I naively went to a musical about a Jane Austen novel with the hope that I would be hearing at least a little music from the period. You know, the kind of music Jane would have heard at Bath’s Assembly Rooms and Guildhall (a Mozart aria, maybe an Italian love song by Giordani)? The music she would have played herself on the piano (a traditional English country dance)? Perhaps a minuet by Handel when the actors are dancing a minuet?
No such luck. It sounded like any other musical. Can you imagine having the music from Sound of Music sound exactly like the music from Cabaret, which sounded exactly like the music from Oklahoma? Yet, here we are.
How did we get here? I blame Webber. I lived in London during the reign of HRM Andrew Lloyd Webber over The West End (London’s Broadway). The running joke among theatre-goers was that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Despite hit after hit, His Majesty had only really written one musical— Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — and since then had only slightly changed the book for each of his subsequent productions. Londoners were long since glutted with the sameness of it all, but the tourists still packed the theaters, and the emperor went on to nab a knighthood while raking in millions of pounds.
Here we are decades later, and not only are we still listening to Sir Andrew’s same musical over and over again, but we’ve cloned it hundredfold such that now there’s only one sound on Broadway: excessively emotive, swaying, swooping, soaring. We often joke that our culture has been Disneyfied. Now Disney has been Webberized. Could some imaginative composer please break us out of this rut? Because music has meaning. It’s not the decoration you put on top of the cake. It’s the flour, butter, and eggs that holds it together.
But let’s get back to Anne Elliot, heroine of Persuasion, and, some say, Jane’s finest character and perhaps the most perfectly realized female character in English literature. Anne’s disappointments have not made her bitter or selfish. She doesn’t blame others for her unhappiness; instead, she makes what happiness she can by making those around her happier. She is the last who would step into the spotlight and belt out the unfairness of it all.
The music should tell Anne’s story. It is worth telling.
Persuasion runs at Lamb’s Players Theater through November 18.