Why Write a Musical About the Brontës?
Dramatizing a Family Rife With Intrigue, Illicit Romance, and Fierce Feminism
Three years ago, when I began to develop the book for a musical about the Brontës with composer Lucas Syed and lyricist Sarah Ziegler, I was asked repeatedly: Why write a musical about the Brontës?
My answer remains the same now as it did then: How could I not?
The story of the four Brontë siblings—Anne, Charlotte, Emily, and Branwell—is rife with family dysfunction, intrigue, deceit, illicit romance, drunken rage, jealousy, social climbing, fierce feminism, and the shattering of a Victorian glass ceiling. It was not difficult to envision musical—even operatic—potential in their incredibly dramatic story.
As a lover of complex musical theater and opera, I believe the musical is an ideal form for literary biography. Music and lyrics allow for deep psychological probing into intensely private characters. In the lives of the Brontës, there were many high-stakes situations that lend themselves well to song. And although there have been stage, film, and adaptations of their novels and biographies, as far as I know, there has been no other musical that dramatizes the Brontës’ heart-wrenching and triumphant story.
At the heart of this story are the masterpieces Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, two of the most important novels in the English canon, which continue to be read in high school and college classrooms the world over. But despite their popularity, most people know very little about their authors. This may be, in part, due to the sisters themselves, who took measures to obscure their names and create an aura of mystery around their lives.
Creating the musical was a three-year process that began where many projects begin—with extensive reading and research. As a team, Sarah, Lucas, and I spent a year reading everything we could get our hands on: novels, poems, personal and professional letters, biographies, and literary criticism. We even received a curator-led, private tour of the exhibition at the Morgan Library celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth. Much of our understanding of the characters came from The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors by Juliet Barker, which is considered to be the definitive biographical work about them.
As I dug deeper into the Brontës, it was thrilling to uncover their disparate personalities and stories. They each had their quirks; for instance, Emily once told her students that she preferred the school dog to them. Anne may have had a speech impediment. Charlotte was extremely near-sighted and would read books inches from her nose. It became my mission to give this incredibly eclectic, influential, and visionary family its due.
This research took up much of the first year. In the year that followed, we sorted through what we had uncovered and determined the shape of the story. Our biggest challenge was finding a voice and a credible character arc for each Brontë. Because we were dealing with historical figures, we wanted to stay true to the real events in their lives and the personal details revealed through our research. But we also took liberties, as we needed the siblings to feel distinct and for their songs to have unique qualities. We made sure that each character changed in response to the personal and historical developments within the show and strove to both create a sense of the family dynamic and the psychological forces at work within it.
Branwell Brontë, considered the ne’er-do-well of the family, is often excluded in renditions of the family, but he was a very important figure. He worked as a tutor in the same house as Anne and supposedly had an affair with the lady of the house; this is said to be the reason for his substance abuse problem, which led to his death at an early age. He was also the first Brontë to be published, as his poems appeared in newspapers during the 1840s.
Although comparatively little of Branwell’s writing has survived, his influence on his sisters’ work is notable. It is said that all three modeled characters on him: Hindley Earnshaw in Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and possibly Bertha Mason in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. While he undoubtedly had a creative influence on the rest of his family, his emotional problems and immaturity caused consternation for them. To dramatize this, we wrote a scene in which an unstable Branwell asks Charlotte if she’d be willing to collaborate on a project using his illustrations. She refuses. When he later finds out that his sisters have submitted their books as a family (under pen names), he feels both devastated and betrayed.
The sisters play a larger role in the musical. Emily was perhaps the most difficult to conceptualize as a character, because she is a bit of a mystery. Other than Wuthering Heights and her Gondal poems, she left behind no artifacts, letters, or diaries. What we do know about her we know through her limited work and through Charlotte. Emily was devoted to her siblings and very protective of the family unit. Like her sisters, she initially published under a male pen name. She greatly preferred the anonymity; her name was not associated with Wuthering Heights until after her death. As she was the most enigmatic Brontë, we felt free to “invent” her. This lack of biographical material inspired us to portray her as mystical and withdrawn.
Anne was also a mystery, but mostly because her novels aren’t as well-known—I, for one, didn’t even know there was a third Brontë sister before I started my research. Unlike Emily, however, she did not shroud her existence in mystery. Her books are devoutly Christian, but in a very personal way: her novels hold that if one is true to oneself and God’s principles of love and patience, she will lead a blessed life. Her most famous novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, portrays a woman being reborn after escaping an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband. It is often considered a proto-feminist novel.
Anne was acutely aware of social stratification and class; through her work as a governess, she was able to observe the aristocracy up close, and was not impressed with their moral laxity. Drawing from this, we wrote her as earnest and devout. Her character is appalled by the moral degradation (opium use and sexual infidelity) that she witnesses as a governess. She also has a sharp sense of humor, an adventurous streak, and a willingness to go along with Charlotte’s ideas, including a trip to London to meet the editor of their books.
Charlotte, the central figure in her family, was a powerful personality, always striving for a better plan for her siblings’ self-sufficiency—and maybe recognition in the process. As our writing progressed, it became clear that Charlotte was the person around whom the entire narrative would revolve. This grew out of our sense that Charlotte was a visionary and very much ahead of her time. As Erica Jong wrote in piece about her favorite books:
There is so much about Jane Eyre that was revolutionary. You have a heroine who is plain, but she’s clever. Also, Jane is a woman who speaks her mind—she doesn’t lie to please the establishment, or to please men.
The same could be said of Charlotte. She had a firm sense of herself from an early age—at age 20, she sent a poem to Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate of England. At the beginning of our musical, she receives Southley’s response. Her initial excitement fades when she realizes it is a rejection; Southley questions whether a woman can even be a writer. Upon receiving the crushing news, she determines she will work twice as hard to get noticed.
By the end of the show, Charlotte is resolved to fight for a woman’s right to be an author. Her sisters, though, pushed back against her desire to move them forward in the literary world. This became the conflict at the heart of the story. Unlike Emily and Anne, Charlotte held fast to her life-long quest for visibility as a writer. In the process, she ensured that she and her sisters would become part of a literary canon that initially refused to accept them and, eventually, characters in a musical.