Bill Leavengood always thought Pride and Prejudice could be turned into a musical. Jane Austen's novel has strong female characters, an unpredictable love story and plenty of wit.
And as artistic director of LiveArts Peninsula Foundation, Leavengood had the means to give it a try. The only problem: LiveArts produces Florida-themed theater. Austen's novel of manners from 18th century England seemed a stretch as source material.
"At first I was skeptical. I thought Bill was trying to get a square peg into a round hole," said composer and lyricist Lee Ahlin, Leavengood's collaborator on two previous musicals.
But the playwright forged ahead and the result is Crossing the Bay, a new musical by Leavengood and Ahlin that opens tonight. It's their followup to Webb's City, which put a slice of Florida history to exuberant song and dance in a show about St. Petersburg druggist and promoter Doc Webb.
Leavengood and Ahlin transplant Austen to 1880s Tampa Bay. Their opening number, A Beautiful Florida Night, is a street dance in Wardsville, the future site of downtown St. Petersburg.
Instead of Elizabeth Bennet and her sister, Jane, the middle-class heros of Pride and Prejudice whose mother is determined to marry them off to aristocrats, Crossing the Bay has Lizzie and Jane Tippetts, daughters of a citrus farmer. Their beaus _ Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley in the novel _ are fictional characters from local history, Frederic Disston, a member of a pioneering Pinellas clan, and Colin Plant, nephew of Henry B. Plant, the railroad magnate and founding father of Tampa.
"There's more Pride and Prejudice than there is history in my mind," Leavengood said. "I'm such a fan of it. I love the characters, and I love the story line. There are certain small sections where it's absolutely verbatim" from the novel.
Yet, to make Austen's classic into musical theater, much has been changed. For example, instead of five Bennet daughters, there are only two Tippetts girls. "Not to improve what is perfect but for a musical anyway three more characters to delineate and give focus to was too much," Leavengood said.
The musical's plot turns on the railroad crossing Tampa Bay to Pinellas, and whether its destination would be what was to become Gulfport or St. Petersburg, where it ultimately ended up.
"The most interesting show is one where the most people or things change," Leavengood said. "And this was the greatest change for this area. Without the railroad, we wouldn't have downtown St. Pete as it is today."
The class theme of Pride and Prejudice has been given a North-South twist in Crossing the Bay. The Tippetts patriarch is a Civil War veteran, a former Confederate officer fallen on hard times. There's also a Pinellas-Hillsborough conflict, with the Tippetts and other Pinellas residents portrayed as Southern rustics and the Plants and their set as Northern industrialists settled in Tampa.
"Even then there was this rivalry between Hillsborough and Pinellas," Leavengood said. "Tampa was there first. They felt they were the city of the West Coast. They didn't particularly want the railroad to get to the Pinellas peninsula; they thought it was a wilderness full of fishermen-farmer yahoos."
"Tampa was already established when this play opens," Ahlin said. "It had the railroad, and Pinellas did not. I think the Pinellas residents looked at Hillsborough County as sort of uppity."
The Pinellas-Hillsborough rift has gone through many manifestations over the years. Leavengood, 44, remembers feeling that Hillsborough looked down on Pinellas when he was growing up in St. Petersburg, where he still lives.
" "The beaches' _ that's what people in Tampa used to say," he said. " "Oh, you live over at the beaches.' That's what St. Pete is to them. St. Pete, on the other hand, sees itself as this bustling city that rivals Tampa and is better than Tampa."
Ahlin, 53, who grew up in Orlando, has lived in Tampa for years. "I suppose you can divide the music into two genres," he said. "The songs that reflect the Pinellas yokels are dyed-in-the-wool country music. The high class songs that reflect the Jane Austen feel are fast, classy waltzes."
Crossing the Bay turns the rivalry into a good-natured cartoon while also getting some marketing mileage from it. The musical opens at the Janet Root Theatre of Shorecrest Preparatory School, where Leavengood and Ahlin teach, and then transfers to Tampa's Falk Theatre. Mayors Rick Baker of St. Petersburg and Pam Iorio of Tampa will make cameos each opening night.
Webb's City turned an unlikely subject into musical theater, and audiences loved it. If anything, Leavengood and Ahlin are more confident about prospects for their new show.
"Actually there were elements about writing it that were easier (than Webb's City) because the story was so strong," Leavengood said. "This had the structure right there, and it was just a matter of dropping in the history rather than making the history the focus. The characters are much more complete."
Ahlin, who will play guitar and lead a six-piece band in the pit, expects Crossing the Bay to be his last musical for a while. His resume includes three collaborations with Leavengood as well as some of American Stage's best Shakespeare in the Park musicals.
"I'm taking a break," he said. "For over 10 years, I've been writing. Every day, there has been a deadline. I get up and there's something that's got to be done either with scores, writing a new song or rehearsal. I know I'm going to come back, but I'm just ready for a little pause."
Ahlin compares his music in Crossing the Bay to the score he wrote for All's Well That Ends Well, the 1996 American Stage park show that was, he said, "still a watershed for me because I think I finally got it."
LiveArts has a lot riding on Crossing the Bay, which cost about $200,000 to produce. The company's last show, Manhattan Casino, was a disappointing flop after the surprise success of Webb's City.
"People had low expectations of Webb's City, and it worked out really well," said Leavengood. "Now we feel like we are going to try to redeem that reputation and do something that people will really enjoy."