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To Eyre is Human

As Jane Eyre: The Musical reaches Broadway, the show's stars tell Kathy Henderson of their journey. logo
Marla Schaffel and James Barbour
in Jane Eyre
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
More than four years after Marla Schaffel first sang the title role in Jane Eyre, her Broadway "opening night" performance turned out to be a Sunday matinee filled with regular (i.e., paying) theatergoers. The usual crowd of friends, supporters, and reporters had celebrated a week earlier at a long-planned bash, but the actual opening had been delayed to December 10 due to technical problems surrounding designer John Napier's groundbreaking use of projections in the show to simulate scenic elements such as windows, gates, and various lighting effects.

One might expect that the cast would view its afternoon opening as just another weekend matinee; but the actors in Jane Eyre have been through too much together to take anything for granted. After an intense performance, the curtain call produced as much emotion as the actual show. Mary Stout, who has played the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax in three of the four productions of the musical (Toronto, La Jolla, and Broadway), appeared close to tears. When Schaffel, who began her long journey to Broadway in a production of Jane Eyre in Wichita, Kansas, walked toward the footlights and the audience stood to applaud, she actually began to cry. Co-star James Barbour saved the day by playfully smacking Schaffel with a rubber chicken--a cast in-joke--during their final bow.

An hour later, Schaffel was laughing and kissing a cast member's baby during a post-opening champagne reception. It would be a cliché to say that she is much prettier than plain Jane Eyre, who sports the harsh, ear-circling bun that Cherry Jones wore to Tony-winning effect in The Heiress. In person, Schaffel is warm and vivacious; but she grows positively misty as she speaks of playing Charlotte Brontë's strong-minded heroine, the poor but honest governess who has become an icon to untold generations of teenage girls.

"She's the most beautiful woman ever," Schaffel declares, sipping a glass of champagne in the mezzanine of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, wearing a chic, black leather skirt. "People say to me, 'You're too pretty to play her,' but I disagree. Jane Eyre brings out the best possible me--the most loving portion of myself. There's never the hateful, horrible human being I can be!"

Schaffel laughs, but it's obvious that she is speaking seriously. "I'm not a Christian," she says. "I was raised Jewish, so the concept of forgiveness was not something I particularly understood. But, once this character came into my life, I actually had an epiphany of forgiveness toward people in my family, and it was a great gift to know I had that capacity. I'm so grateful that I get to spend every day with Jane Eyre, because she has led me down a different path that I might not have stumbled upon on my own. She's made me a better human being, and I mean that sincerely."

Schaffel and Barbour, who spoke separately with TheaterMania during the opening party, couldn't hide their anxiety over how the show they care about so deeply will be received in New York. "The word on the street has always been the thing that will make Jane Eyre successful," Schaffel says. "It has everything a great piece of theater should have: emotion, passion, comedy, tragedy, love, and despair."

An ensemble moment from Jane Eyre
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Opening on Broadway "scares the hell out of me," says Barbour, the strong-voiced leading man who played Disney's Beast on Broadway before assuming the role of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre's pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse last year. "We throw our souls out on the stage eight times a week, we give everything we have, and the criticism can be disgraceful. As soon as a show opens out of town, boom! Everyone is commenting, everyone is criticizing. All I can say is that we've had packed houses and standing ovations since we got here. It's been a wonderful journey, whatever happens."

Jane Eyre hopes to become a hit in the Secret Garden mold, presenting a musical version of a classic novel that every middle school girl (and her mother) falls in love with. What's different is the daringly dark look of the production, essentially an empty stage pierced by Napier's arresting design elements and a few movable set pieces. "In Wichita, we had a single set with a couple of moving beds," recalls Schaffel. "John Napier rethought the whole show for La Jolla. I love the black box idea, because that's true theater to me. Everything appears out of the blackness. It's just magic."

For Barbour, the magic comes in bringing to life an enigmatic antihero whom some see as villainous. "The interesting thing about the novel is that you don't know who Rochester is except through the eyes of Jane," he says. "I relied heavily on [co-director and book writer] John Caird to figure out what the character is really feeling. The hardest thing about doing the show is breaking the preconception of who Rochester actually is; so many people have seen the Orson Welles movie [1944], the William Hurt movie [1996]. Rochester is 38, not an older man. And he's probably one of the most moral human beings you'll ever meet."

Schaffel shakes her head when asked about the challenge of playing such a well-known character. "It is so daunting," she says. "My best friend since age 12 said to me the other day, 'You are on the cover of a novel. Now I'm jealous!' When I visited Charlotte Brontë's home in England, there was my face on the 150th anniversary edition of the book! That is beyond overwhelming."

In spite of the four-year delay, Schaffel always expected Jane Eyre to make it to Broadway. "You can't deny something that has this much quality connected to it--John Caird, [composer] Paul Gordon, and Charlotte Brontë," she says. "The story is just extraordinary." Not to mention the fact that she had the perfect opening night note cards ready and waiting to share with her Broadway co-stars. "I bought them at Brontë's house in 1997, after the Toronto production," Schaffel recalls with a smile. "I'd been walking the moors. In the three and half years since then, there have been so many times that I thought, 'Just send them to somebody!' But I held on to those cards, and the day finally arrived that I got to use them. I am the luckiest girl in the world."

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