Content Warning: Violence, sexual abuse
As both an English student and a self-professed musical theatre nerd, it is unsurprising that musicals that adapt novels are just up my alley. That being said, while I have been a fan of Wildhorn and Bricusse’s musical adaptation since I discovered it at age 15, I had never actually read Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Curious case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde until this summer, when my GCSE tutoring meant that I could avoid getting to grips with this Victorian classic no longer.
The story of Jekyll and Hyde is firmly imprinted upon our cultural subconscious, with pretty much everyone having at least a vague awareness of its themes of the duality of man, the struggle of good versus evil, and its warning against playing God. However, I found it a surprisingly disappointing novel; maybe because, to me, the musical explores these themes in a more interesting and contemporary way (and through some absolute belters).
The first thing that surprised me was the narrative perspective in the novel. As anyone who has read the book will know, most of Jekyll and Hyde is told from the perspective of the innocuous and honestly rather boring character of Mr. Utterson, an upstanding lawyer and close friend of Dr. Jekyll. The novel follows Mr. Utterson’s attempt to ascertain the relationship between his friend and a mysterious, repugnant man whom Jekyll has listed as the sole benefactor of his will, ending with the big and not-at-all-obvious reveal that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same.
I guess Wildhorn figured that, in the 104 years this novel had been around, the ending might have gotten out. Instead of attempting to build suspense, the 1990 musical focuses on exploring the psychology of each of the characters in much greater depth. Dr. Jekyll’s experiments stem not from his selfish desire to live immorally without consequences to his soul and station, but instead from his desire to help his dying father whom he hopes to cure. Not allowed any patients on whom to trial his remedy, he administers it to himself, accidentally creating Hyde in the process. The result is a much more complex and tortured character who I felt more sympathetic for. In addition to this, the dramatic effect of one actor switching between the different voices and physicalities of Jekyll and Hyde on stage is mesmerizing: the song ‘The Confrontation’ will send shivers up your spine with how quickly the actor changes between the two.
The musical also adds two original female characters to what is an almost entirely masculine novel: Emma, who is Dr. Jekyll’s fiancé, and Lucy, a prostitute who Jekyll/Hyde becomes enamoured with. Interestingly, Wildhorn originally wanted one actress to play both roles to reflect the dichotomy between Jekyll and Hyde, but it didn’t end up being logistically possible. These female characters, in my opinion, make the adaptation infinitely better than the original. Not only do they have beautiful songs, they add a whole new dimension to what is otherwise a pretty straightforward story. Jekyll risks much more by turning into Hyde, as we see how it slowly destroys his relationship with Emma. While the original text hints at Hyde soliciting prostitutes in Jekyll’s final letter which admits to his alter-ego’s ‘undignified’ pleasures, the musical is able to actually explore this without the obscuring curtain of Victorian propriety, creating the character of Lucy who wins the audience’s sympathy from the beginning with her bittersweet song ‘No One Knows Who I Am’.
Lucy’s character arc is fairly similar to Nancy’s from Oliver, as we watch her fall hopelessly in love with the engaged Jekyll. He also seems to care for her, but his moral code and Victorian repression prevent him from indulging in these feelings, except when he is Hyde and his inhibitions are pushed aside. Hyde engages in a disturbing and abusive relationship with Lucy, and she seeks out Jekyll’s help as a doctor, leading to Jekyll’s horror when he realises he is the person who injured her. Eventually, Hyde kills Lucy in a shocking twist which forces matters to a head and makes Jekyll attempt to rid himself of Hyde once and for all, only to realise that it is too late.
In the novel, Jekyll’s realisation comes after Hyde kills an unknown man of high renown. The entire event is retold at a distance, witnessed by an unknown maid. The musical removes this distance as we see Hyde brutally strangle a character we have grown to love, which forces him to take accountability for his actions. While Lucy falls victim to Hyde, Emma ends up saving him and others. In the finale, it is her words which bring back Jekyll when he turns into Hyde, upon which he kills himself just as he does in the novel.
The addition of female characters with depth and agency made the story seem much more real and human to me than the novel, in which all the events are relayed through Utterson’s sanitised male perspective. Though the musical is certainly a loose adaptation of the subject material, the embellishments add to rather than detract from the story, giving it new relevance for a modern audience.
Image: Anna Kuptsova