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Jane Austen's 'Emma' Comes To The Old Globe

Paul Gordon wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the stage musical of Jane Austen's "Emma."
Paul Gordon wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the stage musical of Jane Austen's "Emma."
Jane Austen's 'Emma' Comes To The Old Globe
Jane Austen's appeal translated to the screen long ago, and now the stage becomes a home for the 19th century novelist's comedy of manners. The Old Globe will stage a musical version of "Emma," featuring the matchmaking heroine who can't figure out her own love life. We'll talk with the writer and composer of "Emma," along with director Jeff Calhoun.

Jane Austen's appeal translated to the screen long ago, and now the stage becomes a home for the 19th century novelist's comedy of manners. The Old Globe will stage a musical version of "Emma," featuring the matchmaking heroine who can't figure out her own love life. We'll talk with the writer and composer of "Emma," along with director Jeff Calhoun.


Paul Gordon wrote the music, lyrics and book for "Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy."


Jeff Calhoun is directing the Old Globe's production of "Emma." Calhoun recently directed "Bonnie and Clyde" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

"Emma" opens on January 15th at the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. It runs through February 27th.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS in San Diego, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Jane off then described her own work as a fine brush on ivory. Her characters are somewhat proper, as the English were in the early 19th search, but they have passion and personality that we can relate to today. The old globe is banking on that, as it opens a new musical version this weekend. It features Emma, are the woman who is so sure she knows what's in the heart of others but he discovers she's blind to what's in her own. So we have this production of Emma opening up, and we have in studio, Paul Gordon, who wrote the music and the lyrics for it. Paul, thanks so much for being with us.

GORDON: Great to be here.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And Jeff Calhoun who is the direct offer of proof of this particular direction and has his own creative take on it.


CALHOUN: Alison, a pleasure to be here.

ALISON ST. JOHN: One of the things you ask yourself when writing a musical is do the characters sing? How do the characters in Emma sing.

GORDON: Well, you know, I think ultimately that will be a question that the audience will decide. But for me when I'm approaching a musical for the first time, I want to feel like they are in the world of music, and partly, I think what makes me believe that for this particular piece is really Jane Austin's writing. She's just a magnificent writer. She's obviously lasted 230 years. And you know, somehow period pieces might tend to be easier to musicalize and easier to imagine. But it can't just be that. And there's an elegance, I think to Jane Austen's words, that when I was reading the novel, felt the musical on the page. I mean, sometimes I just start to read her prose and her poetic language and actually start to hear music and just start to hear a rhythm to what she's saying. And I think the characters in the piece are -- lend themselves to particular musical motifs. Of the relationships with Emma and knightly and Emma and Harriet felt very naturally musical to me, so we'll find out if audiences agree.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Yeah, it's certainly an unexpected idea, but I think a really interesting one. So you actually wrote a book, another version of it, and this is the first time you've written a book, I understand. How was it to write -- to adapt adjust?

GORDON: It was challenging because it's always challenging to adapt a novel and create it for the stage. But my experience, having done Jane Eyre on Broadway with John Caird I think actually informed me how this process could work. And I think when John and I were doing the early days of Jane Eyre we were attempting to perform the novel on stage, which was a very good intention in staying true to Charlotte bran at a's working but it did not work theatrically in the beginning. So when I approached this working Emma, I came from the point of view of which parts of the story are really necessary to move the story forward? Because in theatre, you can't -- you don't want to be in the theatre for four hours unless you're doing Nicholas nickel bee. So I was very -- I was very concerned and very sort of meticulous about which sections to musicalize, and which sections not to. There's a wonderful section in the book where Mr. Elton sends Harriet and Emma riddles. And I thought this was be a wonderful song and a wonderful comic song and in my mind I started hearing what it might be. But then as I started to read further, I went we don't need this plot point. We've already said it. This would be redundant, and yes, it would make a nice song but it's not gonna move the story forward.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Because Emma's story is quite a complex story isn't is it? It's a lot of characters and relationships to build up.

GORDON: Absolutely.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But the main theme you kept. And I understand that you kept a lot of the dialogue, the original dialog.

GORDON: I tried to keep as much of the dialogue as I could, because you can't improve on adjust. But obviously in the telling of the story theatrically, you have to condense, you have to change, you have to alter, and there are obviously plenty of characters and scene where is she did not write dialogue. So it had to be invented. But I think one of the main differences, one of the things that we left out was the story of John knightly and Emma's sister. They're mentioned, they're part of the fabric, but they're not characters am I think if you watch all the movie adaptations, that are featured. But we just didn't have time to get into the nuances of their story, and it didn't feel absolutely necessary to propel the momentum of our story telling.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Interesting. So but does her prose actually work for lyrics in.

GORDON: Usually what happens for me is that there'll be a line on a page that will be sort of a title, like for instance one of the songs that just comes to mind is I made the match myself. And that's a line that Emma actually says. And that triggered an entire song. I didn't necessarily use any other prose from the page. But that one sentence triggered the entire idea and oh, this is what the song would be about. This is how she would say it. And I tried to stay as true to Jane Austen's language, and that's the really tricky part, being in the contemporary world, and trying to limit yourself to early 19th century language. We often have conversations are -- did this word exist? Would they have said it quite this way? Now, I'm sure we've taken some liberties here and there but --

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, let's hear how it works. We have that here to play for you, I made the match myself.

GORDON: Oh, okay.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The song to which you were just referring, performed by Patti Murin as Emma Woodhouse and Adam Monley as Mr. Knightley.

(Audio Recording Played).

ALISON ST. JOHN: There is kind of a dynamic between the two of them that's pretty neat.

GORDON: Oh, yeah.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And you've captured it there in the music, I think.

GORDON: Thank you.

ALISON ST. JOHN: How modern is this adaptation? Did you modernize it or is it a very period piece?

GORDON: Well, are the story is it very modern. I think that's what's very interesting about adjust in general, and this particular story in particular. And I think the relationship between Emma and knightly, you know, it's a romantic comedy, it's -- you know, one could argue that it started with Shakespeare, but one could also argue that Emma is one of the first romantic comedies in literature. Of and it really paved the way for the modern romantic comedy as we know it. Woody Allen's Andy Hall, Nori Efram's When Harry Met Sally, the entire Tracy/Hepburn relationship in thirds requirement films, that genre that we've come to love, I really think a lot of it started with adjust and Emma, so I think the story will be very familiar to modern audiences. And especially women will relate very, very much to this story.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We're speaking with Paul Gordon who wrote the music and lyrics for this new production of Emma at the Old Globe, and Jeff, Jeff Calhoun is the director. What about the way you chose to direct this production? Is it modernized or did you keep the period costumes?

CALHOUN: No, as Paul was saying, it's very much a period piece. But with modern sensibilities.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So talk a bit about how you added modern sensibilities.

CALHOUN: Well, as you can tell, listening to Paul, he's extraordinarily brilliant. Of and the material reflects that. So my job was actually not very can I have cult. As far as the visual's concerned, I did -- my one fear was that there was a passivity or -- I wanted to be sure it had a drive, adjust, and that it wasn't too soft. 'Cause let's be real as Paul said, it is a chick flick. It's something that girls grow up reading, and I certainly didn't as a boy living in Pittsburgh going to stealer games, read Jane Austen.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So you didn't read any of Jane Austen's works.

CALHOUN: I must confess, I didn't.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And do you feel that was a conscious, was that a conscious choice not to read request of her works before are you did this?

CALHOUN: No, no. It just was not in my frame of reference till I did this. Of course I did once I got the job. I did my proper due diligence, and did my research, and am now a fan. I wish I had read it when I was a kid, but that just wasn't the case.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Do you think that happened?

CALHOUN: I'd like to think that's an ark tribute. I'd like to think I'm a bridge or a conduit from the people who are Austin fans and the people who have not been exposed to it. But this will be accessible to them, and they'll see the universality of the theme, and it really is just a joy, especially if you like musicals. But to answer your question, Alison, about the modern look to it, I wanted it to have an energy. So I think I said to Paul when we first met, when the audiences walk in, I want them to gasp right away at what they're looking at. And to maintain that kind of energy for the rest of the evening. And so we have, I call him my secret weapon, his name is Tobin Ost, and he's designed what I think is kind of an exquisite beautiful set that I think will thrill the audiences here in San Diego. I certainly hope so.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Paul as a big smile on his face. Can you scribe it for us a little bit? Tell us what to expect?

GORDON: Well, it's all based on period research of what their gardens looked like, and actually a maze, and hedges that you seem them walking through. Very merchant ivory, or ivory merchant, I should say.

LEF1: Absolutely.

CALHOUN: But again, I just want it to have that energy. Because not a lot -- because all the action is really internal in the show, and so I was also very worried about that, would the show feel too passive and not driving enough? You upon, no one gets shot, there's no blood, there's no raping. It just doesn't happen. Of it's all very relationship oriented and internal struggles. Relationship struggles.

GORDON: And I think Jeff has created visually an amazing metaphor for the show. There's a sort of a turn table that goes in front of the stage, and Emma is sort of in the center of it, as the world resolves around her. Because let's face it: Of the character of Emma is narcicisstic. And that's amazing about this story, I think, is that Emma becomes self aware. She actually -- there's a transformation that happens to her character, which is exquisite to watch, and Jeff has just created this world, this elegance, where not only do we, as Jeff just said internally feel that transformation, but we physically see it in this incredible design that they've created, and I just -- you know, I couldn't be happier, just as somebody, just like sort of watching their craft and their artistry, what they do, I just think that it -- it goes so far in helping to tell the story.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So yeah, I mean, did it help for you -- was it sort of an interesting challenge to have a her win who had a blind spot as Emma has?

CALHOUN: Well, of course. That's the drama, and that was lead to the metaphors that Paul's speaking about for the personifications of those for the set. But also the bar was set high, the work -- Paul has created -- his voice is very singular. The music, it doesn't sound like anyone else's. It's really unique and beautiful and creates a very hypnotic world that takes you to a place you haven't been before. And the challenge was creating a set that matched that. Of so it felt like one person did everything.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. So now, Paul, what about you? What characters really helped you write the score?

GORDON: Well, as I was saying, I think Emma really helped the most because of her flaw. I mean, you always want a protagonist that is wrong about something at the start of the story. And I think in Jane Austen's creation of Emma, you really have this character that is pretty much wrong about everything. But she -- Jane Austen brilliantly created her to be love annual, in spite of these flaws. So that when she has her transformation at the end, the amazing thing about her is that she admits that she's wrong, you be, when the story is coming to its climax, and I don't think I'm giving anything -- there's no real spoilers here, because most people are familiar with the story. And I just think it's -- it's an amazing thing to watch a character actually admit that they were wrong and when she does that, she's actually able to open up her own heart to receive love. And I think that's a really important message. I mean, this is a romantic comedy of it's not gonna change the world. But there's a wonderful message behind this work that I think Jeff and I both are happy to share with audiences. And really, I mean, I think this would be a better world if more people could admit they are wrong when they are wrong.


GORDON: And I know that my life would be better if I admitted I was wrong more often.

ALISON ST. JOHN: It certainly has a happy ending, doesn't it, when she admits that she is wrong.

GORDON: It does. Of and believe me, I -- you know, when art creates that thing where you leave the theatre or listen to a piece of music uplifted, you know, that's a wonderful thing to be able to achieve. And I think that's one of the things that Jeff and I are trying to do is make people feel good while instilling this message of hope.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We have to take a break here, but we'll be right back to talk a little bit more about this production of Jane Austen's Emma at the old globe with the director, Jeff Calhoun, and Paul Gordon who wrote the music and the lyrics. Here on KPBS. Stay with us.

And you're back on These Days with myself, Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and Paul Gordon who wrote the music and lyrics for Jane Austen's Emma, and Jeff Calhoun is directing the old Globe's production so now, Paul, you had regard written, you mentioned earlier in the program that you'd written a musical of Jane Eyre before that did win a lot of critical acclaim, but it closed after a six-month run on Broadway. Do you think that Emma might have more general appeal than that?

GORDON: Well, you know, I wish I could predict the future of anything. So that will be a lovely gift to have. I think one can only approach these things in, you know, trying to create work that pleases one's self that you hope people relate to. With that said, I do think there's a huge popularity and resurgence of Jane Austen's working obviously. And I do think that, you know, Jane Eyre was I very Gothic, epic piece of musical theatre that I'm very proud of. But it wasn't necessarily completely audience friendly. And I think Jane Austen is. I think this is a piece, if you like musicals that it may appeal to you. If you don't like musicals, you may not want to go to the theatre. But I do feel like this is a piece that can reach people of all ages, and that men who go to the theatre with their wives or girlfriends or friends will really enjoy as well. I think it's a story that just -- will just reach out and pull you in. Of.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So it does seem like at a time when there's a lot of the economy is depressed, a lot of negative news out there, that perhaps musicals are actually becoming more popular. And you're hoping that this one that has a little bit more of a light touch.


ALISON ST. JOHN: Than Jane Eyre might hit home. Speaking of home, we have some more music here from your production.


ALISON ST. JOHN: Home, which features Will Reynolds as Frank Churchill and Patti Murin as Emma Woodhouse.

(Audio Recording Played)

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay, that was Emma and Frank Churchill singing from the production of Emma at The Old Globe Theatre, and Paul who is the author of the music and the book, you have managed to -- I would say accomplish a feet here of translating this novel into music. And you're still tinkering with the music, I understand. Have you actually changed some of the songs while it's been here at The Old Globe.

GORDON: Oh, absolutely. We've done -- I mean not a to know of musical work, but I have a wonderful music team of Laura Berkowitz and Brad hock and myself every day, we're looking at the score, and we're looking at either a particular them or incidental music that, you know, where we're moving stuff across the stage. But there was one song called stranger things have happened that was a duet between Emma and Harriet in the second act. This is when Emma completely misunderstands who Harriet is speaking of when she has a new infatuation.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That's the core of all the confusions isn't it.

GORDON: Exactly. And so it was an important song, and going into rehearsal, it was the one melody that I just wasn't happy with. And I just decided to go into the practice room and rewrite -- more or less keep the lyric almost in tact, but I rewrote all of the music to something that I think we like a lot better. And sort it's sort of become one of my favorite songs in the show. And so it was really fun to be able to have the luxury, I think, of being able to tinker instead of Jeff and I looking at ourselves going the second act doesn't working you be?


GORDON: So that's really the advantage, I think, coming into this production is that we had done it a few times and now Jeff has completely re-imagined it in this wonderful way, and it gave me the opportunity just to tweak and change some things. Of and the other thing I want to say about Jeff is that he came in sort of with what he calls baby eyes. You know? Not being as familiar with Jane Austen as I was, and asked some incredibly good questions. And said, well, I don't understand why is that happening? And how does that make sense? And really gave me the opportunity to examine and re-examine the work. And I really think make the piece better and fuller. And easier to understand and comprehend because you don't want to be confusing the audience justice because you understand what this relationship is, you can't just assume that everybody sitting in the audience understands what you understand. And I think that's another wonderful benefit that Jeff brought to this production.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But he had the benefit of having you, the author, there, to sort of tweak things if you didn't feel it was working.

CALHOUN: Well, not only that but a very generous author in class action. Paul is very modest. He was nominated for a Tony award for Jane Eyre, so we're working with a really brilliant guy here. But also, nothing's precious with Paul. He's willing to reinvestigate anything in the show. So that's made my job much, much easier as well.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And Paul, a quick question about your musical sort of leanings, what kind of music inn spires you and what do you listen to?

GORDON: Well, I love to say that I love the Beatles and Steven Sondheim. I listen to a lot of classical music. I've recently been listening to George Gershwin's Concerto in F, which I find to be an incredibly fascinating piece of music, a brilliant piece of music. I listen to a lot of Elvis Costello. And I listen to a lot of John Williams' film scores, who I think is just so brilliant Harmonically, and he just conspires he, and I listen to some of the things that he does, and I just don't know how he does it. So I like to listen to music that's challenging, that has some harmonic twists and turns to it that I don't want always know where it's going and it surprises me.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And Jeff, you just mentioned earlier that you used to watch stealers games in Pittsburgh.

CALHOUN: Oh, I still do. I don't have to have rehearsal this Saturday afternoon.

ALISON ST. JOHN: How did you get from Pittsburgh into the theatre?

CALHOUN: Well, I always danced as a young kid. I was sort of like Troy Bolton in high school musical. I directed our shows at school, but I also played football. But it was a benefit because I picked shows with big choruses, and I'd get the whole football team to come and be in the ensemble for our high school musical, come, from what I hear was unheard of other schools in the country. This was long before Glee.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Jane Austen which is a fine brush on ivory being directed by --

CALHOUN: This low brow kid from Pittsburgh, yes.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But as you said, I think that's the key, that's the ticket to make it accessible. And you're also a choreographer, as I understand. There's a scene in the book where there's a dance. Do you make use of that in this production?

CALHOUN: Yes, that was tricky. Because it's a modern musical as far as the cast size is concerned of and that's always tricky when you're doing a waltz, and you don't have 16 couples up there, so that was challenging. Will but I think part of the trick of that was making the audience only see a portion of the dance floor. So a lot of it takes place in our imagination in the wings.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. And you work indeed a waltz?

CALHOUN: Yes, absolutely.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay, yeah. I think we've got a sort of picture in our mind of that.

CALHOUN: It's hard to actually explain the visual of the show, I think.

GORDON: Which is why people should come see it.

CALHOUN: That was good.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That's the best rationale. Now, Jane Austen has just been so popular in the last five years. Any thoughts as to why her appeal continues so strong?

GORDON: Because I think that her stories are contemporary. I mean, I think that's why pride and prejudice continues to be incredibly popular. And I do think Emma is her most accessible working and you know, there -- the relationship between her and knightly and, you know, her best friend and the make over, I mean, that's why clueless was such a popular film because it was just -- it was a situation that we all can relate to, that we all understand. And the love story is always intriguing to us, I think. You know, we're all just trying to figure it out. And here we have this woman who is madly not trying to figure it out, actually. She thinks she knows everything that's going on. And it's so interesting to watch. And I do think that it's something that is extremely contemporary. Of I guess I keep saying that word because I just feel that it's so true.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Jeff, got anything to add to that?

CALHOUN: Yeah, also it's hard to discuss Emma at length without talking about the woman who's actually flaying Emma in our production. A real star, her name is Patti Murin. Upon and she's exceptional. It was very, very hard to cast this part because you want to pay your respects to Jane Austen but you also want to entertain, you know, this new generation that only knows it from clues. So you want her to sort of bridge both worlds, and I think Patti does it beautifully, not to mention that she's an exquisite singer and actress and beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. And funny like Lucile Ball. She has that rare thing of being a beauty and very funny.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Oh, that's important for the story.

CALHOUN: So we're very lucky to have Patti. I think audiences will just adore her.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And anything for people who are really Jane Austen fans issue going that's going to surprise or shock them about this production.

GORDON: No, I actually think that Jane Austen fans will actually appreciate how true we've stayed to her vision. And I think that was very important for Jeff and I.

CALHOUN: Absolutely.

GORDON: What that we just maintain this consistency, yet we take our liberties where we do. And as I said, there's aspects of the book that I did not include. But I think we're very true to the characters and the story telling, and you know -- I do think true Jane Austen fans will appreciate what we've done. Unless of course they don't like musicals.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, are the thing is to --

GORDON: No control of that.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Check it out. So Emma, the musical opens on January 15th at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, and it runs through February 27th. I'd like to thank you both, Paul Gordon and Jeff Calhoun for joining us here on These Days.

CALHOUN: Alison, thanks very much.

GORDON: Thanks Alison. Appreciate it.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And stay with us. Coming up in the next half hour, we'll be talking about a few other possible things you could do this weekend, dramatical productions around San Diego.