Today’s Jane Austen fans, known affectionately as “Janeites,” maintain a fervent dedication to the writer, born in England in 1775, who is considered one of literature’s foremost novelists. The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), for example, with over 5,000 in their ranks, continues to honor the life and genius of the author of such masterpieces as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.”
But how would Austen devotees interpret a theatrical production in which the author, herself, interacts on stage with characters from her own creation? How would any theatergoer handle such a plot line? And what if all takes place within a musical format?
Those are the general premises behind “Austen’s Pride,” a new musical of “Pride and Prejudice,” being presented from March 28 through April 14, at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) of Connecticut, in Ridgefield. The show’s book, music and lyrics were co-written by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs.
“It’s not just for Janeites,” said Warren Baker, about the piece. “It’s not just for people who love Austen and ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ It’s for theater lovers, people who like musicals, people who like to hum tunes walking out, people who like to feel good and be touched. That’s who the show is for.”
“This is a story for everybody,” added Jacobs. “It really is the story of unconditional love. And what our world desperately needs is beauty, and it needs love.”
“Austen’s Pride” had its first production at the Ohio Light Opera in 2006. It has since been produced at La Mirada in California, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, and the New York Music Festival, where it won the Stage Entertainment Award, and was named the Most Promising Musical.
Both “Austen’s Pride” authors have known each other for the past 20 years, and their first collaboration was on a musical entitled “Daniel,” in the late ’90s. “Austen’s Pride” soon followed.
“The phase of the show ‘Daniel’ was winding down, and we didn’t know if we were going to be working on another project or not,” recalled Baker. “It was in the late ’90s, when a wave of Jane Austen movies had been coming out. I was a fan of costume drama and I really loved watching those films. I showed up at Amanda’s house one day and said ‘I need to do something Jane Austen someday. I just love the stories, and I love the female characters. And she said, ‘Well, that’s really funny, because I’ve been thinking about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and I’ve been thinking how it might make a good musical.’ ”
Jacobs admitted that she wasn’t really a Janeite “until I got involved with the project. I just wanted to write a show, that I wanted to see. That was how we approached it,” she said. “And we got involved with JASNA, who kept us on the right path. And we indeed became Janeites from the process of loving Jane Austen and really admiring her genius.”
The pair actually made a trip to England during the development of the project, which began as an operetta. They visited the locations Austen wrote about in her novels and places where she lived and worked.
“In 2003, we had been struggling for a way to tell the story, although our music was good,” Jacobs said. “Someone from JASNA suggested we go to England, and then we’d know exactly how to tell the story. And that’s what happened. We visited every place mentioned in the novel and every place where Jane Austen wrote it. And we looked at the story from that side of time.”
Jane Austen is now an integral part of “Austen’s Pride,” interacting with the characters on stage, who sometime plead with her to realign the stars on their behalf in the story she’s writing.
“One of the most amazing things for me is how the show has affected my writer friends,” said Jacobs, “watching a writer come face to face with their creation and themselves in the process.”
For more information about “Austen’s Pride,” visit actofct.org.