‘Years and years and years.’ That is how far back Richard Croxford’s dream of making Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice into a musical goes. To a period, in other words, well before Colin Firth emerged from a lake in a wet shirt in a BBC television adaptation that set the pulses of a nation racing.
That iconic ‘Mr Darcy!’ moment will not feature in Pride and Prejudice: The Musical, which opened the autumn season at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre on September 5. Not least because, as Croxford hastens to remind me, it was not a scene in Austen’s novel in the first place.
‘I was keen to be very faithful to the book,’ Croxford comments. ‘And for it to cover the whole novel, not just my version of it. There’s great wit there, great drama there, and there’s wonderful romance there. So for me Pride and Prejudice is ideal to turn into a musical.’
Croxford – artistic director of the Lyric Theatre – has little time for those who object on principle to the idea of a classic novel such as Pride and Prejudice being cast in the unashamedly populist, crowd-pleasing format of musical theatre.
‘I think it’s giving it a whole fresh approach,’ he argues. ‘The music helps us get into the characters’ heads more, I feel. Some of the songs add drama to the piece, some add comedy. I really just think it gives a more rounded feeling of the period.’
And for those who prefer an evening in the theatre to an evening in an armchair reading, Pride and Prejudice: The Musical is, adds Croxford, simply a more accessible proposition, a more palatable way of digesting the content of Austen’s novel.
‘Austen is pretty accessible anyway,' he adds, 'but music helps you get into it, and makes it even more accessible. And Robin Peoples’ set is stunning, he’s done such a beautiful job with it.’
In writing the book for the new show, Croxford has taken the opportunity to use Austen’s original words as much as possible, including in the songs, where alterations to prose passages are usually needed to produce singable lyrics. So there is plenty of authentic Austenian language in the musical for fans of the novel to chew on.
Croxford is by his own admission no musician, but oddly found musical ideas drifting into his mind as he put the text in order. ‘It’s funny, when I was writing I would either get into a kind of rhythm in my head or I would actually start writing a tune in my head. And then of course you have to hand it over.’
The man chosen by Croxford to hand the words over to for musical setting was the Northern Irish composer Mark Dougherty, an experienced and highly versatile music theatre practitioner, with an opera, several musicals, and a four-year stint as musical director of the phenomenally successful Riverdance to his credit.
‘At the stage I first considered it,’ explains Croxford, ‘I didn’t think there was another musical version of Pride and Prejudice. Since then I’ve discovered there are two or three others, all American versions.
‘We knew very early on that we didn’t want to do that big, American-style sort of musical. Our version has a very light, period feel to it, without being heavily classical. The all-singing, all-dancing thing is just not what we wanted to do at all.’
Dougherty confirms that the blowzy, spectacular approach of the stereotypical American musical was not one that he considered mimicking on this particular occasion. ‘The style of modern day musical theatre doesn’t really complement Austen’s story very well,’ he comments.
‘So I decided to go with a mixture of more classical influences, a kind of Mozartian peppering on top of the musical theatre style, so that it would reflect more of the period, and wouldn’t feel odd jumping into a contemporary ballad or duet straight from dialogue.’
The discursive, conversational nature of Austen’s novel, and Croxford’s adaptation of it, have led to Dougherty making special efforts in his score to avoid lurching too obviously from spoken dialogue to song, and back again.
‘It comes in and out of dialogue very easily, I think,’ he says. ‘My hope is that the audience won’t think, “Oh my goodness, there’s another song”. I hope they won’t even notice the fact that the characters have started to sing.
‘There are some definite songs, and pure spoken sections, but there are also spoken sections within songs. In other musicals I’ve written I’ve called these “montages”, where it’s a combination of singing, of talking, of singing melody and semi-singing more narrative bits that further the story.’
This flexible approach to the type of music being used at a particular moment in the musical – and the particular structures being used to frame it – is, argues Dougherty, especially suited to the atmosphere of Austen’s novel.
‘The book is intimate. It is about each character, and the pairings of the couples. It’s not something where there’s people running around singing the 'Hallelujah Chorus', although we do have one big company number describing the ball called 'First Impressions', and another called 'Pemberley', with lots of maids and servants. That’s a big tribute, a big anthem to the stateliness of this beautiful house that Darcy lives in.’
Having some of the cast also playing instruments onstage helps to further blur the distinction between the spoken and musical elements in the finished musical. Finding actors who are equally adept as singers, dancers and instrumentalists is obviously not easy, and has led to what Croxford describes as ‘one of the longest and most complex audition processes’ he can remember.
He is, however, ‘delighted’ with the finished product, and with the fact that four of the cast of 12, and both musical accompanists, are Northern Irish. ‘It’s a mammoth ask for them,’ he acknowledges. ‘But they are just fantastic, with a huge amount of talent.’ Perhaps the same can be said of him.
Pride and Prejudice: The Musical runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until October 6.