I have long loved the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. However, I have never found a satisfactory movie adaptation, which is ironic since there have been over ten different versions. It’s admittedly a difficult movie to adapt, although I never realized it until recently. Last Wednesday, I went to see a musical version of Jane Eyre and afterwards the cast, director and dramaturgist talked about what it was like doing the musical and how they prepared for it. It was a lot of fun to listen to them talk, but the person I enjoyed hearing most was the dramaturgist. She was clearly passionate about her job and about the book, Jane Eyre. She had done extensive research and provided packets about the characters and the time period for the cast in preparation. And she highlighted something I had not thought about before: how difficult it is to portray the character of Jane Eyre in a movie.
The difficulty, she said, was in how silent Jane Eyre comes across to people, but how passionate her inner life is. The book is written from her perspective and we are privy to all her thoughts and emotions. In a movie, however, we are necessarily excluded from her thoughts and any actress who plays her must somehow find a way to convey the storminess of her inner world whilst maintaining a quiet demeanor.
And that, argued the dramaturgist, is what a musical allows – specifically the musical by Paul Gordon and John Caird, which opened on Broadway in 2000. A musical, after all, is not just about characters communicating to each other through song, but is also about a character expressing intangible things through song, like their emotions, feelings or thoughts. That is the real strength of musicals. For example, the only reason that My Fair Lady is a romance is because of the music. It is not even the words that they sing in the songs. There are no love duets – in fact, there really are no duets – and Higgins and Eliza never speak of love. Our only clue comes from the breathtakingly beautiful and romantic music.
And this ability to convey emotion is the strength of the musical version of Jane Eyre. She is allowed her usual, calm demeanor in her interactions with people, but in her songs about herself, she is allowed to cut loose with what she actually thinks. And in this respect, the musical is far more satisfactory than any movie version I have ever seen.
It is also satisfactory in many other respects. Although there are several significant plot changes – especially near the end regarding the character of her cousin St. John Rivers – the spirit of the story is quite in alignment with the book. The unique combination of Jane’s faith and passion and desire are present. We can hear her thinking her way through her decisions, such as her decision to leave Mr. Rochester after he asks her to stay with him even though he is married. We hear her despair when she believes that he is going to marry Blanche Ingram. There is her anger as a child directed against her abusive aunt, her desire for freedom and independence. And in the musical, even more than any movie, she is always present on stage, which is as it should be, since the book is told entirely from her perspective.
I also like how the musical handles Mr. Rochester’s character. In most movies I have seen, they tend to de-emphasize how proud he is and how much he has been humbled at the end and how that humbling has made him a better person and more her equal. Because of what he has gone through, it is no longer as a grand lord conferring a favor on her by marrying. He now comes to her as much in need of her as she needs him. He talks a lot in the book and emotes often, so it was always easier to translate his character from the book to the screen, but he has more character arc, I feel, in the musical.
The songs are lovely…though perhaps not as catchy as some musicals I have heard. They further the plot, however, excellently and allow the characters to express their inner turmoil and thinking. I have been familiar with the musical for quite a while, solely from the CD I had of the cast recording. It stars Marla Schaffel as Jane Eyre and James Barbour as Mr. Rochester. James Barbour has one of the most beautiful baritone voices I have ever heard, rich and warm with wonderful range and capable of singing so softly and tenderly and then thundering the next minute. He is one of my favorite Broadway singers of today. I once saw him play Lancelot in Camelot when the musical came to Seattle on tour. After he sang “If Ever I would Leave You” I could literally hear sighs from various women all around the audience. I think I might have been one of them.
I really was glad to see Jane Eyre live as a musical. It was a fairly small theater space, but they used it very well and the performers were all excellent – though the Mr. Rochester could become a trifle theatrical at times. It was a lovely production and as far as adaptations of the book go, I think I prefer the musical above any movie I have seen so far.
Here is a clip of Marla Schaffel and James Barbour, giving a taste of the musical to audiences in New York City, before the show opened on Broadway. They are singing the song “Secret Soul.”