Emily Brontë unplugged
Oscar Wilde once said that life imitates art. A new play inspired by another successful Victorian novelist suggests that the opposite also is frequently true.
The life of Emily Brontë, the groundbreaking author of Wuthering Heights, is the subject of a stage musical being developed with the help of SUNY Cortland students.
“In Emily’s Words” is the second show brought to the university by CreateTheater, a company that helps writers develop and produce their work. It began a Professional College Musical Theatre Partnership with the university last year with “The Bone Harp.”
The two staged readings at the Dowd Fine Arts Performance Studio — at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 1, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb 3 — will conclude a two-week workshop that lets students in the Performing Arts Department be a crucial part of the creation of a new show.
Admission is free but it is requested that anyone interested in attending contact PerformingArtsDepartment@cortland.edu to ensure enough seating.
Each reading will be followed by conversation between the audience and the cast and creative team that gives the show’s creators a chance to hear their dialogue and music performed and get an idea of the impact on a live audience. The lessons learned will shape future changes to the musical.
Music and lyrics are by Jessy Tomsko, with the script credited to Tomsko and Brontë. Jeff Cox, a New York-based music director and conductor who has performed internationally and on Broadway, is the musical director.
Director Kevin Halpin, a professor in the Performing Arts Department, said that “In Emily’s Words” is a show that both the cast and audience will find rewarding.
“It has themes of the nature of art and how we as artists are inspired, and how much comes from within us versus things outside us,” Halpin said. “But what I find most fascinating in the piece is the banter between the characters in the book and the writer, and ... the idea that that there is this creative flow outside of us that we tap into. It's done with a lot of humor in this piece, which I think is really fun.”
He added that it takes on contemporary themes like the struggle for women in a traditionally male-dominated field to have their voices heard. The novel it’s inspired by is, Halpin said, an exceptional starting point for the musical.
Wuthering Heights itself is such a groundbreaking novel so different from the (novels) people were reading in Victorian-era England,” he said. “There are characters where there's no real clear wrong or right. There's no clear villain. It's very, very much about human nature and what drives us in a very contemporary way. It's really, truly ahead of its time.”
As with “The Bone Harp,” students involved with “In Emily’s Words” will be invited to New York City in the spring to be part of another reading as the show progresses.
“To be part of something that will grow beyond this, to be part of the script developed as part of the partnership with SUNY Cortland and CreateTheater so that they (the students) will always be a piece of this moving forward — that's a wonderfully exciting thing,” Halpin said.
New this year, CreateTheater has partnered with a company called Streaming Musicals that will record the development process of “In Emily’s Words.”
Halpin noted that the streamed performance is a way for Cortland’s students and its Musical Theatre program to broaden their visibility.
“They’re going to be doing a documentary on the whole process for us,” he said. “Including when we’re at their studio in the city doing a version of it, recording it to stream on their platform as a full piece as well.”