The Brontës Get the Rock Treatment
This year, the New York Musical Theatre Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary. Ten years of bringing the best musical theatre from around the country to New York City. One show intrigued me above all: Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents: “The Brontes.”
The show was advertised as a rock musical satire in which a group of gypsies visits the four Brontë siblings. (Yes, Branwell is as important as his three sisters here.) The only day I could see it was the evening of the day I arrived from Europe. Even with jetlag, I did not regret this decision at all.
Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue gives us no indication of exactly when its story takes place. Though clearly modern, the costumes cleverly retain a hint of the Victorian. Take a look at the following preview video with the cast I saw to get a sense of it. (The four Brontës are the ones in black.)
(Can anyone guess which sister is which?)
The structure of the show devotes a segment to each of the Brontë siblings in the order in which they died. The show thus has an odd fixation on death, which wasn’t necessarily my favorite aspect of it, but this angsty take on the story illuminated the Brontës in a fresh, modern way.
Towards the beginning, the siblings gave a rundown about their lives, all ending on their untimely deaths. The sisters began a rivalry over their books. Anne emphasized that she had written two books to Emily’s one, to which Emily retorted, “Why would I need to write any more when the first was perfection?” (A brief side note: my quotes from the show might not be exact, as I wrote this from memory.)
Charlotte and Emily then began to get the audience to cheer for their respective books.
“Jane Eyre!” Charlotte would exclaim to cheers.
“WUTHERING HEIGHTS!” Emily would bellow to equal cheers.
I honestly can’t decide between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (to me, it’s like comparing apples and oranges), so I waited for Anne to say, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!”
Which she did.
And I was the only person who cheered.
I could tell then that I was one of the few big Brontë fans in the audience and that many in the audience were not familiar with the Brontë story, as they seemed genuinely shocked to learn, for example, that none had lived to age forty.
But Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents: “The Brontes” was less about educating its audience about the siblings than it was about reimagining them.
Musically, the highlights were Branwell’s “God Knows,” during which he lamented over his wasted life, and Charlotte’s “Hunger, Rebellion, and Rage,” whose title is a word for word nod to poet Matthew Arnold’s assessment of Charlotte’s writing.
After learning a bit more about Branwell from the Parsonage, particularly understanding the immense pressure he was under as the family’s sole son, I admit this take on Branwell was a bit of an oversimplification. But theatrically, it was moving, just as Charlotte’s moody song seemed appropriate.
Emily’s segment was a wild ride that began as she attempted to explain Wuthering Heights. “Well, it’s about the moors. And it’s an allegory. And –”
To which the others said, “Give us the short version, Emily!”
Instead of listening to her, they read the “Heathcliff Notes,” and after they finished the more famous first half, Emily said, “And that’s just the first half! It gets better!”
Emily’s segment then turned into a musical satire of Wuthering Heights during which Emily played Heathcliff, meaning she literally became her infamous creation.
And now I get to the bit about which I was most torn: the representation of Anne. Having newly declared myself an Anne fan and having seen how she has been misrepresented in the past (*cough* 1946’s Devotion *cough*), I was curious to see how a modern adaptation would present her.
For the most part, the segment on Anne was a crash course in her life for the uninitiated. The hilarious “The Circus” recreated her time as a governess, including how she got Branwell a job and how he began an affair with the lady of the house, which eventually prompted Anne to resign from a post she had held for five years.
The problems with the segment for me were that it seemed to imply that Anne was not good at anything when it showed her trying to find her life calling and that it seemed to poke fun at her religious convictions when briefly introducing her supposed love for the curate William Weightman.
The highlight of her segment – “Anne’s Song” – seemed to confirm these suspicions. Like “God Knows” and “Hunger, Rebellion, and Rage,” it’s one of the best songs of the show. But again, the lyrics make it feel as though Anne felt she hadn’t accomplished much in her life.
Upon reflection and research after the show, I realized that Anne may have felt this way at that point in her life. It only takes a look at this letter of hers to Ellen Nussey to see it:
But I wish it would please God to spare me not only for Papa’s and Charlotte’s sakes, but because I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practise – humble and limited indeed – but still I should not like them to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose. But God’s will be done.
(On a side note, does anyone else really want to know what these “schemes” to which she alludes were?)
And as to Anne’s singing “My final exit, my last bow / They’ll say I did it, and how!” one must only look to Charlotte’s description of Anne’s death:
I have said that she was religious, and it was by leaning on these Christian doctrines which she firmly believed, that she found support through her most painful journey. I witnessed their efficacy in her latest hour and greatest trial, and must bear my testimony to the calm triumph with which they brought her through.
“And how!” indeed.
If Anne’s treatment in Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents: “The Brontes” led me to go back and look at the historical evidence about Anne Brontë, I suppose the whole theme of my summer was this mixing of the old and the new, of the past and the present. It is only by being present in Haworth, where the Brontës lived, that I could get a sense of the past, of what kind of lives they lived.
Looking at their lives and works through various lenses made me wonder what they would think of the so-called Brontë myth. Did they ever think that we would be sitting here scrutinizing their lives? Playing out their lives through rock-n-roll music? That generations would read and admire their works?
Towards the end of Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents: “The Brontes,” the other Brontë siblings tell Charlotte that she accomplished much in her life. “You’re required reading!” they say, referring to Jane Eyre.
The same could be said for the others. The power of their pens and the potency of the Brontë myth have kept them in the public consciousness for more than one hundred fifty years.
The whirlwind of the summer – and, in fact, of the year before – made me almost sad that I read the books and visited the sights so quickly. I only have The Professor left of the novels.
But I know that the last fifteen months have just been the beginning of the journey. I’ll be visiting Haworth again, someday. There are still so many walks to do on the moors and so many more sites to visit in the vicinity. And there’s a new biopic of the siblings due out in 2016, one of what I’m sure will be a host of events for Charlotte’s bicentennial.
And after I finish The Professor, I’ll be starting a new project to keep up with the Brontës, and I can’t wait to share it with you.