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From Pedro Antonio Donoso:

Dear Ms. Knighton,

I'm writing you simply to express my appreciation for what I feel is your pure genius as a lyricist. What you wrote for The Scarlet Pimpernel was amongst the most brilliant and insightful works I've come across in a Broadway show in quite a while. The story of the Pimpernel itself has always been one of my favorites and the Leslie Howard movie being, in my mind, the best cinematic version of Baroness Orczy's work, though the recent Richard Grant BBC series wasn't half bad.

To start, I felt your approach so elegantly expressed the key issues and viewpoints of the French Revolution, both from the interior perspective of class struggles in France as well as England's role as an outside observer, as influenced by the context of the attitudes and both dominant and emerging philosophies of those times. But what made your voice so moving to me was how you so deftly managed to portray the personal maze of of assumptions, misunderstandings, doubts, deceptions and suspicions that had grown to come between between Percy and Marguerite's relationship in a way that mirrored all those larger worldly issues within this one couple' relationship. To top that off, the way in which you managed to weave them all together into the oh-so- cleverly inventive tapestry of your lyrics - as incredibly engaging and humorous as they were entertaining - was, in all honesty, sincerely breath taking to me.

Having regrettably missed the Pimpernel's Broadway run (I kept reminding myself, "I MUST see that at some point...."), I finally had the chance to audition it audibly on compact disc. As a multi-instrumentalist musician with widely eclectic tastes, I regrettably continue to be less than moved and rather disappointed, melodically as well as lyrically, in hearing a broad number of contemporary songs written of late, which include the gamut of Broadway shows created within the past fifty years. Prior to your Wildhorn & Knighton collaboration, the last really great show I was enamored with was the comparably brilliant marriage of Weber & Rice in Evita, the ONE Andrew Lloyd Webber piece I consider to be the exception to his otherwise rather middling popular body of work. My key barometer for measuring the value of an song is whether I can walk away from the first or second listening with a memorable measure of lyric and melody in my head. To my utter surprise and delight, I fell in love with a number of the show's songs the first time around - and the entire show after only two to three more spins. As a result, I ended up listening to it repeatedly at work over the next few months on my noise-cancelling headphones.

Aside from the convenience of not intruding upon others, I have to say that headphones REALLY DO offer a listener an environment where they can really climb into a production and become immersed in the words and music so much more deeply than through an open set of speakers. One delightful aspect of repeated sessions with Pimpernel was in continually discovering new connections, allusions and references not previously realized every time I gave it a whirl. Though I've listened to the scores of other shows written by Frank Wildhorn, I have to say the Scarlet Pimpernel remained as his only really outstanding work to my ears. Your collaboration meshed your lyric so wonderfully with his score to the point where I felt, in comparison with his other compositions, that it was YOUR words that were REALLY what initially seemed to guide his inspired choice of melody and theme...resulting in such a delightful "marriage" of intellect and emotion.

I suspect so much of what goes into crafting what becomes a final work involves a multitude of influences, ranging from one's personal experiences starting from childhood on through to the present, to individuals who have shaped and inspired one's opinions and direction. I would speculate there were also some unique aspects happening in both your lives around then leading up to the Pimpernel's completion that directly or indirectly shaped the tone and approach of its final form - moments that were uniquely like no other. And the way you managed to voice so much of this piece within the context of love - whether realized or longed for - also felt like it was such a powerful current flowing throughout that period of collaboration for both you and the composer as well. It felt real and very much in the moment, despite the historical separation of centuries past - more than just a universal observance of the human condition. But then, that's just my instincts taking rein.

True to my laconic ways, it took five years of on and off listening to this score for my resolve to finally write and let you know how the brilliance and emotion of your words have touched this listener's heart and soul. You are truly a remarkable human being to have found and brought to life so many themes of the human experience within the patterns of that period of history and woven the core of their threads together in such a myriad number of wonderful ways within this art form.

Having said all that, I consider the many wonderful hours of personal pleasure spent with The Scarlet Pimpernel to be the lesser of the two treasures listening to this musical has contributed to my life. By far the greater gift I believe your work has given me is an important revelation in the power and compassion that's available when I can truly come to understand the notion of my capacity for "being mistaken." So many of our enmities and marks of arbitrary judgment simply fall away in opening to the realization that they often stem from initial assumptions which position us as far from the truth as their resulting fruits plunge us that much deeper within their vat of bitterness. This is something I will always carry with me to the end of my days. You've inspired me to strive whenever possible to always keep in mind how I might first consider entertaining the possibility of having perhaps fallen prey to simply "being mistaken" before rushing hastily to what might otherwise blindly result in a harsh and embittered initial judgment.

Sincerely,
Pedro Antonio Donoso


Sunday, 29 April 2012

Dear Pedro,

Sometimes I don't think people are aware of how much it means to a writer to hear positive feedback. I remember once saying to a friend of mine about something I'd written, "But did you like it?" And she stared back at me and said, "Well, of course I did. I thought you knew that." She assumed that I would assume, etc., etc. But really I don't think artists ever do assume that someone likes what they've done. You put yourself out there like the proverbial guy with the apple on his head as a phalanx of archers aim their arrows. If you don't end up slaughtered, you're grateful. If someone actually hits the apple and then comes up and pats you on the back and says, "You did a great job out there," it's an enormous relief. The original "Pimpernel" got some really cruel reviews, and I was fairly devastated by them. To this day, I find it very hard to read reviews because I'm frankly afraid of what they might say. My shell is a little tougher, but I don't think it will ever be tough enough.

Okay- so all that is preamble to what I want to say to you, to wit: you have no idea how much your letter meant to me. It was immensely generous in its praise. I do not and could never believe I have "pure genius" as a lyricist, but wow- is that ever a nice thing to hear! I love writing songs and just being allowed to do it for a living is great enough. Getting a letter like yours is amazing frosting on the cake. And so I thank you for making me very happy with your kind words. I can tell that you did mean them, that your letter was an honest reflection of what you think- so that makes it even more special.

But what I also want to say- and this is more important to me- is that I thank you for understanding so much of what I was trying to say in both book and lyrics about the complex, often ambiguous, ever tricky relationships between human beings. Additionally, I was gratified to see that you picked up on the "mirroring" I tried to do between the character relationships and the utter confusion going on in England and France during the French Revolution. When I first wrote the show, I was naïve enough to think that critics might refer to the history of this period, possibly read the Orczy novel and/or see the Leslie Howard movie. I believed I would be judged, among other things, on my decisions as to how to handle that history and how I chose to differ from the novel and the movie in what I thought would work better for the stage. I was way overly optimistic in thinking this might happen or that critics would even have time to do all this- but my dream was to have a critic really talk about the history and the relationships as you wrote about them in your letter. So finally, someone has done this...and I thank you.

I think in other letters and interviews (already printed on this site) I have talked quite a bit about ambiguity. It infiltrated the show because I feel and see it all around me, always have, and am fascinated by it. The Revolution itself was a fevered mishmash in the sense of honest, laudable ideals gradually deteriorating into a fanatical bloodbath. And, of course, there is a built-in irony when British gentry are considered heroic for traveling to France primarily to save French gentry (although the British did save many from the guillotine who were artists, free-thinkers or just plain innocents of any class). Nevertheless, the ironies of all this abound on both the French and British sides. And so when it came to delineating Percy, Marguerite and Chauvelin, I also wanted them to be colored with contradictions. Percy is indeed a brave man who leads others "into the fire," but he's also foppish enough to be able to pull off his act with some authenticity. He trusts Marguerite but then so easily is led to believe she has betrayed him. I loved the fact that Orczy made Marguerite an actress and was always surprised that she didn't use this in the book. I wanted to use it liberally. And so Marguerite, who is a good woman and who truly loves Percy, is able to easily pull off deceptions. She is guilty of never having been fully honest with Percy and she's not only capable of spying for Chauvelin but also finds herself still magnetically attracted to a man she hates. As for Chauvelin, he is a classic villain, but one with whom we can occasionally empathize, and I also wanted to make him sensual, physically intoxicating, a flip side to Percy. I knew from the beginning that I needed mixed reactions to Chauvelin in order to make the story compelling and to construct an intriguing triangle. Chauvelin really did believe in the cause of the Revolution. His own ideals were betrayed. He also adored Marguerite but she left him. He does want to viciously seize and destroy Percy and the Brits "like a falcon in the dive" but he admits somewhat poignantly that he knows he's growing older and only wants to "resurrect" his dream. And of course all of the contradictions in these three people culminate in "The Riddle" which ends Act I.

Okay, I'm going on way too long here. I guess it's just fun for me to have the conversation I always wanted to have with someone about all this. I do have one more thing to say, which is that I was fascinated with the ending of your letter. On a very conscious level I did know when I wrote the show that Percy and Marguerite were making a "mistake" in misjudging each other and in the end I have them both recriminate about having continually misunderstood each other. But I read again your last sentence: "You've inspired me to strive whenever possible to always keep in mind how I might first consider entertaining the possibility of having perhaps fallen prey to simply 'being mistaken' before rushing hastily to what might otherwise blindly result in a harsh and embittered initial judgment." What fascinated me is the whole idea that you walked away from this show thinking about mistakes, about how often and how quickly we make mistakes in misinterpreting others. It brought me up short because I started then thinking about what "mistakes" I myself have made or currently make- mistakes in misinterpreting others. (As a sidenote, I find especially in the age of email, I am constantly misinterpreting the tone of emails sent to me by others or they misinterpret the tone of my emails.) What I tell my children is that whenever they are angry at someone, they should try to step into the other person's shoes to imagine what the other person is feeling and thinking and, after doing this, their anger may dissipate because they suddenly understand why the other person acted as they did. In actuality, I often have to remind myself to do the same thing. And this all relates to what you said at the end of your letter- that we all have to try not to make the mistake of hasty judgments. I thank you for pointing this out. I know that I did write this in the show. I guess I just never quite thought of it before the way you phrased it.

I apologize for the length of this letter. Perhaps, though, it can show you the degree to which you have inspired me- inspired me to rethink my own show. Again, I thank you for writing and for sharing your thoughts. I wish you well and I'm very grateful- Nan


 
 
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