When composer Paul Gordon reads a book, watches a television show or sees a movie, he can't help himself:

He begins to wonder if there isn't a song in there.

"I'm always trying to think of musicals to adapt," says Gordon, in town for rehearsals of Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Jane Austen's Emma," which opens in previews Saturday.

It's worked for him: Among his hits are the Tony-nominated "Jane Eyre" and the musical "Daddy Long Legs," which ATC produced last season.

About six years ago, he happened to see one of the film adaptations of "Emma" when the thunderbolt hit:

"I realized what a great musical it would be."

So he read the book. And his idea of "Emma" as a musical became cemented.

"I saw further depth that was there," Gordon says.

"I am shocked that nobody has done successful (musical) versions of her books. I think they are rather obvious for a musical."

Of course, when taking a classic piece of literature such as "Jane Eyre" or "Emma," there is a danger: It isn't just the story that made them classic; it's the words.

And Gordon understands that.

"You can't improve on Austen's fiction" he says. "After reading her novels and seeing screen adaptations, I'm always surprised at how writers choose to rewrite her words. And I wonder why."

So, Austen aficionados, fear not: Most of the words in the songs and the play are from Miss Jane herself.

"There were instances where I had to make up dialogue, but when it was on the page, I used what was on the page," says Gordon, noting that Austen's writing "inspired" him.

Stephen Wrentmore, who is co-directing the musical with David Ira Goldstein, has long been inspired by Austen - as a Brit, he read her books when he was still a teen. And he's a little protective of one of England's - OK, the world's - favorite authors.

"He has been so respectful to Austen," Wrentmore says of Gordon's script.

"In any reduction, which is what this is, some artistic alchemy goes on. With those characters he's kept, he has kept absolutely true to Austen."

Austen wrapped "Emma" in comedy and a bit of a dig at the class warfare in Britain, Wrentmore says.

In Austen's day, he says, "a young woman had two options: if she was rich enough, marriage. If not, she became a governess. I think Austen is asking us to question the morality of that injustice."

"Emma" was first published in 1815, but it hasn't aged, Wrentmore says.

"She tells a beautiful, simple story that's immediately accessible. We know these people. Her journey is that of a young woman, and we understand what it means to emerge in that world."

Composer Gordon agrees.

"I think Jane Austen is universal," he says. "And all ages like her, too."

If you go

• What: Arizona Theatre Company's production of the musical "Jane Austen's Emma."

• By: Paul Gordon.

• Directors: David Ira Goldstein and Stephen Wrentmore.

• When: Previews are 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; opening is 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7. Continues through Dec. 22.

• Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

• Tickets: $32-$89.

• Reservations: 622-2823.

• Running time: About 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.

• Cast: Andrés Alcalá, Richert Easley, Jon Eidson, Suzanne Grodner, Colin Hanlon, Brian Herndon, Jamison Lingle, Dani Marcus, Patty Nieman, Shannon Stoeke, Anneliese van der Pol, Jill van Velzer, Chris Karl, Sammie Liden, Michael Schauble, Kelsey Anne Johnson.

The story

Emma Woodhouse is about 20, from a family of means, and unmarried. She lives with her father, a delightful hypochondriac. When she makes a successful match between her governess and a young man, Emma fancies she has a gift.

But her matchmaking skills lack much grace and insight, even when it comes to romance in her own life.

George Knightley, a family friend, is a strong critic of Emma's meddlings. She, of course, thinks he hasn't a clue.

The story takes us through her mismatches, Knightley's gentle scoldings, and lots of parties and running around in the garden.

It's very funny, very sweet and very Austen.

Among the adaptations of Austen's novel are the '96 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, three BBC adaptations, a 1991 stage play by British playwright Michael Fry and the 1995 film "Clueless."

Some pithy quotes from Jane Austen's novel "Emma"

• "If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more."

• "There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart."

• "Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another."

• "Better be without sense than misapply it as you do."

• "Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure."