Taking Time to Grow
How 'The Secret Garden' spent years in the making before finally arriving at the Ahmanson this season.
You give a living thing a little chance to grow.
That lyric, written by Marsha Norman for The Secret Garden, neatly captures the spirit of hope that has engaged fans of the 1911 children’s literature classic, its countless movie and TV adaptations and, of course, Norman and Lucy Simon’s 1991 Tony Award-winning musical.
The lyric also captures the spirit of the revival of The Secret Garden, a major undertaking making its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre last month.
A reworked production was a longtime dream of Norman and her musical partner Simon, the composer who died as the project was nearing fruition.
“Now there’s real hope that we have a production that has what everybody wants, including what Lucy wanted and what I want. That it’s all there,” says Norman, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama ’night, Mother and the book of the musical The Color Purple.
Though work on the revival started in earnest five years ago, Warren Carlyle, the show’s director and choreographer, feels now is exactly right for a new staging.
“In this day and age, I think we're all more careful about the stories we're telling. There’s been a huge social reckoning. The pandemic changed all of us. I think we need beautiful, important stories,” he says.
“The Secret Garden has elements of magic. It’s got nature. It’s beautiful and dark and quite wonderful, and it’s a classic. I just love it,” Carlyle says. His last show also reimagined a classic musical, the hit Broadway revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman.
At the heart of The Secret Garden is Mary Lennox, a spoiled 10-year-old put on a path of misery after her parents die from cholera in India. She is sent to live with her widowed uncle Archibald at his manor in England. Archibald and his sickly son, Colin, have their own share of misery, much of it stemming from the death of Archibald’s wife, Lily, whose ghostly spirit hovers over the household.
After discovering Lily’s secret garden and bringing it back to life, Mary and her new friends and family find their paths to fulfillment.
“That sense of a little girl searching for a family is a really compelling story to me,” Carlyle says.
Working alongside Carlyle is music supervisor Rob Berman, whose previous project, too, is a successful Broadway revival, the critically acclaimed Into the Woods (coincidentally coming to the Ahmanson this season as well). Berman is understandably drawn to Simon’s music.
“The reason people love the show and the reason to do it is the music. It’s a great story. It’s a good show for families, for kids. But it’s the music. If the score weren’t as good as it is, I don't think we'd been sitting here,” he says.
The score is so beloved that The Secret Garden seems to always be in production somewhere. For years Norman and, especially, Simon would travel around the country to see performances at schools and regional theatres.
“Lucy went to see everything,” Norman says. “She saw nearly every show that was ever done of The Secret Garden. She loved being there.”
Inevitably, what they discovered was that theatres made trims, eliminating what Norman calls, “impossible to sing, fancy pants muscialism.” In the process, the story became clearer and the show a more watchable length than its original three hours.
Simon and Norman knew they wanted to follow the lead of those other productions and craft their own revival. Though many producers called, they found only Gerald Goehring shared their vision for how to remount it.
“It’s one of people’s favorite musicals, yet no one's ever gone back to revive it until now,” says Goehring.
He, in turn, found Carlyle.
Berman heard that Carlyle was directing and choreographing while the two happened to be working together (on Me and My Girl for New York City Center’s Encores!).
“I was sitting there with him,” Berman says. “I said, ‘Hey, do you need me? Do you need a music director? Because I like that show.’”
Berman’s fondness for The Secret Garden datesback to 1995, when he worked on a production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.
“This show does what good musicals do,” Berman says. “The power of music and melody and beautiful singing can make an audience feel something that you just can't get from text alone. It does a subconscious thing, where the yearning of a melodic phrase adds a dimension to the emotional state of the scene or what the characters are going through.”
As they began to work, the collaborators knew what should be done and what should be left as it was.
“The book is this sharp, tight, bright thing.” Carlyle says. “And the music is this beautiful, fluid, emotional thing. The marriage of those two ladies and their work is just really special.”
As the story stays true to the original, the team is updating the staging and orchestrations for audiences accustomed to a different kind of storytelling than what played on Broadway for 709 performances three decades ago.
Carlyle and Berman collaborated closely with Norman and Simon.
“They’ve been generous in the way they’ve kind of gifted their beautiful baby,” says Carlyle, whose goal is to keep the show flowing. “We spent time making it as streamlined as we could, as fleet of foot as we could.”
“What I’m hoping,” Berman says, “is that this is going to feel like a very fresh revival with a new point of view but will still deliver all the things about The Secret Garden that people who know the show remember and love.”
“The original production was big and had a lot of people and big sets,” Berman says. “We're trying to make sure that the story keeps moving forward. So, with Marsha and Lucy’s blessing, we’ve made little trims and cuts here and there to keep the story focused.”
And with themes of loss and death, Berman and Carlyle wanted to find, “opportunity for brightness, for fun, for comedy.”
“As a director and storyteller...I always just have to be one step or one beat ahead,” he says. “That’s been my guide, just making sure nothing overstays its welcome. And by doing that, it gently keeps moving.”
The show’s heroine, young Mary, is key to Carlyle’s vision for the revival.
“I wanted to make sure the story was really focused. My point of view is from the little girl’s point of view. When I was designing the set, it’s all from her point of view.”
And through Mary’s perspective, her new companions develop, Berman says.
“We keep the story focused on what this little girl is experiencing and what her journey is, and, in the process, we get the journeys of other characters as well,” he says.
The story’s two worlds, Archibald’s haunted mansion and Lily’s earthen garden, offer an opportunity for distinct looks. In the case of The Secret Garden, Carlyle worked closely with production designer Jason Sherwood. Together they conjured up a large airy swirl for the stage, designed to enhance the show’s spiritual qualities.
“The inside of the house needs to feel dark and repressed and stuck and painful,” Carlyle says. “And the outside needs to feel like this beautiful release.”
Likewise, the lush music, with new orchestrations for a chamber-like 11 players, colors the two settings in distinct ways.
“All the numbers that take place outdoors have kind of an earthy quality. There’s a Yorkshire, Celtic, rhythmic quality that comes in,” Berman says. “And then a lot of the songs that take place inside the house, which are about the inner lives of these characters and their emotions, are more lyrical. The way Lucy wrote the songs, she achieves so much of that dichotomy.”
Simon died in October 2022 of metastatic breast cancer. Even near the end of her life, Norman says she was completely involved in the revival.
“Lucy sat there in rehearsal every day,” she says. “We talked about it to each other every day, right up to the day before she died.”
Berman says he is incredibly grateful he can use what he learned from Simon.
“I was lucky that I got to work with Lucy on the workshop four years ago, and I loved getting to know her a little bit and working with her. I feel what she really cared about the most was the phrasing, how the singers would interpret and deliver the songs.”
“I feel like I have a little bit of a clue of how to carry forth her taste and her passions for the score.”
“I was listening to some of the early demos that Lucy made for The Secret Garden. And what she cared most about was just the beauty and the expression of the human voice and the singing. One of the reasons The Secret Garden has appealed and endured is for this reason, the melodies and the vocalism.”
“It’s such a musical score. It’s so beautiful. It’s really a singer’s score, a singer's show. Lucy was a singer, first and foremost.”
The role of Lily is a rarity on Broadway these days, an authentic soprano part. Enter actress Sierra Boggess, who has been tied with the revival since its New York workshop and plays Lily. Her relationship to the score goes back at least to 2016 when she sang in a concert version for Lincoln Center.
When Simon died, Boggess said that Simon “said ‘I was going to ask you to carry my voice onward’ and I sat and wept.”
Carlyle says it’s clear why Simon felt Boggess thoroughly fits the role of Lily.
“She talks about the leaves and the seasons and the ghosts. She's not really of the earth,” he says. “She’s a beautiful actress. You believe every single word that she says. The voice is just to die for; the purity of sound is really special.”
Carlyle has moved West (with his pug-beagle companion Bill Bailey Carlyle) for six weeks during the Ahmanson run. He’s worked at Center Theatre Group twice before, as choreographer for the 2012 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Ahmanson and doing the musical staging for the 2010 Randy Newman revue Harps and Angels at the Mark Taper Forum.
“The Ahmanson feels like home to me,” he says.
Fortuitous timing played into Center Theatre Group producing a new musical for its 2022-23 season.
The revival was announced initially in 2018 with a Broadway run in mind. The team got as far as recording a lab staging of the show without sets or costumes, a record for the creators of how the show could proceed that was never meant for public consumption. Meanwhile, Broadway was booming, which meant the producers had to wait for the right sized theatre.
Then came COVID-19. Norman and Goehring came up with the idea to stream the video as a fundraiser to benefit The Dramatists Guild Foundation and The Actors Fund (now called the Entertainment Community Fund).
Fast forward to last year. As Broadway reopened, the business wasn’t anywhere close to the pre-lockdown boom.
At a conference in May, Goehring ran into his old friend, CTG Producing Director Douglas C. Baker.
“Doug said, ‘Hey, we have a spot open. I saw your lab and it was really wonderful. Would you consider doing it at the Ahmanson?’”
That suggestion dovetailed with Goehring’s hope to bypass the uncertainty of Broadway and revive The Secret Garden for a national tour. They came up with a plan to create the show at the Ahmanson and then take it on the road.
“[Center Theatre Group is] a brave group over there. For them to produce this, with this big Broadway team is a perfect marriage,” Goehring says.
If, Goehring says, the tour includes a stop on Broadway at a point when the climate improves, all the better.
Norman appreciates the timing. “What's great about this version is that Lucy and I got to work with Warren for six weeks before the COVID bell rang.”
Three years later, here they are.
In many ways Carlyle sees the delay as a bit of luck, allowing him to take his time with the show: “I had a global pandemic to think about it, and it really helped.”
Norman says the show carries a universal theme that could resonate even more today.
“The Secret Garden reveals the promise that all parents would like to make to their children. If something happens to me, to us, you'll be taken care of. You’ll have a good life.”