A Place Where Dreams Are Made

Margaret Hoorneman

Margaret Hoorneman

“Great Expectations” a musical? “Oh please … I don’t know whether I want to sit through that.” I muttered to myself before reading the article below and actually seeing this surprisingly wonderful experience for theatre goers.

My sister and I just happened to have the opportunity of sitting next to Margaret Hoorneman, the 96 year-old adapator of this Dickens’ masterpiece, during its opening performance at the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

“Never,never, never give up on your dream …” I started to think, and then tears filled my eyes as I observed Margaret’s essence beaming throughout the seated audience and realized that there really is no expiration date for one’s dream. I also thought of Fred Adams the Festival creator and his dream of a successful festival where the people of the west USA could come and learn to love Shakespeare and other great playwrights. Fred’s dream festival is going to celebrate it’s fiftieth anniversary next year. His dream has come true with an added bonus — a Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre — and now his vision is helping others to realize their dreams.

To fully understand the process it took to mount the musical “Great Expectations,” read the article below. I do hope and pray that Margaret’s dream can continue to grow. The show definitely is worth experiencing. I would love to see it performed on the West End.

— Elaine Breinholt Street

Adaptation Still Seems Strangely Misunderstood
By Heidi Madsen

Just as there are “many rooms in the house of art,” there are many ways of telling the same story (Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer [HarperCollins, New York: 2006], 10). Even Aeschylus humbly stated that his dramas were but “slices cut off from the great banquet of Homer’s poems.” Though origin and ownership of ideas were once cloudy and the borders of intellectual property ill-defined, the same stories were endlessly re-visited. With intellectual property and copyright laws now in place (largely through the efforts of Charles Dickens) flagrant copying has largely ceased, but familiar stories still circulate as reincarnates from one art form to another. And yet, even in this most particular age of artistic variation, adaptation still seems strangely misunderstood. Great Expectations, for example, will never translate precisely from novel to film or to any other media because these are distinct forms of communication and “compare,” as Dennis Lehane observes, “like apples and giraffes; fortunately for us, however, they do interbreed” (http://asjournal.zusas.uni-halle.de/168.html).

Victorian author Charles Dickens is the father of a large family of novels, short stories, plays, travelogues, and poetry; but he is also the progenitor of untold artistic hybrids in almost every conceivable media. Even while he wrote, pirated adaptations of his novels were performed down the street in London playhouses. Though Dickens’s official plays have seen little stage time, his melodramatic novels can certainly be adapted into performance literature, but this process is far from simple: “The mixture of realism and symbolism . . . the often larger-than-life or grotesque characters [and] the first-person narration of some books” all provide challenges to the would-be-adaptor (http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Academy-Awards-Crime-Films/Adaptation-CASE-STUDY-ADAPTATIONSOF-CHARLES-DICKENS.html). Margaret Hoorneman solves the latter problem in her musical adaptation of Great Expectations by omitting the first-person point of view, while still allowing the audience a window into the heart and memories of the story’s central character.

Dickens’s novels were largely sketched from his own life, both public and private, both observed and endured. Like David Copperfield, his favorite and most autobiographical character, Charles Dickens was a child-laborer; like Little Dorrit, he shared his father’s cell in debtor’s prison. As a youth Dickens observed a morbid bride clothed in a gown of tatters and soot haunting Berner’s street in London; years later he would immortalize her disappointment and her decay in Great Expectations. Dickens’s keen eye for detail and powers of description were such that “it would be difficult to overstate the intensity and accuracy of his observation” (Kaplan, Fred, Dickens: A Biography [John Hopkins University Press, New York: Morrow, 1998], 24). A member of The Ghost Club, a curious spectator at public hangings, and a frequent visitor to prisons and insane asylums, Dickens was a student of the bizarre and a researcher of the “variations of misery and its institutional treatment” (Kaplan, 142). The author had a sympathetic interest, as well, in the psychological effects of circumstance—especially in the young; he never outlived the profound emotions of his own formative years. “In the little world in which children have their existence,” muses Pip, another autobiographical character, “there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice” (Great Expectations [Oxford University Press], 57).

Margaret Hoorneman, the brainchild of the new musical Great Expectations, now in her nineties, taught ninth-grade literature in the Iowa Public School System for over forty years. From such a vantage point, she must have gained extraordinary insights into the plights, pitfalls, and great expectations of the young. She saw how her freshman students related to this young man’s tale of “falling for a girl that was out of his class, and [his] aspirations for a better life in the big city” (qtd. in “Fever Strikes Grandma: A Dickensian Tale.” [New York Times, May 14, 2001]). Fueled by her student’s youthful enthusiasm, Ms. Hoorneman ultimately proved that aspirations have no expiration date; she completed her stage adaptation of Dickens’s novel at age eighty-seven and sent it to her grandson, television writer and producer Brian VanderWilt, whose credits include Ellen, Home Improvement, and Dark Angel. Although his initial reaction was “Oh no!”, VanderWilt’s fears of having to either humor or disappoint his grandmother were soon overcome as he recognized the manuscript’s merits. He and co-writer Steve Lozier, producer and managing director of Moving Arts, a theater company based in L.A., helped refine the 200-plus page manuscript into a more workable length. Lozier, though not one of Ms. Hoorneman’s students, was another ninth-grader so impressed by Great Expectations that he could not part with his copy at the end of the school year.

Translating classical text into lyrics presents its own daunting challenges. The adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion, for example, into a musical (My Fair Lady) was thought—by some of the best lyricists in the business including Oscar Hammerstein — to be an impossible feat. Perhaps artistic collaborators of Great Expectations were not as intimidated by the complexity of the project as they might have been; when composer Richard Winzeler and lyricist Steve Lane were approached to musicalize Dickens, they’d had many successful collaborations, but mostly in the genres of jazz and rhythm and blues, never in musical theater. Both writers, however, have a great love of musicals. As an academic reward, Winzeler’s parents would take him to see a musical in downtown Chicago; he began acting at age five and performed in high school and college musical productions. Professionally, he has arranged and conducted music for notable performers, as well as for commercials and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Gladys Knight, Diane Schuur, and Lou Rawls. His partner Steve Lane grew up watching summer “tent” theaters and musical road tours; in college he began writing music for his pop-rock band, but turned later to lyric writing. Lane’s songs have been performed by recording artist greats including Aretha Franklin, Peabo Bryson, and Anita Baker.

Steve Lane and Richard Winzeler both write as well as compose, which makes them a very versatile duo, and like dynamic partnerships from musical theater’s past such as Lerner and Loewe, and Rogers and Hammerstein, Lane and Winzeler complement each other’s writing styles. “Richard comes from a more ethereal place and I, from a pragmatic place,” says Lane. For their collaboration on Great Expectations, they studied the script for “posts,” emotional points in the story that demand a song; of this process Winzeler recalls, “I trusted my intuition and creative sense to lead me.” To keep the spirit of the novel intact, they used as much original content as possible; song titles, such as “Ever the Best of Friends,” and “Dear Boy,” are phrases taken right from the novel. But a single written page can turn into forty minutes of dramatization, so lyrics must paraphrase and often even replace text. Success depends upon a lyricist’s “ability to strip down the text and repair the damage so skillfully with lyrics that the seams become invisible” (Green, Benny, A Hymn to Him: the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner [Limelight Editions, New York: 1987], 8).

Despite the novel’s elaborate detail, in the course of trial and adaptation, artistic collaborators found Great Expectations to be introspective, personal, and really very intimate. They decided “a sprawling, grand production would not serve the story as much as an intimate production,” Steve Lane reveals. Ultimately, under the direction of Jules Aaron, Great Expectations is not so much an analysis, but a synthesis of Pip’s psychology, an optimistic interpretation of his worthiness to expect and to obtain great things. It is their hope that this adaptation will appeal to all ages, but perhaps, in staying true to Dicken’s sympathies and Ms. Hoorneman’s motivations, most especially to the young. Winzeler summarizes their expectations, “I will know we have been successful, not so much when our show might play on Broadway, but when a small high school in rural Nebraska is performing the material.”

Thanks to Elaine Breinholt Street who wrote this as a Facebook note.

Novels by Dickens have been regularly turned into musicals. Tommy by the Who and The Wall by Pink Floyd owes much to and has echoes of these musicals of the 1960s. Who would have expected Les Miserables to have been such a success, and again it owes much to those earlier Dickens musicals.

Also what springs to mind is Santiago in The Alchemist by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho and his determination to follow his dreams.

We all have dreams, it is that unlike Margaret Hoorneman and Santiago or Paulo Coelho (who always wanted to be a writer) we fail to follow them.

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4 Responses to “A Place Where Dreams Are Made”

  1. Priya Sher Says:

    Thanks Keith – Very interesting.

  2. Lainee Says:

    Thank you for posting this, Keith. 🙂

    When I talked with Margaret in the garden after the production and told her that I taught theater and English to teens, she remarked that another reason she adapted, GREAT EXPECTATIONS was so that high schools would have another choice of material that would be suitable for children to perform. I had to agree. It is so hard to find appropriate material for kids these days. Will I consider this musical version? Yes. It will not be easy to tackle because the music is on a Sondheim scale with beautiful and tricky syncopation. Yet, given enough time, patience and drive, our children can perform it, and Dickens’ universal theme of “Love being the key to all understanding” will certainly come through.

    • danceswithcrayons Says:

      Hi Lainee,
      Enjoyed reading too, for so many reasons!! Oh I love the picture of the lady. That twinkle in her eye says it all and cannot help but share the joy! This picture made my day. So thankyou for sharing your adventure XOXO

      There is a great play for kids called ‘Inside Al’. Saw it performed in the mid 90’s and loved it:

      Charles Dickens visited and wrote of a pub called The White Bull. Joseph and Mary Allcot became the Innkeepers of the pub in 1872. Joseph Allcot is the brother of my great-great grandfather.

      VOLUME IV.
      FROM JULY 5, 1890, TO DECEMBER 27, 1890.
      Including No. 79 to No. 104.
      LONDON :
      ” A seven-mile walk along a pretty road, continually ascending, and descending, and winding through a pleasant country of wood and pasture, brings us to Sleaford. Sleaford is a very ancient town, yet it has a modern look about it. Close to the station are the remains of the once famous Castle, whereat King John stopped during the illness which seized him after his departure from Swineshead. Shakespeare kills this gentle Sovereign at Swineshead ; but the fraternity of Dry-as-dusts are agreed that he got as far as Newark before he bestowed this kindness on his people. Sleaford Church, dedicated to Saint Denis, is said to be internally interesting ; but, as it was shut up, and we felt no inclination to send for the custodian, we contented ourselves with external inspection. He who would lunch in a quiet way at Sleaford, should repair to the “White Bull,” quaintest, oldest, and cleanest of hostelries, with a tap-room of most ” sketch- able ” character. ”

      Of course I love ‘Tommy’ (the music) and ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, Pink Floyd.

      Gratitude, Love Love Love and a gazillion hugs,

  3. Lainee Says:


    So funny… we did INSIDE AL for our festival play this last spring! It’s wonderful that our minds are so connected :-)…. We qualified for state with a superior rating… and at state we were one of two schools to receive a straight superior rating. Our actor playing outside Al received Best Actor at the festival. I love the play and and message is so wonderful. People with cerebral palsy really do get a bad rap. That play needs to be done more in schools to help the message that CP people have great minds…it’s just that minds have a problem telling their muscles what to do. We should not talk down to people with CP.

    I have a student who wrote music for INSIDE AL…we have since contacted the author and received permission for my student to carry the play/musical with him to Utah Valley University where he will specialize in musical theatre. One of the classes is writing music for musicals. I do hope his dream comes true. The songs he has already written are wonderful; he just needs to add some change up songs here and there.

    Sorry for going on and on, but this is my thing.. 😉

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