At a rehearsal of Pride & Prejudice – The Musical in Ross are, from left, songwriter Rita Abrams and actors Carrie Fisher-Coppola, Landers Markwick and Pennell Chapin. (Photo by Jack Prendergast)
Rita Abrams can be a mega-inspiration — for older folks who think their creative lives may be over or for those whose 15 minutes of fame dissipated many years ago.
Abrams, at 79, is deep in rehearsal with the Ross Valley Players for “Pride & Prejudice – The Musical,” for which she created music and super-sweet lyrics. The ex-hippie says it’s going well, particularly due to director Phoebe Moyer’s ability to draw extra humor from the show’s pun- and alliterative-laden tunes by suggesting actors change the tiniest gesture or turn of the head.
From left, Heren Patel, Justin Hernandez and Rita Abrams work on a song from Pride & Prejudice – The Musical. (Photo by Heather Shepardson)
The musical opens March 17 at The Barn in Ross and runs through April 16.
It’s a short geographic distance but a far cry from 1970, when the songwriter’s “Mill Valley” became a pop chartbuster while she was in her mid-20s and a teacher in that city. Abrams and her third-grade class at the Strawberry Point School sang her tune on a Warner Bros./Reprise vinyl.
“It was a sudden thing, overnight, they put a rush-release on it, and we were getting calls from all over the world,” she recalls in a recent phone interview. “At first the fame was very exciting, but then I got off-balance. It felt strange to me — the song was my whole life, and it was dizzying. It was hard to handle. If it were now, in the age of social media, I’m guessing I might have been mercilessly ridiculed.”
After Abrams and her small charges generated a follow-up album, the hit song catapulted her into a lifelong music career. She worked on kids’ records and films, pop and novelty songs, commercials, greeting cards, books and musical theater productions such as the well-received “For Whom the Bridge Tolls” and “Aftershocks.”
She has written songs for “Sesame Street,” collaborated with Elmo (Shropshire), who performed the holiday song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and worked with John Gray to mount a show based on his best-seller, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” London in 2012, presented by the Ruislip Operatic Society.
“We had nothing to do with the production, and we were barred from it,” she remembers. “They didn’t want the writers anywhere near it because they were afraid that we might change what they wanted. Later, when I watched a video of it, I saw so many things I’d have changed.”
Still, she says, “Emotionally, I really like to sit back and let other people do it. For me, the joy is in the writing.”
San Francisco’s IAM Theatre, now inactive, produced another version, and there was a high school incarnation in Peoria, Illinois, last year. A company in Hong Kong is working on doing a production sometime this year, possibly in the fall.
Brown’s passion for the tale jumpstarted the project, and she convinced Abrams to do the music. Brown isn’t on site for the Ross Valley Players’ rendition, “but she’s accessible by phone or computer” if needed, Abrams says.
“Pride & Prejudice,” of course, is the story of the emotionally repressed 19th century English family, the Bennets. Mother wants to marry off her five daughters and father just wants to be left alone. Enter the iconic love interest Mr. Darcy, and we’re off to the chapel (ultimately).
Abrams’ favorite song in the show is “‘What Is a Man to Do?” which she calls “a parody that says everything’s a woman’s fault. I like that it has a lot of catchy rhymes and it’s like a tango.”
Currently in a relationship with bandleader-bass player Jack Prendergast, Abrams long ago was married for eight years to a documentarian, and has a daughter, Mia, who was an actor for film and TV in Hollywood but now, at 41, is shifting into a food industry setting.
A few years back, Abrams had to leave the town she helped make famous because she could no longer afford to stay. She says she has no regrets about it: “I love living in a lovely, affordable mobile home park in Novato. And I’m still an honorary citizen of Mill Valley.”
As for what’s next in her future, she says, “I’ve come to the age where the reality is, unless you don’t care if anyone likes it or not, the average time of getting a show from stage to page is seven years, and that’s too hard to deal with. Instead, I want to nurture the shows I’ve already written.”