes, I might have to shorten things, or maybe change a phrase here or there to make it more understandable to a modern audience. But I try to leave as much of her language intact as I can," he said.
"When I'm approaching the lyrics, obviously, I can't take her words verbatim. So that's when I have to really try to interpret her language into lyrical form as my own. And that's where I have the most fun, is trying to imagine, 'If she were to write lyrics to this, how would she say it?'"
TheatreWorks and Gordon are longtime collaborators, with the Mountain View-based company having staged "Jane Eyre" and all three of Gordon's Austen musicals, including the world premiere of "Pride and Prejudice" in 2019. The company presented his "Emma" in 2007 and 2015 and has staged several other musicals by Gordon, including "Daddy Long Legs" and "Being Earnest."
"Certainly the music is different in how Paul has interpreted each of them," Kelley said of the three Austen musicals. "But what underlies it is a contemporary flavor to his songs that somehow manages to fit into the Regency era. And I think that makes it work ever so much better because you feel that you're part of what's going on, you're not listening to something that's antique, you're listening to something that feels like now."
"Sense and Sensibility" runs through April 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto and will also be presented streaming. For more information, visit theatreworks.org.
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