By Christine Frezza
LA Weekly, reviewing the first read-through of the new musical Great Expectations, notes “the stresses between the spindly form of a novel and the comparatively sleek arc of a musical” (http://www.greatexpectationsmusical.com/press/2008_laweekly.html); but this adaptation, many years in the making and burnished by many loving hands, succeeds where early attempts at adapting the work to a musical (1975, 1993, 1995) did not. The prime mover behind this work, Margaret Hoorneman, a former Iowa high school teacher, credits one striking difference for its initial popularity: “previous adaptations retained the novel’s first-person narrative. In her adaptation, the first-person narrative is omitted” (Bernard Weintraub, “Fear Strikes Grandma: A Dickensian Tale,” [New York Times, May 14, 2001]).
It is certain that the dramatic action moves more swiftly and more appealingly when the audience is given power of deciding for itself which character to worry about, sympathize with, and exult for, rather than having one particular character’s point of view imposed on them. However, reading the script and listening to the score, it seems that equal credit must be given to the role that Richard Winzeler’s elegant and commanding music plays in the production.
The production which the Utah Shakespeare Festival audiences will experience, contains nineteen songs and two reprises in its two acts and nineteen scenes. Not included in the list of songs, but an important presence, are the precisely placed occasions where instrumental and vocal music underscore dialogue, foreshadow and reflect on important plot points, and utilize a chorus as an enlarging of certain character reactions. The style of the musical score has been praised in the review of the play’s readings: “the distinctive rhythmic counterpoint of Sondheim, with a smidgen of Gilbert and Sullivan” (LA Weekly). Also to Winzeler’s credit is the fact that the songs flow seamlessly out of and into the dialogue, though none are diegetic, since none of the characters would naturally break into song.
The function and placement of the musical numbers give a new dimension to this old tale, and sometimes propel the action but, more often, enlarge the character to heighten the audience’s understanding, elegantly replacing the nineteenth-century verbiage necessary to “set the mood.”
The opening song “Welcome Home” lasting about five minutes, serves as a framing device for Pip’s story. Mixing the sound of harpsichord and harsh individual voices which haunt him, against the warm, but wistful chorus “stay until it’s time for you to go my old friend” the audience is drawn back, like Pip himself, to the events of his past.
Magwitch’s and Mrs. Joe’s song “Do As I Say” again uses the harpsichord to emphasize the distant past, but this time, the menacing ostinato of its alternating 6/8 and 3/4 rhythmic pattern blend the dialogue seamlessly with the sung lines of each of the characters, who eventually unite their threats (at least, in Pip’s mind, and the audience’s ears.) Pip’s sung response softens the jagged rhythm with a more lyrical melody, and the song ends, with a quizzical pause, then a “thump” of determination
Scene three contains one of the loveliest songs of the show, Joe Gargery’s “Ever the Best of Friends.” The harpsichord is now played more like an accompanying guitar, and the orchestrator adds a gentle wind obbligato to the sung melody. The composer has thoughtfully chosen a dance rhythm for this lilting piece, which reprises twice during the scene, as a counterpoint to the more staccato plotting of Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook. The lifts and pauses on the high notes of the musical phrases recall how Joe must have swung Pip into the air when he was smaller, and perhaps foreshadow the “roundabouts and swings” of the fortune he is entering into.
It is with Miss Havisham’s aria “Play” that the artistry of the score is fully revealed. The song is four verses long, with a recitative introduction, but is performed alternating with the dialogue of the scene to be a true “long-form”composition, so that the music lifts the spoken dialogue to the emotional pitch of the melodic line. And what a tour de force that line is! Demanding the fullest abilities of the actress singing it, “Play” again is in the 3/4 rhythm of Joe’s song, but blunts the warmth created by three equal beats into a stunted, never-finished arc, by leaving the third beat of the pattern empty. The song moves from coaxing seductiveness into wilder and wilder madness as Miss Havisham relives her long-ago sorrow, the music almost spinning to a Totentanz by the end of the scene
To discuss every song in the score is to take away the joy of discovery which should be the prerogative of the audience hearing the music for the first time. However, there are some of the other fifteen pieces which are remarkable in conception.
In Scene six, the duet between Jaggers, the lawyer, and Wemmick, his assistant, is, as one critic has pointed out, a tip of the hat to Gilbert and Sullivan. More than that, however, it is a direct homage to the patter songs of all the great authority figures in the canon, reminding us most clearly of Iolanthe’s Lord Chancellor and the Pirates of Penzance’s Major General. But in his deliberate use of rubato, of relish ascending to the high note of a phrase, Mr. Jaggers shows himself completely in command of the situation; the warmth of the frequent ascent of a statement mirrored by the descent of the response also echo the assurance with which he sees his role in Pip’s future, and make him a figure of respect, rather than a figure of fun. .
No discussion of the score would be complete without an examination of the title song, which is also the most extended musical number. The bumptious quality of “Great Expectations” as performed by various soloists and chorus ensembles contrasts both in tempo and in mood with Pip’s “Everything I Wanted,” warm, hopeful, but hesitant, as if he saw that the future would not all be wonderful. But the chorus and Pip’s world closes the scene with a reprise of the title number, pushing all doubts out of the way.
Magwitch returns, more successful, happier, with the song “Dear Boy” and its reprise (only two of the songs in the score are performed in more than one scene.) The harpsichord is back, but the jagged alternating rhythm of “Do As I Say” has been replaced with a more elegant and regular pattern and a lighthearted flute weaves its way around the smiling, exultant reunion. In the reprise, when Magwitch’s fate is clear, the rhythm is more “stop and start” but the melody continues its unbroken spirit.
The final song is a brief reprise of “Welcome Home”, to bring us back to the beginning of the show, but warmer, with strings dominating the orchestration, to signify the journey that Pip and the audience have made. The chorus sings about them, as Pip and Estella leave – just as friends? As a future couple? Dickens rewrote his original ending which had Estella married again, and again unhappily, to make “what might have been” a more hopeful “what might be in future.” Wisely, the collaborators have chosen to do the same.