“One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness, one comes for life!”
– E.M. Forster, “A Room with a View”
Florence at its most ravishing and romantic is a memorable setting in “A Room with a View” — particularly for those who know E.M. (Edward Morgan) Forster’s 1908 novel from the exquisite 1985 movie adaptation directed by James Ivory.
The intoxicating effect of Italy on the prim young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch could determine her choice of spouse, and hence her entire future. Will she wind up with proper, repressed (and rich) Cecil? Or the impulsive, unorthodox (and less well-to-do) George? How will her mother, brother, minister react to her choice? And the spinster cousin, Charlotte, who chaperoned her abroad?
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But there is a second backdrop to Forster’s enduring story. It is a genteel, verdant corner of provincial England — let’s call it Austenland. There Lucy and George, after their unsettling encounter in hotblooded Italy, meet again in “polite” society.
The creators of the new musical “A Room with a View,” which starts previews this week at 5th Avenue Theatre, understand just how essential it is to evoke both geographic, and psychic, climes in Forster’s romantic tale.
There will be a man-made lake onstage for a famous (male) skinny-dipping scene in the English countryside. An Italian meadow carpeted with violets, where a sudden burst of lust blooms, will also appear.
Marc Acito, who conceived and wrote the new musical, and composer-lyricist Jeffrey Stock, are getting a second chance in Seattle to render Forster’s tale.
Thanks to the success of the film version, Acito’s idea for the adaptation had instant cachet. The mere mention of the project by the national theater magazine Playbill caught the attention of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, which commissioned the piece and put it on a production fast track.
Most musicals take much longer to get on their feet than “Room with a View.” It was completed “in 15 months, from the first creative meeting to our opening at the Old Globe in 2012,” recalled Acito over breakfast in Seattle recently.
Reviews for that first incarnation ranged from very enthusiastic to scathing, with most mingling praise and reservations. Wrote Jeff Smith in the San Diego Reader: “[The musical] has a definite charm. But along with snipping and tightening, it needs to entertain less and have more at stake.”
Acito and Stock took such comments to heart, and reworked the piece for a private 5th Avenue workshop last December. Their further-revised “Room with a View” opens officially here April 30, after two weeks of previews. (A later Broadway run is a possibility but not yet a certainty.)
The Seattle rendition has a new director (5th Avenue artistic head David Armstrong), fresh sets (by Walt Spangler) and new cast members including Seattle-Broadway veterans Laura Griffith (Lucy), Louis Hobson (George) and Patti Cohenour (Charlotte).
Given the popularity of the lush film (which earned three Oscars and starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis), many patrons will approach the show with preconceived notions.
Acito is prepared for that. “It is already a perfect novel, and a perfect movie,” declared the New York-based writer, a former classical singer who has appeared with Seattle Opera. “But it is so different, and interesting, to use music to express what goes unsaid in the film. Repressed characters like Lucy and Cecil are great for a musical, because they can sing about what’s happening inside them.”
Stock, who made his Broadway composing debut with an enchanting adaptation of Marivaux’s “Triumph of Love,” agrees. “With music we could evoke the times and places and characters in the story, and I had such a rich musical palette to draw from” — Italian opera, British music-hall tunes and the U.S. craze of ragtime.
English novel in transition
Forster’s satirical view of Brits abroad and at home was written at a time when travelers like Lucy still plotted every move with their Baedeker guidebooks and found Mediterranean cultures — the food, the manners, the open sensuality — coarse, and rather disturbing.
In its comic study of Edwardian manners and marriages, “Room with a View” does share attributes of Jane Austen’s 19th-century novels. And when adapting the witty dialogue, reveals Acito, “I relied on George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde as models.”
But if Forster cleverly chides early-“Downton Abbey”-era Brits, he also fervently argues for more gender equality among them, and a passionate embrace of life and love that transcends decorum.
HIs literary innovation, according to modern British author Zadie Smith, was giving “the English comic novel the possibility of a spiritual and bodily life, not simply to exist as an exquisitely worked game of social ethics but as a messy human concoction” that “lets more life in.”
That credo also reflected an ironic wrinkle in Forster’s personal life: As a gay man in a punitively homophobic society, he could not openly express his own passionate nature. (HIs frank same-sex love story, “Maurice,” was not published until after his death in 1970.)
“Forster casts a critical eye on [Edwardian] society, but he also writes about it with such compassion,” noted Acito. “ He really cares about each character in ‘Room with a View,’ and his message is so affirmative. Personally, I’m on a crusade to bring back writing in musicals that uplifts the human spirit.”
“In the book there’s a line that says, ‘By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes,’” Stock added. “That gave us the title for one of the songs in our show: ‘There Is a Yes.’”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org