Creative Conversations: Lindsay Warren Baker

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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 Lindsay Warren Baker 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?

I came to love Jane Austen through the wave of films that were made in the ’90s. Even though I wasn’t introduced to her writing in school, I really admired the strength of her female characters—particularly as they seemed “ahead of their time.” It seemed serendipitous when I told Amanda that “one day I just need to do something Jane Austen,” and she had already been thinking about the possibilities for Pride and Prejudice as a musical. That made me pick up the novel and “my opinion was confirmed.” I was hooked.

Austen’s novels are love stories and social commentaries. Pride and Prejudice examines marriage as a construct in her particular era, and through that lens, we learn about life in Regency England. We also learn that human relationships are pretty universal. Lydia, Wickham, Charlotte, Collins, Jane, Bingley, etc… We recognize them as people we know in our own life.

***Warning: Pride and Prejudice spoilers ahead!***

Pride and Prejudice is a powerful love story, not because the main characters get together, but because they might not have. It’s NOT a simple fairy tale. Elizabeth COULD HAVE said yes to Darcy’s first proposal, but had that happened, neither of them would have grown and as a result been better partners to each other. If Elizabeth hadn’t given Darcy a piece of her mind, he never would have understood what it means to love and embrace the entirety of who a person is.

The love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is timeless, because it recognizes that people can be unapologetically themselves and still have the capacity to self-reflect and grow. That love can bring out the best in us, and that unconditional love is the greatest gift we can give one another.

That love can bring out the best in us, and that unconditional love is the greatest gift we can give one another.

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

When we first started writing, Jane Austen wasn’t in the show. We started with songs for the primary characters and then set out to write a more traditional book musical. We did an informal reading of the first act, and while the songs were, the overall story telling wasn’t satisfying. A member of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) encouraged us to go to England. She was convinced that once we did that, we would know how to tell the story. We followed her advice and in 2003, armed with the novel, journals, and backpacks, we set out to visit all of the places mentioned in Pride and Prejudice, and Austen’s home(s) where she wrote her famous work.

While Austen wrote the initial version of the story, First Impressions, at her home in Steventon, she revised the novel at Chawton Cottage. The cottage is now a museum, so one is able to get a small glimpse into the daily life of this incredible woman. The dining parlour was inspirational. It was where she wrote. There was a small writing desk by the window, and one of the doors was labeled “The Creaking Door.” This door’s hinges were permanently left un-oiled so Jane could hear people approaching. This gave her time to hide her small sheets of manuscript paper, and not give away her “secret.” Seeing her writing table and the door was an illuminating moment for both of us. Amanda and I both realized in that moment, that Jane Austen was supposed to be a character in the musical. The circumstances of her writing provided an urgency for the story telling, and with the author present and the turn of a page, we could move easily through time and between scenes.

Jane Austen’s presence in the musical is what makes our adaptation unique from others. But it has also been the most challenging aspect of the writing. In the beginning Austen primarily functioned as a device. She was present, writing her story for the first time, and the characters came to life in her imagination. But there was no character development for Austen herself. Other than getting through the story, she didn’t have an arc. Even though that was the case, we constantly heard the feedback of “we want more Austen.” Audiences were intrigued by her presence. We knew she was supposed to be there, but we wanted to tell the story of Pride and Prejudice—not a Jane Austen biography. It’s taken years, but we finally found the balance. In Austen’s Pride, Jane no longer is writing the story for the first time, but revisits her original manuscript. She has to come to terms with why she wrote it in the first place, who she is, and who she wants to be. The audience connects with a fully realized woman and the brilliant mind that created Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the story of Pride and Prejudice.

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?

Looking back on our process, I definitely relate to Austen as we conceived her both in how she relates to the characters and her work as a whole. We’ve been working on this piece for quite some time. As a result, we have come to know the story and characters intimately. The characters become more vivid the longer you live with them. They become your friends; you love them and you love to hate them. We laugh and cry with them. Not just the Pride and Prejudice characters, but Austen, too. We use a lot of Austen’s language/dialogue, but we also wrote original dialogue, and at times it feels like we are transcribing what the characters say rather than putting words in their mouths.

Because of how long we’ve been working on Austen’s Pride, I now relate to Austen’s journey differently than I did when we first started. Her initial reaction at the top of the show is so dismissive of the First Impressions manuscript; she poo-poohs her “first attempt at a novel,” but once she digs in and allows herself to look at the work objectively, she can’t help but enjoy some of what she created. When Amanda and I talk about our first draft of the musical (before Austen was a character) we laugh and agree that it was “terrible.” We have grown as people and writers over these last nineteen years. We can recognize the immaturity and also appreciate the strengths and successes of our initial work. Revision is a part of the writing process, and it’s been fun finding ways to imagine how Jane Austen transformed her first draft into what is recognized as a classic work of literature. Whether it’s a simple word change, replacing whole scenes, or a title change, I like to think Austen’s process from First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice mirrors our journey from Pride and Prejudice, A Musical Play to Austen’s Pride, A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice.

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

One of our greatest resources in our preparation for writing the musical was the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Amanda discovered the organization and we were lucky that the first conference we attended was a full weekend dedicated to Pride and Prejudice. We knew that we loved Jane Austen’s work, but had no idea the extent to which she is read, admired, and researched around the world. Meeting the “Janeites,” gave us not only incredible resources into learning more about Jane Austen’s history, but it taught us that in order to create a successful adaptation, we needed to honor the spirit of her writing. I remember Amanda looking at me on the elevator and saying, “We can’t change a word.” Of course, over time we took artistic license where necessary—we are writing for the stage and for a 21st century audience after all! But the sentiment of the statement has stayed true. Our understanding of her spirit was to use the novel as our primary source, and also refer to different biographies, her letters, articles, essays, lectures, and of course traveling to England. Being in her environment, even centuries later, created a context for the story. I like to think we collaborated with Austen in this adaptation.

As far as fleshing out Jane Austen as a character, one of the first steps in finding her arc was to explore her relationship with her sister Cassandra. By giving Austen someone to interact with in her “real” world, we can better understand why she interacts with her story characters the way she does. We can see how Jane might have put some of her personal experience into the story of P&P, and also recognize her as an independent human being who is both brilliant and flawed. And that is what I want our work honor—her creative genius and her humanity.

In Austen’s time, novel writing was a male-dominated field, to say the least. Jane Austen broke barriers, writing strong female leads, and achieving unparalleled success. 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?

It’s amazing to think that Jane Austen’s name wasn’t attached to her work when it was first published. At that time, it was considered improper for a woman of the gentry (even lower-class gentry) to write for money. This is why Sense and Sensibility was published by “a lady,” Pride and Prejudice was published by “the author of Sense and Sensibility,” Emma was by “the author of Pride and Prejudice,” and so on. It was somewhat of an open secret, but she didn’t really gain widespread popularity or credit for how ahead of her time she was as a writer until after she died.

We are able to attach our names to our work, but there are still a lot of challenges. Connections and relationships in the industry are so important and figuring out how to make those connections and form those relationships can be difficult when you are first starting out. This isn’t specific to female writers, it is challenging for any new writer, but because the field is still primarily dominated by men there is definitely unconscious bias at play … an added layer of “something to prove.” There seems to be a fine line between confidence and “over-confidence,” conviction and “bitchiness,” willingness to learn and getting walked over.

The most important thing I’ve learned in this journey and from our work on Austen’s Pride—is that you have to know and own who you are.

There is always room to grow and learn, and you have to recognize good ideas when you hear them … but you also need to claim your talent and possess inner-strength to face the roller coaster and stand up for yourself. By the end of Austen’s Pride, through humor and heartache, Jane makes a decision about who she is and what she wants to be. We see that choice in her body of work. She owns her voice and that is something we should all strive to do.

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