Write Like the Dickens

A handful of English concentrators get selected each year to write creative theses. Some write poetry, others essays, and a few try their hand at fiction. But Joe C. Gfaller ’01 did what no one had done: he wrote a musical. Last year he composed the lyrics, libretto and music for a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. And as if that were not an adequate project, he also wrote a 45-page justification of adaptation and the nature of narrative. “I purported a theory of means through which a story transcends genre,” he says like a true Hoopes Prize winner (which he is).

According to Gfaller, Dickens’ classic was ready-made for the stage. “As a story, it’s like a lot of modern musical theater, like Les Misérables and Sweeney Todd,” he says. “It’s about finding what’s essentially you. It’s dorky. There’s almost something Disney about it.”

Determined to see the book performed, he took on the stage adaptation. He had written five plays and taken some composition courses, but a full-fledged stage musical was a much bigger production. The hefty book had to be whittled down, so Gfaller cut subplots, conflated characters and streamlined the story so it could be told in two hours and 40 minutes. Throughout, his goal was to stay true to the author. “I tried to retain as much of Dickens’ language as possible,” he says. For the musical aspect of the project, Gfaller gained inspiration from Stephen Sondheim’s work. He played with the idea of musical motifs and tried to give characters song styles that matched their personas. Eliot House gave him access to its tower room piano, once owned by Leonard Bernstein—who had done some literary adaptation himself in the form of West Side Story.

The real culmination of the thesis was not on the due date, but rather last May, when Gfaller staged a reading of the musical at Agassiz Theater. Now, as the marketing director of the Seven Stages Theater in Atlanta, he’s getting the chance to have part of the show performed again, an event he hopes will help his playwriting career. Gfaller already has another literary classic lined up for his next project: William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!