The Not-So-Secret Hatchet Job on The Secret Garden

The Not-So-Secret Hatchet Job on The Secret Garden

I am writing this piece to, once and for all, put to rest any notion that the Lucy Simon/Marsha Norman musical The Secret Garden needs to be fixed. If a Broadway revival of this complex and emotionally textured musical, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, is to happen, then it needs to come to Broadway in tact! Rumors have begun to filter in to me that the eagerly anticipated production playing at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. and co-produced with the 5th Avenue Theatre is taking some mighty big liberties with this beloved musical. Apparently, director David Armstrong had such limited faith in the piece that he felt it needed to be re-written and many of its glorious songs excised. For shame.

I realized that many changes were made in the script and score when The Secret Garden was first produced in London. These changes were mostly felt to hurt the piece and not help it. High schools, colleges, community theatres and professional companies have had great success with that original Broadway script and score, why are people constantly trying to repair what already works? I saw that original Broadway production in the St. James Theatre and I say is was glorious, and so did the thousand-plus other people around me who stood twice DURING the show to give standing ovations to the songs “Lily’s Eyes” and “Hold On”, not to mention the ecstatic response at curtain call time. Susan H. Schulman’s staging was something to behold, a clever maze of movement wending through fear, ghosts, garden walls, lanterns, portraits, and Heidi Landesman’s (now Ettinger) Valentine decoupage sets. This musical was strikingly different than most children’s musicals because it wasn’t afraid to be dark, mature, nuanced, and artful.

  The Secret Garden  at The Shakespeare Company, Washington DC

The Secret Garden at The Shakespeare Company, Washington DC

My first question is this: why revive a musical when you have no intention of actually producing that musical? Why is there this need to “fix” everything? Do directors of this kind really think that they are so clever that their “touch” is going to improve a show? I am told that this DC production has cut “Race You to the Top of the Morning”, one of the most deeply heartfelt and beautifully integrated story songs ever to be employed in a musical (Think “Meadowlark” without the whore). It’s a tender moment between a depressed father and his sleeping, crippled son, wherein he reads a fairy tale that parallels their relationship, the only way he can emotionally connect with the child. It’s a perfect song. Why in the world would someone even think that it needed to go? I’m sure Armstrong has convinced himself that he has solved the “problems” of this musical, streamlining it by removing all nuance and gentleness from the score.

“Race You to the Top of the Morning” is only one of the songs to be banished from this production. The mystical and haunting “Clusters of Crocus”, the sublimely intricate “Quartet”, and the character-developing “Round-Shouldered Man” have all been “pruned” to make this garden one without color or bounty. I am told that “The Girl I Mean to Be” has been moved from its second act opening to the middle of the first act, hardly the appropriate place in young Mary Lennox’s adventure. She has not yet experienced enough of the garden’s awakening and altering effects to begin to see the need for her own change.

I am not sure how involved creators Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman were with this production, but it seems to me that they would need to sign-off on such elaborate changes. I wish they would have more faith in their own special creation than to be so cavalier with what is done with it. I also wish they would know that there was an audience for this musical when it opened on Broadway in 1991 that championed it and fell in love with it. Please guard our memories of this enchanted experience and protect it against the “Wizards who live on the hill” who pierce through your art with their dubious intentions. If this musical returns to Broadway, please find a director who actually loves the piece as it was written.  

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