An All-Seattle Team Conjures a Brand-New Jane Austen Musical

Watching a musical on stage, you rarely notice how complex an organism it is: voices and instruments, music and dialogue, fight choreography and dance choreography, costumes and scenery, and on and o. To get a sense of just how many elements go into pulling off such an endeavor, get yourself to a first rehearsal.

First rehearsals aren’t just the first time the cast gets to read the script together; it’s when designers, stage managers, choreographers, dramaturgs, music staffers and assistants to all of the above share their work, thoughts and preparation for the story about to be told.

“If it appears as though I’m ignoring you, it’s because I’m trying to,” says Karen Lund, director of Persuasion, opening at Taproot Theatre on July 12. Laughter ripples through the small audience assembled in Taproot’s Isaac Studio in early June, a mix of donors, collaborators and me—flies on the wall for the first rehearsal of the new musical adapted from Jane Austen’s 1817 novel by writer Harold Taw and composer Chris Jeffries.

Lund first read the script for Persuasion in November 2015, at the recommendation of 5th Avenue Theatre music supervisor Ian Eisendrath, who also runs the company’s annual NextFest, which workshops new pieces. The 5th Ave had just finished a workshop of a great show, Eisendrath told Lund, and they couldn’t take it to the next step at the 5th, but he suspected it might be perfect for Taproot.

“I was inspired by how they managed to take the whole of Persuasion and bring it down to a size that could fit on our stage, which is known for its intimacy,” says Lund. “What’s amazing about Austen is that, because of etiquette, there are so many things that her characters can’t say. But in this show, they can sing, and it’s beautiful to be able to hear the soaring heart speak in that way.”

It is indeed an intimate piece, a streamlined, straightforward adaptation of a classic, with just four musicians and nine actors, three of whom have stuck with the project since its first workshop. Cayman Ilika stars as the thoughtful, practical Anne, with Nick DeSantis and Chelsea LeValley as her frivolous father and sister Elizabeth, respectively, among other characters. Kate Jaeger, as Anne’s pouty little sister Mary, had the shy first-rehearsal audience cracking up.

Taw, a playwright and novelist (Adventure of the Karaoke King), and Jeffries, a composer also known for his work orchestrating for Dina Martina, met in the first cohort of the 5th Avenue Seattle Writers Group, a two-year program that pairs up writers and composers with an eye toward creating brand-new musicals. “We’re the arranged marriage that became a love connection,” says Taw, who admits that he had a secret agenda of adapting this book into a musical before the writers’ workshop began. “Persuasion has this incredible intimacy and immediacy,” he says. “Austen was writing contemporary fiction about a quickly changing society.”

Jeffries took some convincing. “I had read Pride and Prejudice in high school and so I knew all there was to know about Jane Austen,” he jokes. “And I thought, oh, porcelain, brittle marriage comedy. But finally, I read Persuasion and Austen threw her own rule book out the window for this.” He heard lush, expansive music for the romantic, emotional piece, with plenty of fun music mixed in. “It’s about heartbreak and second chances, but there’s also a lot of laughs and cartoony characters. It was really intriguing to try to have both live together.”

The music has nods to the sounds of the period—Haydn, Beethoven, folk music of the British Isles that those composers were themselves studying and arranging—but also touches the sounds to come, of Gilbert & Sullivan and the English music hall. “I feel like it’s not a stretch to put that in because it’s all on a continuum,” says Jeffries.

Persuasion opens seven years after Anne Elliot, then 19, broke off her engagement with a young naval officer, Captain Wentworth, at the urging of a family friend concerned about his financial status. Now the Elliot family is in financial trouble, and rents their estate to an admiral’s wife—who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. Though there any many other characters and romantic and social assignations, the question is always, will Anne and Wentworth get back together?

“Anne is Austen’s oldest protagonist by about eight years,” Taw says, “And she and Captain Wentworth share this mutual nostalgia and regret, and those feelings and their great passion— that’s what makes musical theatre [Persuasion’s] natural form.”