The following interview with John Caird was published by Playbill On-Line on Sept. 5, 2000, two months before Jane Eyre began previews on Broadway. Caird has been nominated for Tonys for his book and as co-lyricist (with Paul Gordon).
Any producer passionate about turning a favorite novel into a stage musical probably has the director and writer John Caird at the top of their creative-team wish list. It was the British Caird, after all, who co adapted and co-directed the international musical smash, Les Miserables, from the Victor Hugo novel, and, before that, made a non musical stage hit of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, in London and New York City. Recently, in London, Caird drew from the Voltaire source material and staged a critically-embraced revised version of Leonard Bernstein's problematic Candide. Caird's collaboration with songwriter Paul Gordon, Jane Eyre, is based on Charlotte Bronte's 19th-century gothic romance novel. Caird adapted the book, co-directs (with Scott Schwartz) and contributed additional lyrics. The developmental phases of the show now lead to Broadway, where the musical begins previews Nov. 7 and opens Dec. 3 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, with Marla Schaffel in the title role, opposite James Barbour as Rochester. Caird talked to Playbill On-Line about his novel approach to the theatre.
Playbill On-Line: In its development, Jane Eyre has been seen in three different productions — in Wichita, KS, Toronto and a hit staging in 1999 in La Jolla, CA. I saw the show in Toronto in 1996, and its spring reading in New York in 1999, prior to La Jolla. I hear much has changed.
John Caird: Not fundamentally, but in many peripheral ways, I think it's changed. The story's the same but it has changed in that it's a lot smaller cast. We sort of grew too large in Toronto largely because we were in a very big theatre and we had a very large ensemble — a lot of people who weren't really necessary to the story. We gave ourselves the challenge of shrinking down to something more like a chamber musical rather than a mega blockbuster.
PBOL: I recall a dark, black set looming over the production.
JC: No, very different. The set's completely different. That is radically different. We decided we would lose the idea of having a sort permanent storytelling environment in which everything was more or less the same, and go for a completely different system, which is a black box idea which we'd fill with scenic devices whenever they're necessary. It's actually very colorful. It's against a black background, like Les Miz, but it's intensely colorful when we need it to be.
PBOL: People always mistakenly refer to Les Miz as a spectacle, but it really is all about people moving in space.
JC: Yes, I suppose the Jane Eyre set is now more like Les Miz — it's a clean space into which we bring the important scenic elements. The only thing that moves in space in Les Miz is people, other than when the barricades come on and a few bits of furniture. But in Jane Eyre we've got a very cunning scenic device that allows us to deliver particular objects into the space — windows, doors, bits of furniture — as [designer] John Napier calls them, "intensely jewel-like images." [They are] chartered into the space by a device that is actually quite revolutionary, that allows us to fly things through the air in three different dimensions. It's very beautiful. The effect we're trying for is like a Chagall painting, where the objects fly together to make sense once they've arrived. PBOL: Sort of echoing Jane's emotional state?
JC: Yes, exactly. So the story emerges only in as much as one needs to enhance her memories, which is, after all, how the story is being told.
PBOL: My memory of the previous production is that the ensemble tells her story from the beginning, with women and men narrating in the first person.
JC: We've slightly changed that. We only introduce the ensemble now at the point where she grows up, which I think is a cleaner plan. She tells her story for the first 20 minutes, and then other people take over because it's clearer for the audience. Everybody joins in [telling] the story because by then we've set it up; it's clear these voices are all part of her thought process.
PBOL: The novel is in the first person, as I recall. Is the idea of a group storytelling, and addressing the crowd as "gentle audience," a 19th century convention?
JC: Not in the theatre. The tricky thing with Jane Eyre is, partly, you simply cannot listen to the same person's voice for the evening, doing everything. It's too much. In fact, it's too much to expect an actress to do. But the other difficult thing is, in a past tense narrative, if the person who is telling the story is also trying to be in the situation, and she keeps coming out of it to be an objective storyteller, it's very difficult for her to remain completely committed to the scene she's in. She keeps popping out to comment on it. The feeling it would give the audience is that of course it all must end happily, otherwise why would she be telling the story? You want your main character to get much more lost.
PBOL: I recall novels such as "Wuthering Heights" being required reading in my high school. Is "Jane Eyre" essential in British schools?
JC: Not really, it's not quite in that category, although some schools do teach it. I first read it, I guess, when I was about 14. My family, my parents, were university intellectuals and my mother was a passionate lover of literature and she infected us all at a rather early age. I understood much more of it when I read it again in my late twenties. It is a wonderful story, and it's also, psychologically, very fascinating because Charlotte Bronte is so acute about human behavior.
PBOL: The great thing about Jane is that there are so many obstacles: Her romantic interest and boss, Edward Rochester, has a mysterious past; she has trust issues; she's in a different class; she has plain looks. What was the challenge — the obstacle — in adapting it for the stage?
JC: The biggest obstacle in adapting the book for the stage is that in the novel Charlotte Bronte is rather naughty: She's got a big secret to keep, which is the wife in the attic, and she's also got even a bigger secret — what does Rochester think of Jane? Because the [novel] is told completely from Jane's point of view, we don't know that Rochester is in love with Jane until Jane gets to know it. In the theatre that's very difficult to pull off. One of the great difficulties was deciding, when do we let the audience know that Rochester feels as deeply for Jane as Jane feels for Rochester? That was one of the things we discovered in the Toronto version: We weren't letting the audience know soon enough. The audience were getting tired and irritated by Rochester's attitude toward their heroine, as you do when you're reading the novel. In the theatre, once an audience is irritated by one of the main characters, it's very difficult to retrieve it. So, we let the cat out of the bag much, much earlier than the novel in order to sustain the audience's interest in both characters. That was the most difficult bit of chemistry to achieve.
PBOL: Who is the audience for the show, do you think?
JC: I think it's a show that can please almost everybody, although I would say the tickets are more likely to be booked by women than by men. It's a story written by a woman, narrated by a woman, it's got a lot more women in it than men. There are nine women in our cast and only five men, which is very unusual. I think that women are more likely to be intensely interested in it than men. Our experience in the past is that men have become, in the course of the evening, as moved by it as women are. Having led them to the trough, they then do drink.
PBOL: We spoke about Les Miz. How often do you go back and take a look and give notes?
JC: I don't do very much of that anymore. I am blessed by having associate directors who are extremely proficient and probably now a lot wiser about the show than I am. I do occasionally go to each production and I give advice about major bits of casting when there is an uncertainty about who should or shouldn't take over.If things look like they've gotten out of hand in any of the productions around the world, I might pop in and suggest ways of fixing them, but I can't do it very much. If I did I would never do anything else.
PBOL: One of the things that I liked about the post Toronto reading in 1999, which was later seen in La Jolla, is that it started to feel more like a book show, not a so-called "pop opera." Is the era of that kind of show, represented by Les Miz and Miss Saigon, over?
JC: Yes, I think that's true. I think people are getting a little bit fed up with noise, sensation, as if that would be enough. I think they do want something more of a [book]. There isn't recitative at all [in Jane Eyre]. It was much more through-sung in Toronto.
-- By Kenneth Jones