The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater in collaboration with the Department of Music will present the world premiere of Der Bourgeois Bigwig on November 9, 10, 15 and 16 at 8:00 p.m. at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center. Please note that Saturday’s show will begin at 8:30 p.m. Der Bourgeois Bigwig is a new adaptation by James Magruder of the Molière comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhommewritten to complement Richard Strauss’ well-known orchestral suite and incidental music from 1912. The production is directed by Tim Vasen, Director of the Program in Theater, with the Department of Music’s Michael Pratt conducting the Princeton University Orchestra. The project is made possible in part through the university’s Arts Initiative program.
This classic comedy takes place in the Paris home of Mr. Jourdain, a middle-aged “bourgeois,” whose one aim in life is to rise above his middle-class background and be accepted as an aristocrat. Jourdain’s social climbing requires splendid new clothes and an elaborate renovation of his house, which audiences will see “in progress” as the production unfolds. Despite his age, he pursues schooling in the gentlemanly pastimes of fencing, dancing, music and philosophy, while his instructors ridicule him behind his back. His hunger for fame makes him easy prey for a cash-strapped nobleman who takes advantage of Jourdain’s vanity and aspirations. To his dismay, his daughter wants to marry a middle-class man, but, falling for another con job, Jourdain jumps at the chance to marry his daughter to a Turkish prince.
Magruder’s script is a new adaptation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss’ Der Bürger als Edelmann. The Hoffmansthal/Strauss version was itself an early twentieth-century musical adaptation of Molière’s seventeenth-century comédie-ballets, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which pokes fun at both the pretentious middle-class and the snobbish aristocracy . According to Vasen, although Strauss’ music for the show was much admired and became the basis of a well-loved orchestral suite, Hoffmanstahl and Strauss couldn’t agree on the overall structure of the adaptation and the project was eventually abandoned after a few theatrical misfires.
“The first thing I thought to do was hire my friend and colleague James Magruder, a veteran Molière translator and gifted comic playwright, to create a new version that would somehow synthesize all these various pieces into an entertaining, if not exactly coherent, whole” notes Vasen.
Magruder is best known for his versions of plays by Molière, Marivaux, and Gozzi. H is Three French Comedies (Yale University Press) was named an “Outstanding Literary Translation” by the American Literary Translators Association, while his musical version of Marivaux’s Triumph of Loveappeared on Broadway.
Magruder is also a visiting faculty member in the Theater Program this year, teaching a workshop course devoted to translation and adaptation for the stage. Each student is working on creating a new adaptation of foreign language or non-dramatic source material into a new full-length play by the end of the semester. The Bigwig production is itself a credited course, taught by Vasen, in which students experience the rigorous and challenging work of creating theater along with a professional director, design team, and stage manager.
“Our production is a twenty-first-century English-language version of an early twentieth-century German musical adaptation of a late seventeenth-century French play,” explains Vasen. “Yet, the story, the themes, the satire and jabs at pretense to a higher perceived social class resonate as vividly today at they did over 300 years ago. Comedy thrives on incongruity, and bounces quite happily among different historical periods, so there will probably be a little 2012 New Jersey in the mix as well.”
Der Bourgeois Bigwig will be directed by Vasen, who has directed and taught in the Program in Theater since 1993. In 2006 he directed the world premiere of the unfinished Prokofiev/Meyerhold production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, featuring nearly 100 undergraduate performers, and earlier this year directed the world premiere of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in an originally Soviet-banned but recently rediscovered version, written by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky with music by Prokofiev. His other Princeton projects includePlayboy of the Western World, Waiting for Godot, Danton’s Death and The Misanthrope. His professional directing credits include a five-year stint as Resident Director of Center Stage in Baltimore, where he directed a variety of new plays and classics, as well as productions and workshops in theaters across the country, including The Children’s Theater Company, South Coast Repertory, Philadelphia Theatre Company, and Playwrights Horizons.
The Princeton University Orchestra, conducted by Michael Pratt, will perform the musical score and be an integral part of the on-stage performance. In fact, Magruder has written the musicians into the script with Jourdain’s attempts to curry favor with the aristocracy leading him to employ a full 35-piece orchestra in his home.
“Being involved in a production that encompasses most of the utterly delicious music that Strauss wrote for Moliere’s delightful comedy has long been a dream of mine,” notes Pratt, “and I’m thrilled to be collaborating with Tim Vasen and Jim Magruder on this project. Strauss was the consummate musician of the theater, and his music, inspired by Molière’s collaborator Jean-Baptiste Lully, is some of his most intoxicating.”
Pratt is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music, conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra and director of the Program in Musical Performance, and recently marked his 35th year at the university. He has been instrumental in building the performance “wing” of the Music Program and has advanced the orchestra, creating a core of dedicated and skilled young players trained to perform a wide range of challenging music. As conductor of the orchestra has led nine international tours and performed the premieres of numerous faculty and student compositions, from small ensembles to full operas. He has performed all but two of the Mahler symphonies, Strauss’ tone poets, Monteverdi operas, among other major repertory. Other collaborations at Princeton include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Pas D’Dacier, and Boris Godunov , in which he previously partnered with Vasen, and last year the Princeton One-Act Opera project. His other professional credits include conducting the orchestras of Boston, New Jersey, Atlanta, Rochester, Buffalo, and Indianapolis.
The evolving set and elaborate period costumes are being created by New York-based designer Anya Klepikov, whose work has been featured in Live Design and American Theatre Magazine , with lighting design by theater program faculty member Jane Cox, whose work has been seen on Broadway and off, as well as at McCarter Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, and the Sydney Opera House.
Like Molière’s original 1670 production, which featured music, dance and singing, this version also includes choreography, in this case by Princeton senior Lily Ackerman, a comparative literature major pursuing certificates in theater and creative writing and taking courses in the Program in Dance.
The all-student cast is led by senior Gary Fox, a chemistry major working on a certificate in theater, along with Matthew Barouch ’16, Annika Bennett ’15, David Cruikshank ’16, Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn ’16, John Somers Fairchild ’15, Ryan Gedrich ’16, Evelyn Giovine ’16, Peter Giovine ’14, Maeli Goren ’15, Zack Salk ’14, and Erin Valentine ’16. Senior Anna Wuttig, also a chemistry major, is concertmaster and violin soloist with the orchestra.
Der Bourgeois Bigwig is one of several events celebrating French theater this fall at Princeton. In September the Lewis Center, Department of French and Italian, and the student French theater workshop L’Avant-Scène’s presented the Princeton French Theater Festival in which a group of four early-career French actors performed several recently developed one-person shows that have received accolades at international festivals. On October 18-20, L’Avant-Scène is presenting a French language production of Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes (School for Wives), featuring an all-student cast, and on December 13 will present two performances of an adapted, abridged version of Molière’s Les Femmes savants (The Learned Ladies ). On November 7 and 8 well-known French actor Guillaume Gallienne, in residence at Princeton, will discuss his recent theatrical and film projects.
The Berlind Theatre is an accessible venue. Assistive listening devices are available upon request, and large print programs will be provided. Patrons in need of other access accommodations are invited to contact the Lewis Center at 609.258.5262 or LewisCtr-Comm@princeton.edu for assistance at least two weeks prior to the selected performance.
Tickets for Der Bourgeois Bigwig are $15 general admission, $10 for students and seniors, and are available through the McCarter box office at 609.258.2787or on-line, through Princeton University Ticketing by calling 609.258.9220 or on-line at princeton.edu/utickets/ , or at the Frist Campus Center Ticket Office.
Photographer: Frank Wojciechowski