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Interview: Paul Gordon And Robert Kelley of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Team Up to Bring Another Jane Austen Novel to Glorious Musical Life

Kelley’s production of Gordon’s new musical runs live onstage in Palo Alto March 9th to April 3rd

Interview: Paul Gordon And Robert Kelley of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Team Up to Bring Another Jane Austen Novel to Glorious Musical Life
Antoinette Comer and Sharon Rietkerk star as sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood
in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Sense and Sensibility

For those of us who believe there can never be enough Jane Austen in this world, and for "Bridgerton" fans who are desperately in need a Regency period fix while awaiting season two of that Netflix juggernaut, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is coming to the rescue. A new musical version of Austen's Sense and Sensibility will play live onstage at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto March 9th through April 3rd. The production will also be made available for streaming, with details on that soon to be announced.

Featuring a lush and cinematic score by Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon (Broadway's Jane Eyre), this regional premiere explores the trials of sisters Marianne & Elinor Dashwood as these two strong women overcome hardship in pursuit of happiness and love. Gordon previously transformed two of Austen's other beloved stories into musicals seen at TheatreWorks, Emma and the 2019 world premiere of Pride and Prejudice, now streaming on Amazon Prime. TheatreWorks Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley, who retired in 2020 after 50 years at the helm, returns to direct this new Austen adaptation.

Kelley and Gordon have both enjoyed long and prolific careers individually while also forging a fruitful partnership on many of Gordon's musicals at TheatreWorks over the years. Gordon found early success as a pop songwriter (e.g the #1 hit "Next Time I Fall" by Amy Grant and Peter Cetera) before a chance meeting with John Caird of Les Miserables fame led him to refocus his energies on musical theater. Gordon has since created many popular musicals, often writing the music, lyrics and book, as he has done for Sense and Sensibility. His recent Estella Scrooge became a streaming sensation with the knockout cast of Betsy Wolfe, Danny Burstein, Carolee Carmello, Lauren Patten and Patrick Page.

Kelley is of course extremely well-known to Bay Area theatergoers, having directed over 175 productions at TheatreWorks alone, and receiving San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Direction for his productions of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Into the Woods, Pacific Overtures, Rags, Sweeney Todd, Another Midsummer Night, Sunday in the Park with George, and Caroline, or Change. This coming June, Kelley will also direct a long-awaited, new production of Ragtime.

I recently caught up with both Kelley and Gordon by phone from their respective home bases of Northern California and New York. At the time we spoke, rehearsals had just begun, and both men were brimming over with enthusiasm at working together once again on a live stage production after the long COVID shutdown. We talked about how this show differs from the other two in Gordon's unofficial Austen trilogy, what it was like to be back in the rehearsal room both in-person and virtually, how they go about making revisions to the show during rehearsals, and their thoughts on the increasingly common practice of streaming theater. In conversation, both men are affable and thoughtful, and their respect for each other's talent and joy in collaborating is evident throughout. The following has been condensed from two separate conversations and edited for clarity.

Interview: Paul Gordon And Robert Kelley of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Team Up to Bring Another Jane Austen Novel to Glorious Musical Life
Director Robert Kelley

First off, Kelley, how has your "semi-retirement" been going?

RK: Well, it's been going fine, but quite different from what I expected. The opportunity to go places or try new things evaporated just at the time I was retiring. So that was really strange. And then really what did anybody do but mostly stay home and go for hikes out in the woods and stuff like that? I've probably walked more in the last 18 months than I did in the previous 50 years at TheatreWorks [laughs] so that was probably good for my health. But I've certainly missed doing theater and going to theater. I've missed the thrill of the theater world, which I had no intention of leaving behind when I retired.

And now you're back, directing a third Jane Austen musical.

RK: Oh, I love Jane Austen. I think she's just incredible, her ability to care about the characters she creates and yet satirize them. The good ones, the bad ones, all of them get a kind of subtle comic overlay in her work, and certainly in Paul's interpretation. There's a lot of laughter, even in a show like Sense and Sensibility where the show is about seeking romance, but really the heart of it is the relationship of two sisters and how they support each other, learn from each other, grow with each other.

Paul, what do you especially love about this particular Jane Austen novel?

PG: Well, I guess this is really my favorite Jane Austen. I mean, I love all of them. They have a really great narrative and pace to them, and humor. But Sense has a weightiness to it that other Austen novels don't exactly have. And I really felt like I could create a score that had a bit more weight to it, a little more resonance and seriousness than the other Austen pieces. So it opened up some new channels for me musically.

Kelley, you've directed quite a number of Paul Gordon musicals. What draws you to his work?

RK: It's very accessible, and it has a wonderful appreciation of Jane Austen and the essence of what she was writing. I think Paul manages to beautifully condense very long novels into just a couple of hours of stage time with great songs, and I really admire that. This is kind of the third of his Austen trilogy, if you will, that I've directed and it's different from the others.

How would you describe the differences between the three shows?

RK: I would say this one is a romantic drama, whereas Emma is a flat-out comedy, and Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy. They all have a feminist twist to them that Paul was able to uncover without being absolutely contemporary, but still satirical of a world that didn't give women their due in a male-dominated society.

Interview: Paul Gordon And Robert Kelley of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Team Up to Bring Another Jane Austen Novel to Glorious Musical Life
Composer Paul Gordon

Paul, as a composer how did you go about conceiving a specific sound for each show?

PG: Emma was my first Austen and I knew I wanted it to be small, so I wrote it for cello, violin, oboe and piano, and I kept the score a little less complex than some of my other music because the tone of the show seemed to suggest that. When I got to Pride and Prejudice, I just heard a different sort of sound. I felt the story could work for modern audiences so I composed a score that had a bit more bass and drums in it, more pop sensibility, but still centered in Austen's world. And then for Sense it just was pure orchestral leaning. I really felt this was a string and cello sound, something more cinematic than the other two scores. It's definitely a more harmonically complex score, but the characters are more complex so I felt that that was a good marriage of the two worlds.

And as a book writer, you have quite a talent for condensing complex novels into standard-length musicals while still retaining the spirit of their source material. This is not an easy thing to do! What's your secret sauce for accomplishing that?

PG: [Creating] Jane Eyre taught myself and John Caird a lot about taking a novel to the stage. I think the mistakes we made along the way were just trying to include [too much]. Trying to stay too true to the novel ended up being a mistake for a stage musical. So when I got to Emma and Sense and Pride and Prejudice, my focus was really about how do I tell this story in two hours so modern audiences can sit through this and enjoy it? We talk in musicals about "murdering your darlings," so I had to do that for Jane Austen. In her novels, I had to decide "Well, this character is great, but I don't necessarily feel like that's an important story to tell." It's really just trying to balance yourself as a book writer and as a composer, going "Man, I would really love to write a song here because it would be funny and lift up the audience, but it's not going to move the storytelling forward, so I'm not going to do it."

So really the secret sauce is that every decision you make has to serve the storytelling. And if it doesn't, then it's probably not necessary to tell that part of the novel onstage. But listen, it's trial and error, and in each of these shows, doing table reads and run-throughs really informed me, like "Uh! I got that wrong. That doesn't need to be there, I need to put this back in." What's been great is the directors I've been working with on these Austen pieces have really allowed me to test the waters, which is so helpful when you're creating a new piece.

Have you started in-person rehearsals yet?

RK: We did a first sing-through of the show yesterday. The music is just truly beautiful all the way through, and I'm so eager to get it in front of an audience. But of course, just being back in rehearsal is an absolute thrill for me.

I mean, everybody was tested, we were all standing far apart, outside, after having our tests - it was a lovely day in California, about 70 degrees, so that wasn't a problem. But everyone had to wait 15 minutes for their test results before they were even allowed into the room. Once we got inside, there were various mask protocols and different things we were doing to keep it safe for everybody, but I'm sure nothing different from what's being done all over the country. You know, in every theater you can imagine, people are trying to deal with all this in a committed way, not just to protect the show, but to protect the actors and the staff. It's an obligation that you need to be very aware of as you move forward, but you get used to it. The interesting part is that because our rehearsal space is in the same building as our offices, everyone coming into the building has to be tested a couple of times a week, even on the Admin side.

What was it like all being together in the rehearsal room for the first time? What were you feeling?

RK: Well, I'm usually pretty excited the first day of rehearsal, of course, because it's a new piece, a new journey, a new family of artists. But this was different, all those feelings and then this immense wave of joy that kind of washed over me and wouldn't go away for the whole day. I just realized that what I was feeling must be what everyone in the room was feeling. Most of them hadn't been in a show for a couple of years.

But, yeah, I was thrilled and probably talking too much. [laughs] Part of not having any theater going on for 18-19-20 months, I had a lot of time to think about the show and the characters, to read the novel Sense and Sensibility over and over, and I just was alive with excitement and probably too much information. [laughs]

Paul, since you're on the East coast, are you able to participate in rehearsals for Sense and Sensibility?

PG: I actually am. It was really exciting. I had a crazy weekend, I had a reading of another show on Friday on the first day of the TheatreWorks reading, so I couldn't be there for the meet and greet, and then this weekend I had a recording session for a new show I'm working on, but Sunday night I managed to get home by 7:00 where I could be on Zoom for the table read for Sense and Sensibility, which was just a blast. It was great because I was really able to get a good sense of the show and hear the singers and hear the music.

Kelley and I are working with each other all through this process. I made some script changes this morning and sent them to Kelley. And I'll be able to be there [virtually] most of the time. Which is great, because I'm working on four or five other projects, so being home allows me to do the work with Kelley on Sense and Sensibility, plus my other projects.

Kelley, it's been at least a couple of years since you first signed on to direct Sense and Sensibility, and of course so much has happened in our world during that time, between COVID and this necessary, ongoing racial reckoning that we've been undergoing. Has that changed your approach to the show, even though it's set two centuries ago?

RK: I don't think so. The novel certainly stands the test of time, and I think our show will as well. Our cast is very diverse racially, and that's always been the case at TheatreWorks. You think a little more about it now that we've been through all these major reckonings in the culture and in the theater world. I'm very proud that we do have a cast that's a diverse as it is. That's always been something that mattered to me.

When I see casts everywhere these days that are way more diverse than they would have been even two years ago, it seems like a recent phenomenon, but it isn't for TheatreWorks. Did you ever get any pushback for that?

RK: No. I think our audience has always been open to different kinds of casting. If you go all the way back to the 70's and the early 80's, because we were maybe breaking some new ground in that regard at TheatreWorks, we did have concern that if Mozart was played by [Asian-American actor] Francis Jue, you know, was that going to create any issues? Of course, it didn't. And it wouldn't have mattered if it did, to tell you the truth, because that's what we were gonna do.

It's certainly grown as a concept that everybody should be seen onstage, and every part of our community and our culture has not just a place onstage, but a lot to offer regardless of their ethnicity or race. They'd better be wonderful, but that's always been the criteria. You get great people and the audience will go with you.

Kelley, you're known as a very visual director, one who believes that what the stage picture looks like is what it means. So what is your production of Sense & Sensibility going to look like?

RK: Well, the costumes are period. The set itself is fairly abstract, but it relies on projections to reinforce different locations and to move us from one scene to another. Most of the projections are paintings by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and that's a conscious choice we made. Both were born within about 6 or 8 months of Jane Austen, all of them in 1775-1776. When I realized that, I just went, "Oh my, that's an incredible barrage of fascinating artistic minds. Let's put them all together in one place and see what it looks like."

And I think it flows into the tradition of these Austen pieces that we've done. We've tried to make them kind of a coherent trilogy. They're not identical in terms of how we've approached them, but they have similarities. It's like you're reading a three-novel set, if you see all of the productions we've done of her work.

One of the things I really appreciated about your production of Pride and Prejudice was that, although it took place in a wide variety of settings, I was never confused about where I was. That's not an easy thing to pull off.

RK: Well, especially when there's a huge number of scenes in different places. And that's almost inevitable when you're adapting a novel. You try to do your best represent what's different about each setting, and in some cases it's just a piece of furniture and a projection. But this show moves outside a lot, actually much more than the previous versions of it that Paul did at Chicago Shakespeare and The Old Globe. We've taken quite a few scenes outside, just cause I'm a romantic and it's nicer outside because you get flowers and all this stuff. So we'll see how that works out, cause that just makes it all that much harder, you know? You're not just going from one room to another, you're going from indoors to outdoors. We're trying to create a picnic on a lawn in an instant, and then make it go away. I think that will excite people when they see how we actually pull it off, but it's one of the challenges.

Has Paul been making changes to the book and the score?

RK: Absolutely. As soon as we talked about doing it, part of our offer was that we'd be delighted to have him keep working on it if he had things he wanted to add or change. And of course we've worked on so many shows together that we can exchange notes about "This works. Does that work?" And he's written a couple of new songs, some songs have been cut, some things have been trimmed here and there, and the overall show is a little tighter. I mean, it was a wonderful show to begin with. I saw it in Chicago when they debuted it and it was a gorgeous production, and I think anybody who saw it there will certainly recognize it's the same show. It hasn't been completely ripped apart or anything, but there are some new things.

Paul got to hear them [the changes] for the first time [last night]. He wrote me a note this morning and said, "You know, that new ending I wrote for one of the songs, I'm not sure it works. I'm gonna keep at it." I'm used to that because we've done so many shows together. And I've been telling a couple of the actors, "Well, you're doing the world premiere of that song, so off you go! Make it your own, make it brilliant."

PG: It's just that the show evolves. I saw some improvements we could still make in the piece, so I wrote two new songs. And Kelley always has great ideas and suggestions. This is the first Austen piece Kelley and I have worked on together where it wasn't his world premiere, so that's really a fun change for us, too. I'm still changing things, but probably not as much as I normally would because the show has already been developed and very well received. I'm really just making final changes and tweaks to the score.

How do the two of decide "Paul needs to write a new song here." vs. say "Kelley needs to restage this existing song."?

PG: Well, since Kelley's production is going to be different from the Chicago Shakespeare production, his ideas for staging are different, so his needs are different from mine. He'll write notes to me and say, "Would you consider changing the line here, cause I'm now going to stage this in the garden instead of in the library?" You know, things like that. So that stuff's easy. Of course, I'll change that line. But then some larger things, like he felt this morning that the character of Elinor was pleading too hard to Edward for his love, and I went, "Yeah! You know what? I think you're right." I've been in the show for so long and now Kelley's approaching it fresh, so I'm very open to what he gets from it with new ears and new eyes.

Paul, when we last spoke in November 2019 just before COVID hit, you were really excited about the opportunity to use streamingmusicals.com as a mechanism to expand the audience for your work and encourage future productions of it. Looking back on that conversation, I feel like you were incredibly prescient. How has the streaming effort been going so far?

PG: Because of the pandemic, theater obviously had to re-think a lot of things, so clearly the industry has been far more open to the idea of streaming live theater. We've done it a few different ways. We filmed Pride and Prejudice, and that's been on Amazon Prime and racked up 360,000 views, so really it's been incredibly successful. I mean obviously audiences come to TheatreWorks, but having your work seen by over 300,000 people is amazing, and amazing for the work because more people now want to do the show.

And during the pandemic, we were able to capture and stream Estella Scrooge, and we immediately got a licensing deal from Music Theatre International. That made a bunch of money and there will hopefully be productions of it in the future when things come back. So I am still fully engaged in streaming, and embrace the industry becoming more open to it. Theatrical unions are the ones that we really want to bring over, and they're the last ones in line, you know kicking and screaming and trying to update contracts from the 1940s and 50s to the 21st century.

I'm very intent on creating more work that can be seen online because I believe accessibility is a huge issue. Obviously now with the pandemic and a lot of people not feeling comfortable going to theater, but it's always been an issue. There are always people that are unable to get to the theater or don't live geographically where live theater is. So I'm really still incredibly excited about pursuing streamed theater and I want all my shows to be captured and filmed and streamed.

Kelley, as a director what are your thoughts on streaming theater? As a theatergoer myself, I'm somewhat conflicted because I so cherish the in-person experience, but it's also been great to catch some theater I wouldn't otherwise wouldn't have gotten to see, due to geography or limited runs.

RK: Well, I appreciate that. During the shutdown I got a chance to see shows from the National Theater and various things that I never would have been able to, even if I'd wanted to, because they were too far away or too expensive to get to. I didn't find any of it an even vaguely adequate replacement for live theater, but I did find it a wonderful way to explore how they were doing different things, and it was fascinating certainly from a director's point of view. You can't replace the experience of seeing it live, with an audience that's reacting and responding, laughing, crying or, in the worst-case scenario, rattling their programs. [laughs] But you know, it's the difference between looking at a coffee table book of a great artist or actually standing in front of the painting that they've created and realizing how spectacularly different the two experiences are.

And certainly, as much as I've enjoyed some of the streamed theater I've seen, that doesn't mean I'm going to stop attending live theater.

PG: Exactly. I mean, that is the big misconception. It's fear - fear of change, fear of the future. But it's really the opposite of what they're afraid of. You know, Broadway producers were very afraid of the original cast recording in the 1940s and 50s because they believed that if people could hear the music, they wouldn't go see the show. Well, of course the opposite happened; it just made them more excited to see the show. And when they filmed Legally Blonde, people thought "Why would they do that?" And the show did better, then got a tour and it's never stopped. And baseball, when the Yankees started to televise all the home games, everybody went "Nobody will go to baseball games anymore!" The opposite happened, a new generation of kids discovered baseball and said, "Dad, take me to the game!"

So, the fear that people have of streaming is misplaced, and I think gradually people will understand that. And the benefits are so tremendous. Imagine if we could pay theater artists that do regional theater lifetime royalties for their work? They don't just get paid for the three or four or six weeks that they're working regionally; they get paid forever. Maybe that money doesn't make them millionaires, but it helps sustain their lifestyle. And we can all use those extra checks coming in, so it is bizarre to me how the unions have such a blind spot about this, but we are intending to win them over eventually. But yeah, all of their worries were misplaced, you know? The more you allow people in, the more they want it.

Paul, you've alluded to several other projects you've currently got cooking. Is there anything you can talk about yet?

PG: Yeah, I'm working on a project that I really love called Stellar Atmospheres. It is about Cecilia Payne, the woman who discovered in 1925 what the stars were made of, but no one believed her. It's a one-woman show starring Broadway's Hannah Elless, who's about to appear in Knoxville with the Ragtime team [songwriters Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty and director Frank Galati] at the Asolo [Repertory Theatre] in Florida. She and I just made the record this weekend and in the next few months we will be releasing a stream of the whole show, so I'm really excited about that.

And I have a new musical called The Gospel According to Heather, about a 16-year-old girl who just wants a boyfriend - but she might be the second coming, and that's very inconvenient. This is a rock musical that's being developed by some Broadway producers right now and I'm very excited about it as well.

Kelly, you've directed so many shows in your 50+ year career, and you're obviously in no hurry to fully retire. Do you have any favorite musicals that you haven't directed yet that you'd really like to take a crack at?

RK: Hmm... Yes!... There's quite a few... Let me think about that for a minute... I might have to call you back. [laughs] Otherwise, I'm going to pick the wrong one!

[The following day, Kelley sent this brief addendum to our conversation via email.]

I thought about what musicals I would truly love to direct someday, then limited it to just a top two: the David Hein-Irene Sankoff Come From Away and Sondheim's Company with a female "Bobbie." Company was the first Sondheim show I directed-in 1982!

(Photos by Kevin Berne)

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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Sense and Sensibility runs lives onstage March 9th through April 3rd at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1301 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA. For additional information visit theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960.



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