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Dangerous Liaisons: The Story

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Source Novel • Choderlos de Laclos • Johnathan Daniel Steppe • Libretto • Synopsis

Early Edition

The Original Story

Dangerous Liaisons began as the novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by French author Choderlos de Laclos. Originally published over two hundred years ago Les Liaisons Dangereuses was widely read at the time as a succès de scandale (50 editions were published in his lifetime) and admired by readers such as Marie Antoinette, André Gide and Charles Baudelaire. However, the story did not regain popularity until Christopher Hampton created the play that was premiered in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon and later transferred to London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. Wider popularity was assured by the release of the Stephen Frears’ film Dangerous Liaisons with screenplay by Christopher Hampton in 1988, and Milos Foreman’s 1990 Valmont.

The reasons for the book’s neglect have less to do with its qualities but more with its reputation. While famed as a lurid account of aristocratic sexual high jinks, it is also an example of an outmoded form of writing. Serious readers in search of tragic uplift were disconcerted by the brilliant comedy, and those seeking a more basic thrill were put off by the attention to psychological detail. The book is a series of one hundred and seventy five letters through which the tale is recounted. The eighteenth century, in its leisure and literacy, was a great age of letter writing. It is not surprising that the epistolary novel was one of the age’s most characteristic literary forms, permitting a character to confide their innermost thoughts without the intervention of a formal narrative. Letters could also be monotonously repetitious and contrived. Being an all important method of communication and a permanent proof of deeds, the letter remains central to the action, even in the ballet version.

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Christopher Hampton’s adaptation underlines the qualities an audience expects of the eighteenth century, i.e. beautiful clothes and settings, witty dialogue and aristocratic frivolity. This is in contrast to de Laclos who wrote in Mock-heroic style, which allows the writer to treat the most serious romantic subject - sexual desire - in a most rigorous and classically comic manner.

Valmont is the nearest the novel comes to a hero. Though we soon discover that Madame de Merteuil is really in charge of the plot, Valmont dominates the action. He is certainly the most attractive figure in the book. Valmont perceives his rejection of Tourvel, for whom he has a real love, as a sign of his freedom and power over women; in fact it is quite the reverse. When he claims his prize of favors from Madame de Merteuil she refuses him pointing out that the victory is hers, for it was her strength of will that persuaded Valmont to give up Tourvel. In the novel death is Valmont’s release, Cecile becomes a nun, Danceny takes a vow of celibacy and joins the Knights of Malta and Mme. de Merteuil is financially ruined and becomes hideously disfigured by smallpox.

Laclos
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Pierre Ambrose Francois Choderlos de Laclos was born in 1741 and pursued a military career, becoming an accomplished artillery commander. It was while he was assigned to a boring duty on a Bay of Biscay island at age forty that he determined, as he wrote to a friend, to use the time to create something "out of the ordinary, eye-catching, something that would resound around the world" and live after de Laclos’ death. The result was Les Liaisons Dangereuses, his first and only, and immediately successful, novel. (His two other writings were a treatise on women’s education and an attack on Maréchal de Vauban.) His sources for the story came from the time he spent in the garrison in Grenoble (1769 -75). There he observed the local nobility, whose morals were extremely lax, although de Laclos himself did not have a reputation for behaving badly. Instead he liked to talk with ladies and have them confide to him their love affairs.

In 1784 de Laclos married the sister of an admiral, Solange Marie Duperré, who had stated, after reading his book, that "Monsieur Laclos will never set foot in our drawing room." On hearing this statement de Laclos declared that "Within six months I will marry Mademoiselle Duperré." His seduction and conquest of Mlle. Duperré is probably the closest he ever came to being like his character Valmont. He proved to be a devoted husband writing, "For nearly twenty years now I have owed my happiness to you..."

During the French Revolution de Laclos was a Jacobin, a friend of Danton, secretary to "Philippe-Égalité" the Duc d’Orléans. He was twice jailed, but the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror saved him from the guillotine. At the turn of the century, Napoleon made de Laclos a brigadier general and assigned him to the Army of the Rhine and then the Army in Italy. He was transferred to Naples and placed in charge of the defense of Taranto, where he died of dysentery in 1803.

JD Steppe 1992

On Writing the Libretto to Dangerous Liaisons

by Johnathan Daniel Steppe

The initial decision to adapt Dangerous Liaisons for the musical stage was one borne out of the impulse and enthusiasm of youth.  Two friends, fresh out of high school and hungry to create, stumbled on de Laclos' formidable and compelling novel.  The story had all the right elements: passion, intrigue, sex and betrayal. Certainly, this would make a great musical!  Yet what began as a young dream and now exists as a fully realized work, has since evolved and been tempered in the years through which the work was written. It has become not simply a derivative of a great novel, but now stands as a unique and fascinating work in its own right.

When approaching the novel for adaptation, it was crucial to me as the librettist that the work be unique.  We of course wanted to remain true to de Laclos, but at the same time wanted to create a musical that expanded the themes presented by de Laclos, while filtering them through our own experiences and interests.  I found myself drawn to the roles in which men and women were cast during the time period of the novel, and how the stratification of gender molded the characters of Valmont and the Marquise.  Born into a culture which set men and women in an adversarial position to one another, the two conspirators are born into their monstrosity.  Still, it is difficult to dismiss them as villains when one views the circumstances which gave them rise.

Another theme which is expanded upon in the musical is the concept of the game.  Dangerous Liaisons is a story of intrigue, of the perilous games played between people when desires are suppressed and motives concealed.  The characters of the story are extremely passionate, yet exist in a time when passions were not to be openly expressed.  What happens to a person who is denied their passions?  In Dangerous Liaisons, the characters must resort to their hidden games, games that lead to a spider web of relationships pulled taught by unspoken tensions.

With such a compelling story, endlessly complex characters, and controversial themes, it becomes immediately obvious why Dangerous Liaisons drew me as a writer.  What might not be obvious is, why do a musical?  Simply put, the natural poetry of the original work and the heightened drama intrinsic to the storyline lends itself perfectly to musicalization.  The music reveals new levels to the story, expanding the audience's experience and understanding of each of the characters where simple words could not.  When successful, the melding of lyric and note is magical; it transcends the mundane and gives us a greater form of storytelling.

As a lyricist, I have been blessed with not only a truly great friend, but a truly great composer with which to collaborate.  What started as a dream is now a reality; where once there was nothing, there is now an exciting new musical to savor. The process of writing a musical is breathtaking, heartbreaking, and nothing, yet everything, like I expected.  With each word written, the work changed.  Each time the work changed, I changed.  My greatest wish for this work is that it will touch others the way that it has touched me.  To touch others, to change them, even if subtly - that is the greatest accomplishment that any artist can achieve.


In addition to having provided the libretto, Johnathan Daniel Steppe, himself a skilled actor and director, also contributed to the Original Concept Recording by co-casting the principle roles, occasionally consulting as dialogue coach, and even singing in the chorus, where he can be heard briefly as a cameo soloist.

Dangerous Liaisons Libretto

Dangerous Liaisons Libretto

Johnathan Daniel Steppe's text and lyrics in standard production script format.

Insightful character development and true theatrical dramatic flair sine in this libretto by writer, actor, director and vocalist Johnathan Daniel Steppe. The complete libretto to Dangerous Liaisons includes Foreword by the author, Production Specifications, Cast of Characters list, Character Breakdown (pricipal roles), and Synopsis. 5.5x8.5, 150 pages. This edition is the official production script and is printed in industry script format.

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    ~ SYNOPSIS ~

PROLOGUE
In the last days of pre-Revolutionary France, the aristocracy gather for entertainment and scandal. Among them, the Vicomte de Valmont, and the Marquise de Merteuil, once lovers and still long-time partners in secret games of seduction. The Marquise learns that a former lover who abandoned her for another has become engaged to Cécile Volanges, the virginal daughter of her cousin, Madame de Volanges. Recognizing the girl as her opportunity, the Marquise vows vengeance, and determines to enlist her confidante, the notorious Valmont, to take the young girl before her marriage.

ACT I
Valmont refuses to assist the Marquise in this matter, confessing that he has already met his next conquest, the pious and happily married Madame de Tourvel, at the country estate of his aunt, Madame de Rosemonde, where she is a guest. But his advances toward the Marquise inspire her to strike a deal: one night of passion together as reward for his victory over Tourvel.

Turning her attentions to Cécile, the Marquise orchestrates a secret meeting between Cécile and the Chevalier Dançeny, a poor music teacher who Madame de Volanges hires to instruct her daughter. Although Cécile and Dançeny do fall in love, as the Marquise hoped, the Chevalier remains respectful of Cécile, and Cécile remains a virgin.

Meanwhile at the Rosemonde estate, Valmont succeeds, through a series of staged encounters, in gaining Madame de Tourvel’s friendship. Knowing his reputation, Tourvel sees Valmont as a soul to be saved. Yet the connection between them slowly grows deeper. Still, Valmont overplays his hand when he confesses his love to her, and she asks that he leave the estate. Obliged by his own words, Valmont leaves the country.

Upon his return to Paris, Valmont agrees to take Cécile himself, as revenge on her mother whom he had discovered was warning Tourvel against him. The Marquise devises a plan in which Valmont can pursue both Cécile and Tourvel at the same time. She betrays Cécile’s correspondence with Dançeny to Volanges, then advises Volanges to take the girl to the Rosemonde estate to separate her from Dançeny. Volanges agrees, and the Marquise promises to join them shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Valmont consoles Dançeny and, promising to deliver Dançeny’s letters to Cécile, heads back to his aunt’s home.

Valmont’s return to Rosemonde’s interrupts a supper party at which Tourvel is present. As tensions mount, Valmont succeeds in upsetting Tourvel, who retreats to the garden for fresh air. He follows and, though at first she spurns his presence, her growing feelings lead them to an uneasy reconciliation.

Later, Valmont sneaks into Cécile’s room where he forces himself on her and, using blackmail and the girl’s own ignorance, succeeds in his dark seduction. Distressed, Cécile turns to the recently arrived Marquise for help, who corrupts her with advise to continue learning the art of lovemaking from Valmont, to agree to the marriage, and to keep Dançeny as a secret lover.

A gala ball is given at the Rosemonde estate, where Tourvel finds herself on the brink of forbidden love, Cecile wonders at the startling changes her life has taken, and Valmont sees himself poised for victory. Ever the secret manipulator, the Marquise watches from afar, all of her pawns in place and checkmate only a few moves away.

ACT II
Valmont Continues with his sexual education of Cécile, and with his pursuit of Tourvel, who finally relents to her growing attraction. Moved by compassion, however, Valmont hesitates and Tourvel flees the estate at Rosemonde’s insistence. Furious at his weakness, Valmont pursues Tourvel to Paris, where he and Tourvel at last give in to their passion.

Later, as Volanges worries about her daughter’s behavior, Valmont attempts to claim his prize from the Marquise. She rejects his demand, claiming that he is now in love with Tourvel. Valmont cites his success with Cécile, who has recently miscarried, as further reason why the Marquise should acquiesce, but the Marquise is adamant: Valmont must leave Tourvel and betray her love.

Tourvel has indeed fallen in love with Valmont, and has broken from her husband. But when she joyously greets Valmont, he coldly rejects her, fulfilling the Marquise’s wishes. As Valmont rushes to the Marquise, Tourvel collapses from anguish. Still, the love that has grown between Valmont and Tourvel creates a further rift between the two former lovers, and one time allies begin a steady march toward enmity. Valmont discovers Dançeny in the Marquise’s bed and, after sending the boy away, gives the Marquise an ultimatum, which she fiercely rejects.

Moved by pride and now bent on revenge, Valmont and the Marquise turn their treachery upon each other. As the climax approaches, secrets are revealed and passions explode with unexpected and deadly consequences. The resulting endgame can have no victor, as the true price of this most dangerous game is at last revealed.

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Production quality Libretti, Vocal Scores and Chorus Books will soon be available in our Online Store.  The full score to Dangerous Liaisons is available on a rental basis only at this time.

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