First Impressions (1959) is a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by George Weiss, Robert Goldman, and Glenn Paxton, and book by Abe Burrows (Guys and Dolls), based on the stage adaptation by Helen Jerome of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. The Broadway production premiered at the Alvin Theater, New York City, on March 19, 1959, and played 84 performances. The stars of the original cast were Hermione Gingold (as Mrs. Bennet), Polly Bergen (as Elizabeth Bennet), and Farley Granger (as Mr. Darcy), supported by Phyllis Newman, Ellen Hanley, Christopher Hewitt, and James Mitchell. The original production’s lavish scenic design (the period was 1813) by Peter Larkin is particularly noteworthy.
The time is 1813, the scene is Longbourn, the home of the Bennets in Hertfordshire. The family consists of Mr. Bennet, his busy wife and their five unmarried daughters: Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Lydia and Kitty. Mrs. Bennet’s primary aim in life is to see her children well married, which is not easy when one has five daughters. Nor are the daughters, particularly Elizabeth, entirely sympathetic to her schemes. But good news comes to Mrs. Bennet that a rich young man, Charles Bingley, is coming to live at nearby Netherfield Hall, accompanied by his even richer friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, and she hurries out to tell her friends.
Darcy and Bingley make their first appearance at the Assembly Dance, where the latter is immediately attracted to Jane, but an intense dislike springs up between Elizabeth and Darcy, arising from her spirited tongue and his overbearing pride of station. When Bingley forces them to dance together, they make the best of it but are by no means happy. Elizabeth is more attracted to the dashing Captain Wickham who is anathema to Darcy. Bingley and his sister invite Jane to dinner at Netherfield, and the canny Mrs. Bennet sends her off on horseback in the rain, planning for her to be invited to remain overnight. As long as there’s a mother, she assures her daughters, all will be well. Jane catches cold on her journey, and her stay is extended. When Elizabeth goes to visit her, she is persuaded by Bingley to sing for them, and Darcy, hearing her, is forced to conclude that he may have been wrong in his low opinion of her.
Mr. Bennet’s cousin Mr. Collins, to whom the Bennet estate is entailed, arrives at Longbourn with the idea of marrying one of the daughters, and decides upon Elizabeth, who is appalled by the idea, and indignantly refuses him. Meanwhile the romance between Jane and Bingley is blossoming and he gives a garden party at Netherfield for her. The strong-minded Elizabeth slowly begins to find Darcy more attractive and he, in turn, appears willing to over-look the commonness of her mother and her connections. Elizabeth is delighted until they unfortunately hear the foolish Mrs. Bennet boasting of Jane’s triumph. Darcy at once withdraws into his pride and prevails upon Bingley to leave for London, leaving Elizabeth bemused and angry.
Mr. Collins, spurned by Elizabeth, thereupon marries her friend Charlotte Lucas, to the intense disgust of Mrs. Bennet. He and Charlotte invite Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth to visit his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a fine example of vintage snobbery and Darcy’s aunt as well. Mrs. Bennet, overcome by the grandeur of her surroundings, dreams of owning a house in town. Darcy arrives and tells Elizabeth he has conquered his dislike for her and her family, and that he wishes to marry her. This oddly-reasoned proposal incenses Elizabeth, who refuses, and moreover upbraids him for his cold behaviour to Captain Wickham. They argue violently, and he again stalks out, leaving her dejected.
Lydia, the fourth sister, takes advantage of their absence to run off with Captain Wickham, throwing the family into dismay and humiliation. At last Mr. Bennet returns from his search for them with the news that Wickham has come into an inheritance, has agreed to marry Lydia, and has paid his debts.
Lady Catherine arrives to forbid Elizabeth, quite unnecessarily, to marry Darcy, and unwittingly reveals that it was he who supplied the money to Wickham, despite the fact that Wickham had once plotted to elope with Darcy’s young sister. It dawns on Elizabeth that her feelings against Darcy are founded only on his pride, not on his person, and when Bingley suddenly arrives to be re-united with Jane, she allows Mrs. Bennet to persuade her to go to Netherfield to apologise. Together Darcy and Elizabeth overcome their pride and prejudice, based on first impressions, and agree that the heart has indeed won the game.
The musical concentrates more than the novel does on Mrs. Bennet’s attitude toward all this. The emphasis on Mrs. Bennet, no doubt, is the result of having cast a star (Hermione Gingold) in what was meant by Austen to be a secondary role.
While a number of critics at the time felt that Gingold was miscast as Mrs. Bennet, she was, by all accounts, wonderful in the role. First Impressions was a good–if, like its hero and heroine, slightly flawed–musical, a near miss in a crowded and highly competitive “golden age” Broadway marketplace, that remains interesting for its literary heritage and its intrinsic quality.
The very engaging score, which mixes early-19th-century “period” music with standard Broadway idioms of the 1950s, includes the following principal songs among the 18 recorded tracks (Click for sample):