It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the world’s greatest novels.
Its reputation began two hundred years ago this week, when Austen’s book – her second to be published – made its debut.
And what, you may ask, does this have to do with musical theater? On March 19, 1959, Broadway saw the musical version of Pride and Prejudice. It was called First Impressions, a name that was not arbitrarily chosen. This was Austen’s title while she was writing this story of Elizabeth Bennet, a headstrong and relatively poor small-town young woman and the wealthy, citified Fitzwilliam Darcy. The two had many differences, but certainly had one thing in common: each had pride and was prejudiced. She resented his smugness and he loathed her independence – although both would move on to other feelings.
First Impressions’ book was by Abe Burrows, who’d had a big success earlier in the decade with Guys and Dolls and would have another two years later with How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Obviously, the more rarefied world of early 19th century England is far afield from those slam-bang “Time: Now” urban-centric musicals, but Burrows wrote a literate book that condenses the nearly five hundred pages that Austen wrote.
The score, still available as a digital album, was a collaboration among three young songwriters. One, George Weiss, had written some music and lyrics for Mr. Wonderful three years earlier. He’d soon have his name on two major pop hits: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” arguably the most beautiful song that Elvis Presley ever recorded (which is one reason why it was chosen to end the first act of All Shook Up).
The other two songwriters were novices: Glenn Paxton, who’s since scored dozens of movies, and Robert Goldman, who today is better known as Bo Goldman. The latter would eventually be one of the precious few people to win not only an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) but also for Best Original Screenplay (Melvin and Howard).
One of the producers was a composer himself: no less than Jule Styne, who two months after First Impressions would debut his masterwork: Gypsy. That he thought so much of the three young songwriters’ work says a great deal.
Styne also appreciated a good lyric, having already worked with Stephen Sondheim, Sammy Cahn, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with Bob Merrill and E.Y. Harburg soon to come. So imagine his delight when he heard the opening song of First Impressions, in which Mrs. Bennet (Hermione Gingold) rues that she’d never given birth to sons: “Five tries; five misses.” Lest she seem insensitive, however, she adds, “It’s not that I’m not proud of them. It’s just there’s such a crowd of them.”
The biggest miss, by Mrs. Bennet’s standards, is Elizabeth (Polly Bergen), her outspoken second-born who doesn’t care about men or marriage. Says Mrs. Bennet before a party (in those less enlightened times), “Dear Lord, please keep her mouth closed.”
Luckily for us, Elizabeth keeps it open long enough to sing “I’m Me,” a spirited rebellion. “I will never change,” she insists. We’ll see.
Mrs. Bennet certainly never changes. Throughout the show, she’s more desperate to marry off her five daughters than Tevye and Golde put together. So when word travels that the affluent Charles Bingley has just moved nearby, she’s excited. But she’s positively ecstatic when she hears that Charles is bringing with him Fitzwilliam Darcy (Farley Granger), who has a five thousand pound a year income.
But in “Have You Heard the News?” Mrs. Bennet sings to everyone that Darcy has “Six thousand pounds a year!” The more she sings it, the more she believes it — even when she ups it to eight, ten and twelve thousands pounds a year. (Musical theater savants will know that twelve is as high as she’ll go, because it’s the last one-syllable number.)
At the dance, Mrs. Bennet says aloud to Elizabeth, “Isn’t Mr. Darcy handsome?” to which her daughter snorts, “And doesn’t he know it?” giving us her first impression of him. Her second is more convincing, when she overhears him saying that young women in this part of the world have “sparkling conversations with cows.” Darcy sees himself as a big fish who can’t stand even a solitary swim in this small pond.
What also infuriates Elizabeth is the haughty way that Darcy deals with the low-born Wickham, even though the man has advanced to Captain. Elizabeth believes that achievement should trump social status.
Still, it’s the early 19th century, when everyone kept up appearances. Elizabeth and Darcy dance while declaring it “A Perfect Evening.” This was, in fact, the show’s original title, until someone on the staff warned that such a title would make the show a sitting duck for critics. As it was, the aisle-sitters weren’t plentiful in their praise for the show that would last only eighty-four performances.
In contrast to the musical elegance of “A Perfect Evening” are the two’s inner thoughts. Elizabeth thinks Darcy “abominably proud” and “incorrigibly vain,” while he infers that she’s “unconsciously loud” and “most unusually plain.”
Mrs. Bennet isn’t discouraged. “As Long As There’s a Mother” is her march of determination. She’ll turn her attention to Jane, her eldest, whom she sends to Charles‘ manse during wretched weather, all in hopes that it will force Jane to stay over. In fact, Jane stays so long that Elizabeth must deliver new clothes. Darcy begins to see who Elizabeth really is: “She doesn’t even seem to care about my money.”
She’s also modest, which is why she’s reluctant to play the harpsichord even after her hostess commands her to play. She sings the madrigal “Love Will Find Out the Way,” unaware that the title will have more meaning as the show continues. Darcy becomes more impressed when she isn’t cowed by his so-called high-class breeding. When she leaves, he muses “A Gentleman (never falls wildly in love)” all the while knowing that he’s doing just that.
Elizabeth soon gets a proposal – but not from Darcy. Her effete second cousin Collins is taken with her, and Mrs. Bennet couldn’t be happier. The tradition of the time says that if a father has no sons, he MUST leave his money to his nearest male relative. (Can you believe it?!) And that means Collins.
Although Elizabeth sings “No!” no fewer than eighteen times in ”Fragrant Flower,” Collins assumes that she’s honoring convention by playing hard-to-get. She isn’t; she can’t stand him, but he’ll need a few more scenes before he realizes that.
Musicals in the ‘50s often had a secondary romance, and Austen helped that along by having Jane and Charles fall in love. Jane is moved to sing the spirited “I Feel Sorry for the Girl,” meaning anyone who hasn’t got a beau as winning as hers. Future Tony-winner Phyllis Newman is delightful in the number.
Should Jane pity Elizabeth, too? No, she and Darcy are melting slightly. Don’t expect her to throw her hat in the air and sing “I’m in love with a wonderful guy!” or for him to burst out with “I met a girl, a wonderful girl!” The most enthusiastic they can be to each other is by saying “I Suddenly Find It Agreeable.” Still, when you listen, note how many shades of meaning both Bergen and Granger give the word “agreeable.”
Once Darcy leaves, Elizabeth lets her real feelings fly. “This Really Isn’t Me” she decides in a pulses-racing tempo, although she keeps her feelings close to her heart when she says, “We always were meant to be friends.”
Perhaps not even that. Darcy overhears Mrs. Bennet’s fortune-hunting plans, takes umbrage and urges Charles to jilt Jane as the first act curtain falls.
Act Two begins with Elizabeth hardly discouraged that the unappealing Collins has instead married her friend Charlotte. “Wasn’t It a Lovely Wedding?” she asks her mother, who has a different take on matters. “They won’t last through the year,” she wishfully-thinks.
Maybe the wedding reception won’t be as lovely for Elizabeth, for she discovers that Darcy will attend. But he approaches her and admits that “The Heart Has Won the Game.” (Nice title, no?)
Happy ending? Not quite. Elizabeth is not so quick to forgive Darcy for helping to stop the Charles-Jane alliance — and for being awful to Captain Wickham, as if he’s a terrible person.
In fact, Wickham is. That’s what makes Pride and Prejudice as well as First Impressions special: it lets you see that you’ve been prejudiced against the rich and have automatically taken the side of the poor. Now – will Elizabeth be too proud to admit her mistakes? You can, of course, find out by reading Pride or Prejudice, but you can also learn by listening to the original cast album of First Impressions.