"I love Toronto, but be it known, Jane Eyre is so special I'd do it on Mars," said Marla Schaffel, who plays the title role in the new musical adaptation of the Bronte novel that opens Nov. 22 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. "It's tough being away from my husband Christopher Washbourn, and my dog, Hotspur. But there is no place else I'd rather be than right here in the middle of this collaborative creative process with this production of Jane Eyre."
The show is scheduled to have a limited run of 11 weeks in Toronto before going to Broadway, at a theatre to be announced, in spring, 1997.
"I was in the workshop production in Wichita, Kansas," Schaffel told Theatre News/Playbill On-Line in an exclusive interview. "If an actor is ever lucky enough to get a part like this, it is a celebration. There aren't stories this good about women. Jane Eyre is a phenomenal female character."
Schaffel said she finds the pace exhilarating and sometimes frenetic, but magical. Her nights are spent doing homework, learning music, running harmonies and making choices in her scenes. Her days involve rehearsing for the lead, which she approaches as a team player, working with the ensemble as part of the collaborative process.
She said she really enjoys working with Canadian-born (Edmonton, Alberta) John Caird, the director, who is making more things possible for her character, and interweaving the ensemble's many parts with that of Jane. Caird has many credits, but is perhaps best know as director of two favourites: Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby.)
Schaffel said Caird, who adapted Jane Eyre, "is incredible to work with. He brings out the best in everyone. Many of the ensemble play up to twenty different parts. They are a wonderful, multi-talented group."
John Caird says of Marla Schaffel: "Marla was chosen for her open emotional quality and talented voice. The cut and jib of a character is how they are acting. When she is unhappy, she will be 'plainer' [Schaffel is quite attractive] and when she's happy, she will appear less plain, as the story makes her beautiful."
Born in Miami, Schaffel has played such parts as Eva Peron in the National Tour of Evita and on Broadway as Fantine in Les Miserables. She has been a busy young woman as you will see when you read her biography in Jane Eyre's program.
"All of my parts are precious to me," she said.
Some recent roles were Christina Alberta in Alberta's Father (Off Broadway), and she's working on new musicals including Titanic, In The Beginning, The Little Hours, Snapshots and Camila.
Schaffel has just completed recording the soundtrack for the upcoming animated feature The Prince of Egypt, with music by Stephen Schwartz.
Schaffel grew up singing, playing piano and dancing since age 5. Her family would find her curled up in a corner listening to her dad's favourite music sung by such greats as Bing Crosby and the Andrews sisters. Marla eventually studied opera, and traveled to New York to the Metropolitan Opera, and watched Teresa Stratas sing Mimi in La Boheme.
Schaffel credits Stratas with changing her life forever.
"I have never been so moved at the theatre than that eventful evening. Teresa Stratas is the greatest actress first, and what flies out of her mouth is incredibly passionate music, as she presents the personification of her character and being in the moment. Everything happens for a reason. I turned down a tour and instead of playing to a San Francisco audience, I met my husband. Every hit, every miss happens for a reason. I would love to meet her one day. My calling is to be that sort of performer. Such a performance comes from a very emotional and passionate place, becoming a force on the stage."
From high school she traveled to audition for The Juilliard School. Gutsy Schaffel accompanied herself in the Contessa's aria from The Marriage of Figaro. She was one of only 20 (out of hundreds who auditioned) who were accepted into the school. Schaffel completed her education at Juilliard in the Drama Division.
"The way I think is very theatrically oriented rather than 'music theatre' acting," she said. "Therefore I am not going to be cast where directors are just looking for a voice. I concentrate most on the character. The biggest challenge is being emotionally available and still singing the notes. In getting the real truth in this incarnation, my goal is to be as open and vulnerable as the character demands. In a musical I seek the balance of emotion and control." Jane Eyre is a 14 tissue show. Bring your Kleenex!
The music for Jane Eyre is classical in style, created and adapted by composer and lyricist Paul Gordon. Associate producers are Janet Robinson and Pam Koslow (married to Gregory Hines who made an appearance in a show of support at a recent press conference). Musical direction is by Steve Tyler, orchestrations by Larry Hochman, choreography by Kelly Robinson.
Schaffel said, "I am blessed by the Jane Eyre part. She is a passionate character who survives and triumphs over all her obstacles, even obstacles within herself. When she finally should be happy, she's not. Her station in life, limitations, her poverty are monumental and yet she triumphs. You see this determination in her character even when she is a little girl."
Jane Eyre is a modern thinker, who meets Rochester, her soul mate. Rochester is played by Anthony Crivello -- Tony award winner for Kiss of The Spider Woman. Anthony has also played Che in Evita and Javert in Les Mis. Watch for him early November on "Star Trek: Voyager." Jane decides on doing the right thing spiritually for her character and her love. "Anthony and I both love to work, and the combination of the two of us works well too," she said.
Written by Charlotte Bronte in the 19th century, Jane Eyre is, Schaffel said, "the first piece of period literature bold enough to articulate a woman's romantic passion. Jane Eyre, every woman's heroine, is faced with very difficult life choices to make. Jane Eyre is what being a passionate, real woman is all about. Most romantic heroines are written by men as beautiful and weak. But . . . Jane Eyre is a potent force."