Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2020 01:00PM

For those of us who love our Jane Austen adaptations, the coronavirus quarantine has been the best of times and the worst of times.


The new film of Emma migrated to streaming way ahead of schedule—but the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis canceled its world premiere of Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation, which had been scheduled to open last month.


The online performance of Paul Gordon’s musical version of Pride and Prejudice drew a robust international audience for its free premiere, and his earlier musical adaptation of Emma became available free to Amazon Prime subscribers (and to the rest of us twice last night and once more today at 2 pm, if you sign up). But the London run of Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, a success at Chichester in 2018, was canceled.


You can stream Clueless on any number of platforms whenever you’d like, or just slot your old disc into your DVD player. But the twenty-fifth anniversary theatrical re-release, scheduled for this week, was postponed indefinitely.


It’s all entirely predictable, of course: If you can see it in the privacy of your own TV room, then it’s available. If you can see it only in company with a large group of potentially contagious fellow citizens, then it’s not. We know the drill. It’s just getting old.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2020 01:00PM

Last week’s online premiere of a new musical version of Pride and Prejudice, streamed for free by Streaming Musicals, drew a more than respectable audience: 160,000 viewers from fourteen countries, according to Variety.


Compared to the audience for a new theatrical production, P&P’s viewership numbers are staggering: Broadway theaters seat between five hundred and nineteen hundred people. Compared to the audience for network TV, not so much: The most popular show (NCIS) is averaging nearly twelve million viewers a week and even the least popular (Dynasty) is still pulling in more than 360,000.


The goal of Streaming Musicals, however, is not to compete with TV but to broaden access to theater, and in that context, Friday’s numbers look pretty good. Viewers got to see a live-on-tape performance filmed in front of an audience last year, during P&P’s run at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA. The show is the brainchild of Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon, who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics.


After sitting through Friday’s airing, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of this P&P, which sold many tickets but got mixed reviews during its original theatrical run. I'm a purist, though: My hackles were up from the moment that Elizabeth Bennet strolled onto the stage, spoke the novel's famous opening line, and changed one of the words.


If you missed the online premiere but would like to judge for yourself, you can still catch the performance, albeit no longer for free: It’s available to buy ($19.99) or rent ($4.99), as is Gordon’s earlier musical version of Emma.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2020 01:00PM

At this point, roughly three weeks into All-American Shelter at Home, you -- the average Janeite -- have probably watched, or re-watched, your entire collection of filmed Jane Austen adaptations.


The first week, you gorged on the really good stuff – the cinematic comfort food: the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice, the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, Clueless.


The second week, you turned to the mediocre, unnourishing, but acceptable choices -- the filmic equivalents of Cheetos: the Mormon Pride and Prejudice, the 1983 British mini-series of Mansfield Park, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma.


By last week, down to nothing but stale crumbs, you were scraping the bottom of a very deep barrel: Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Sally Hawkins chasing Captain Wentworth through the streets of Bath, even – God forbid – Scents and Sensibility.


And now it’s Week Four, and the cupboard is bare. Soon, you’ll be gnawing on your own leg.


Luckily, however, some intrepid artists have stepped forward to keep self-cannibalism at bay just a little while longer:


* Tomorrow night, a new musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon will stream for free at 6:30 and 10 pm (Eastern). P&P is the latest offering of Streaming Musicals, a hybrid of live and recorded theater that launched eighteen months ago with a production of Gordon’s Emma.


To watch the free premiere of P&P, you’ll need to register ahead of time; if you can’t make it tomorrow night, the show will be available to buy (for $19.99) or rent ($4.99) later on.


* Through next Wednesday, the small Washington D.C. theater company We Happy Few is streaming a video recording of its fall 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald. As Janeites will recall, it’s this hit play of 1798 that the wayward Bertram and Crawford siblings choose for their ill-fated home theatricals in Mansfield Park.


You can watch any time you like, in return for a donation of whatever you can afford. The company recommends at least $5, which seems a small price to pay to understand why Sir Thomas was scandalized. And also to save your leg.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 4 2018 01:00PM

Musical theater is an expensive art form, and fans on a budget – or those who live far from the major cities where original productions flourish and touring companies visit – may get few opportunities to experience their passion.


Enter Streaming Musicals, a new experiment in making live musical theater affordable and accessible for audiences, and remunerative for the artists involved. Professional productions are staged and filmed live, but without an audience, in a theater or on a soundstage; then the show is made available via the internet for rental or purchase. Everyone involved shares in the profits from this hybrid of the live and the recorded, with the income stream continuing as long as internet viewers are willing to pay.


And there’s an Austen connection! Streaming Musicals launched last night by offering a musical version of Emma, adapted by Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon and staged and filmed earlier this year in New York. Viewers pay $7.99 to rent the two-hour film, or $19.99 to buy it.


At least four previous musical versions of Emma exist, and although some of the publicity touts the Streaming Musicals show as “new,” Gordon’s Emma is in fact one of the four: It was first produced in 2006-7, winning excellent reviews for several regional productions.


Judging from photos, however, the older productions were traditional period pieces, whereas the new version updates the setting and costumes to the mid-twentieth century. Whether this choice is bold or foolhardy remains to be seen: It’s sometimes tricky to make Austen’s stories work in modern contexts, as legions of fanfic writers have learned to their – or our -- cost.


I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, but the musical snippets available online seem charming. And it’s hard not to root for a venture that hopes to give more people access to both live theater and Jane Austen.


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