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Until now, there has been one notable musical adaptation of a play by George Bernard Shaw. Actually, My Fair Lady is a lot more than notable—the Pygmalion-inspired tuner is widely considered one of the best musicals ever written. Composer Joshua Schmidt was well aware of this when he was approached to turn Shaw’s Candida—the story of a Victorian Socialist minister’s wife being wooed by a romantic young poet—into a musical. Schmidt won raves for his musical version of Elmer Rice’s Adding Machine, so he was unawed by the challenge of making Shaw sing, but how best to approach a play about three smart people making difficult life choices? The result, A Minister’s Wife, is currently running at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater starring Tony nominees Marc Kudisch and Bobby Steggert and Chicago stage star Kate Fry in the title role. Below, Schmidt explains the development process behind this new show.
Around 2005, Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, approached me with an idea for a musical. This project, he said, was to be adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida.
Stop right there.
Saying “yes” to this idea plunges anyone square into the crosshairs of two major dilemmas within the medium of musical theater. To start with, the project would involve adapting a play by George Bernard Shaw. That concept alone presents itself as near-impossible. Shaw—the eccentric, virtuosic, politically outspoken, socially critical, presumably didactic and admittedly verbose playwright—has been adapted musically only a few times. Only once to my knowledge was his work adapted successfully. In principle, I believe he was quite averse to his work making the leap into music theater during his lifetime, due, in no small part, to his belief that his plays were, in fact, already music. Every word, every phrase, every speech, every act—all of the elements of storytelling balance an instinctive sense of rhythm and musicality with a strong understanding of musical form.
We asked Austin Pendleton early in the process his thoughts about turning Shaw’s Candida into a musical. His initial response indicated we should set every word of the play to music. If this were true, we would either be creating the world’s longest patter song, or the world’s longest opera. Neither seemed tenable. Yet Shaw’s plays— particularly Candida—remain intrinsically difficult to cut without removing some significant layer of social, political or psychological dimension (and, as we would discover soon into this process, truthful emotion). What motivates any one character to burst into song, let alone navigating the difference between elegantly and carefully crafted speech and structured lyric, manifests itself as one giant conundrum.
Then there is the issue of that one successful Shaw adaptation. I cannot tell you how many times over the last few years I have had to personally navigate comparisons to My Fair Lady. Lerner and Loewe’s classic adaptation of Pygmalion may, in fact, be the quintessential manifestation of the American “book form” musical—beloved for its songs, its characters, the accessibility of its story…on and on. I understand that Rodgers and Hammerstein attempted an adaptation of Pygmalion prior to Lerner and Loewe, only to abandon the project, deeming it a virtual impossibility. With knowledge of all aforementioned difficulties relating to adapting the source text, I now know exactly what they were talking about—making Lerner and Loewe’s accomplishment all the more impressive. What could anyone do to top what they did? And why would you bother?
With these imposing realities settling in like a dark and raging tempest, this seemed to me at the time like the perfect project to say “yes” to.
For almost five years, we have been asking ourselves those very same questions. What could anyone do to top My Fair Lady? And why would we bother? Fortunately, Michael assembled the amazing talents of lyricist Jan Levy Tranen, book writer Austin Pendleton, and music directors Richard Carsey and Tim Splain. We’ve been blessed with sustained excellence, openness and continuity in the collaborative process, beginning with the premiere of our show, A Minister’s Wife, at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, and continuing now at Lincoln Center Theater.
What have we discovered? To the first point—dealing with any comparison to My Fair Lady—to me, that’s simple: We have never been interested in any comparison. A Minister’s Wife does not conceptually reorient Shaw’s play into a conventional book musical; therefore no architectural distinction between the two pieces exists. Mind you: None of us set out to break any sort of convention. We took this leap precisely because we felt we couldn’t impose a foreign structural identity on this material without stopping the evening dead in its tracks. Shaw uniquely and rather brilliantly sets up his play as a series of dramatic sequences that never resolve, setting in motion dramatic events that build exponentially from seeming non-activity to rapid events of staggering emotional consequence. As a result, songs are not motivated by the idea of a pre-existing “book form.” They explode out of the heat, the truth and the light of what was already on the page.
When looking at the original source material, Candida, in this manner, we as a team have done everything possible to clarify and enhance this journey into something real and immediate, no matter how difficult. We have responded to such an extent that our book writer (the one who earlier suggested we set every word to music) boldly and courageously eliminated an entire character from the original play in the process.
With each pass, we intuitively cut closer to the bone of what we want to say, why it matters, and why we bother. Within the disguise of drawing room comedy, Shaw constructed a universally relevant, applicable and ageless tale about what we as everyday people struggle with throughout our natural lives. Specifically, we exist within the tension between a desire to stay in union with one another versus the desire to exist as a viable individual free from a faceless crowd. This dilemma reflects all that is human identity, interpersonal relationships of any sort, and (on a larger scale) politics and society.
br> I find it compelling that a 110-year-old English play so perfectly encapsulates much of our challenges and crises today in America and in the world with such emotional vibrancy within one single room of an Anglican church rectory—all within one day during the height of the Industrial Revolution in the East End of London.
This is a story that needs to be told and retold. This is a story that needs to be experienced. In my opinion, this is a story that sings.