Creative Conversations: Amanda Jacobs

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Hearts will soar at Austen’s Pride – A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice. This musical is a labor of love created by Amanda Jacobs and Lindsay Warren Baker, who share equal credit for the book, music, and lyrics of this breathtaking new musical, which underwent major development as a part of The 5th’s 2018 NextFest: A Festival of New Musicals. We recently talked with Amanda Jacobs to learn more about this unforgettable new musical’s creation.

Pride and Prejudice is one of Jane Austen’s best known works. The story is told and retold in novel and movie form. What is it about this work that makes it so timeless? And what is it about this wonderful novel that inspired you to create a musical based on it?

At the onset of the project, what inspired me was the inner knowing that I could work and stay with this story for a very long time. I loved the story when I had first read it ten years earlier, and I loved the movies and watched them repeatedly. So I knew it was something I wouldn’t walk away from when the going got tough.

As you already know, writing or creating a musical takes a very long time… and in order for me to stay in love with my work and motivated to keep working on any project, the source material must have deep roots. I have to keep learning from my work, and growing with it. The novel, Pride and Prejudice was that for me. But I think knowing the story as well as I do from all these years of working on the show have taught me so much more than I ever imagined, and what it means to be a really good person.

Beyond romantic love, there is abiding love and Jane Austen shows us through Darcy that the greatest love we can ever show another person is unconditional love, and a desire to truly see someone happy even if the person we love can never love us in return.

What Austen teaches me through her writing and revising her story, is that LOVE is the single most important thing we can write about. I believe it with all my heart. To quote one of the last lyrics of the show: “Love is wonderful; it is glorious! It’s never, ever wrong …”

Can you share a little about the show’s journey, and in particular the evolution of Jane’s role in the musical?

In its first production in waaaay back at the Eastman School of Music, the show was originally three acts and 4 hours long! … LOL … We really told the story of Pride and Prejudice. But!! Everyone loved what we were doing, and we kept hearing how interesting Jane Austen was as a character in her own story. Over the development, we kept hearing that over and over, “We want more Austen. We want more Austen.” And finally we found a way to frame it within an event from her past.

At first, it was really a challenge to find a way to make her life dramatic because there isn’t really a lot that scholars know about her that is dramatic. We wanted to honor her and her life and not make up something that wasn’t true.

We made a lot of discoveries through trial and error. Originally, we placed the story as if she were writing it. But over time, we found that if we put it in a place where she was revising, we could incorporate references to her life and what happened. We also were able to provide a place in the history of the story’s creation to suspend any and all disbelief from people who have memorized the novel because we placed the revision between First Impressions and Pride and Prejudice. No one knows what First Impressions was … so anything could happen during the revision process. People who know the story would say “Ah well, the novel still isn’t complete, so she would have revised it to be what we know…” This made all our changes and choices possible.

In the musical, Jane Austen’s characters spring to life around her—she moves among them, argues with them, and invests in their independent emotional lives. I wonder whether this creative process you have written for Jane mirrors any of your own experiences in the creation of this musical?

I would have to say, yes!!! As artists develop their craft, they begin to become more and more self-aware about their process—what works, what doesn’t, who they need around, who needs to be in the room with them, and when they need that person to go away.

As a composer and writer, I always talk out loud and to the work. Mental conversations are always going on in my head when I am working. One of my favorite expressions when I am frustrated is “Oh! Come on!!” I’m literally yelling at the work, which cracks me up and I move on.

As a creative person, I know what it’s like to be frustrated, scared, crazy with electric storms in my brain, overjoyed, thrilled, and while I might not know WHAT will come out of the process, I know that SOMETHING will come out and onto the page. I also know how my past with all its good and bad and ugly is there for me as a treasure trove of emotional information that informs my every choice. Every experience good or bad in my life is part of my creative tool belt.

Incorporating Jane into the life blood of this musical must have required a great deal of research into who Jane was. Can you share a bit about that process and some of the things that you learned that stood out to you along the way? 

When we first started, it was about seeing Austen’s world through our 21st century eyes. So on our research trip to England, we visited every place mentioned in the novel and every place where she wrote Pride and Prejudice. We also became very active in JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) where we gained invaluable insight and information about Austen, her family, and that time in history. This society functioned as our dramaturg and we learned so much from these wonderful and knowledgeable people, and made so many friends over the years.

Because I was the 2014 JASNA International Visitor, I went to Chawton and lived there for six weeks as a composer-in-residence. I lived in THE STABLES at the edge of the Great House on the Chawton Estate, and played the pianoforte in the Jane Austen’s Cottage Museum every day. I felt like I walked in her footsteps. My project was to study her prayers and set them to music for congregational use in liturgical churches. 

What I learned by setting those words to music is that Jane Austen was a good person—a really good person. As funny and snarky as she was in her writing, her prayers showed me how deeply she believed in God by how she reflected on her life. She always wanted to be a better person.

Here is an example of what I mean: “May we now consider how the past day has been spent, our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it. Have we neglected any known duty or willingly given pain to any human being?”

All of her novels reflect her love and compassion for humanity, and as the god of her own stories, she always, ALWAYS gives her characters a second chance at love and happiness. There is always forgiveness. Through her novels, she shows us how to love.

What about this powerfully independent woman did you try to honor on the page?

What I think we tried most to honor was the spirit of her words and story. By choosing to portray her as the creative as she was writing her novel, we show a real artist with real fears and real talent struggling to make her mark on the world and, surprisingly, to find joy through the process of discovering something even greater than what she was writing.

In Austen’s time, novel writing was a male-dominated field, to say the least. Jane Austen broke barriers by writing strong female leads, and achieving unparalleled success, eventually being published under her own name. What does it mean to you to be a female writing team in the very male dominated field of musical writing? And how (if at all) does that intersect with your work?

Oddly enough, when I started in this business of writing musicals and composing, I didn’t realize it was a male-dominated field. I just wanted to write a musical I wanted to see. I believe that when you love your work, there is no obstacle. You work because you love to work and that love only sees the work—not fame or a paycheck—and that’s what has always driven me.

It is only as the show progressed that I began to encounter the frustrations of the male dominance as men tried to tell me what to do or what I can and cannot do, and I realize how remarkable it all is. So my sense of purpose and knowing in my life grew as a result of knowing that I am doing something remarkable … and I owe that knowledge to Jane Austen.

Austen’s Pride – A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice plays October 4-27, 2019. For tickets and information, click here.

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