“Come Spirit, Come Charm”: An Interview with Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon on the 25th Anniversary of THE SECRET GARDEN
As a child, I gravitated toward classic movie musicals. The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and the Disney canon were in constant rotation on our family’s TV screen. Sensing my early interest in this genre, my parents decided to introduce me to my first live stage musical, The Secret Garden. I imagine they expected I would respond positively to the show, but they could never have predicted the effect this musical would have on my life. I sat with my feet hanging over the edge of the balcony entranced. In the following months we bought and memorized the cast album, read the book aloud, and I even planted my own little garden. Not only did it become my first musical “obsession,” it triggered a passion for the art of musical theatre as a whole; and that passion has yet to cease.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of The Secret Garden’s opening on Broadway. I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with the show’s authors, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, to look back on the past two and a half decades. In that time, The Secret Garden has gone on to become one of the most produced musicals in America, and worldwide, and it has touched the lives of many. It was a delight to reflect on the original production, learn of the show’s creation (not to mention humorous tales from backstage), and discuss how the musical theatre landscape has (and has not) changed since April of 1991.
BEN COLEMAN: This is a huge year for The Secret Garden! It’s the 25th Anniversary for the musical and it has enjoyed a wonderful life, so I’d love to take a look back on the past 25 years and start by asking how it all began?
MARSHA NORMAN: Well, it started with [set designer] Heidi Ettinger calling me up one day and saying, “Would you like to write the book of The Secret Garden?” I had been trying for years to convince people to let me write the book for a musical. My own history was in straight plays. I’d never heard of the novel. But I said, “Absolutely! I’ll read it tonight and we’ll meet tomorrow and talk about it.” That’s how excited I was. It was a great example of women helping women. So the next day we started working on the structure of the show, and in a few months, went out to look for a composer.
LUCY SIMON: Marsha gave me her first draft with several lyrics. I chose to set the song she had written for Mary, "I Heard Someone Crying” because I wanted to make sure I could find the right voice for this central character.
MARSHA: Lucy immediately sensed the sound of the show.
LUCY: Yes, we all understood the language of the piece, and Marsha and I found a way to put that into music. Marsha’s lyrics are so amazing, and very different from any other lyricist because she gets into the spirit and the person of who is singing. For me, music is translating an emotion. So it’s wonderful to have lyrics like Marsha’s as a guide. And then as we got more comfortable, we would get a little daring and I would write the melody first and then she would write the words.
MARSHA: Right. There are some songs that need to start with music first. And those are basically the ones were the lyrics are immaterial, where the music itself is conveying the feeling. “Come to My Garden” is a good example of that.
BEN: Are there trunk songs for The Secret Garden?
LUCY: I just moved out of a storage unit with boxes and boxes and there are so many trunk songs. I found this one cut song, “I Never Should Have Married a Beautiful Woman.” One of my favorite trunk songs is called “What is a Home.” It’s lovely, but we couldn’t figure out where to put it. But God, I love that song.
MARSHA: It’s really beautiful. It’s funny because I teach musical theatre now, and we’ve both written a bunch of other shows since 1991. There is so much I know now that I didn’t know then, that I’m staggered by the fact that we wrote a successful show. But it’s also a great pleasure to know how many things we got absolutely right as beginners.
BEN: I definitely think you did many things right. What was it like to find your Mary initially? Was it a challenge to find a young girl who could carry the weight of this big show?
MARSHA: Almost impossible. There had never been a show with a ten-year-old girl as the lead. There’s Annie, of course. And we auditioned all those little belting girls. But they were not right for Mary.
BEN: It’s more of an acting role.
MARSHA: We saw one girl who was right, and it was Daisy [Eagan].
LUCY: That was it. Do you remember the others? I don’t even remember. Daisy totally took over that audition. She walked in. She was eleven I think, and she came in with this egg in a basket. She said she was having an experiment to see when the egg would hatch. So she was watching over this egg in a basket because she wanted to be there when the chicken popped out. And so she put the basket on the audition table, and asked if we would watch over the egg while she did her audition.
MARSHA: Sneaky kid.
(Marsha and Lucy share a laugh.)
LUCY: She just embodied the spirit of Mary.
BEN: What are some of your memories from the original Broadway production?
MARSHA: One of the really hard things I remember was finding John Cameron Mitchell, who originated the role of Dickon. Heidi’s set was quite beautiful, but she also had incredible challenges since the set needed to show the inside and outside of the manor. There were issues figuring out how to get the character of Ben to climb over the garden wall. There were all these sort of set issues that I remember being really tricky, in terms of writing, not to mention how do you make a garden bloom onstage?!
LUCY: Well, I’ll go back to before we got to Broadway. We did our first reading at Skidmore College, to see if we had anything.
BEN: How long did it take to develop the show?
LUCY: Two years. It was a very short time. So we went up to Skidmore with a preliminary book and score, and we finished a good deal of it there. But one of our producers brought some of his gambling friends. Guys who liked horse racing, you know, tough guys. And we were bringing them into this auditorium to watch our version of The Secret Garden. I thought raising money would be hopeless. Then the reading ended and one of them came over to me crying and said in a thick “New Yaawk” accent, “That was the most beautiful thing I ever saw!” So we got our money! It was extraordinary to see it touch a variety of people — kids, adults, teachers, and yes, even gamblers.
BEN: When did people like Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker, Alison Fraser, and Robert Westenberg come into the fold?
LUCY: That was a year later. Once we had a production. Actually Bob Westenberg [Neville Craven in the OBC] did our Saratoga and Skidmore workshops as Archie.
BEN: He and Mandy Patinkin have a bit of a history of sharing roles.
LUCY: I heard Mandy singing in something called The Knife at the Public Theater, and Mandy went from having this low masculine voice to having this beautiful high voice, and I knew I wanted him for the part. He has this masculinity and a beautifully feminine soft side. I was very attracted to that vocal quality. I think Mandy is just incredible.
BEN: Any fun stories from behind the footlights?
LUCY: Well near the end of one performance, Mandy stopped the show cold. Archie just saw Colin walk for the first time, and some kids in the balcony were making noise and laughing. And Mandy went to the front of the stage and shouted, “For shame! Either you leave this auditorium right now or you sit down and be quiet. I will wait for you to decide.” And the kids quieted down and he went on with the show.
BEN: Well that’s why he and Patti LuPone get along so well!
LUCY: I just love that story.
BEN: Forgive me, I must ask. This is the show where Audra McDonald got her Broadway debut [as the Ayah]. Did you see her in it? Did you know she was…well…going to be Audra?
MARSHA: Oh, we knew. She was astonishing.
LUCY: We also hired her to do the Ayah on the road, and Marsha and I fought very strongly for her to be the Lily understudy.
BEN: I’d die to hear that.
LUCY: Wouldn’t we all! But at that point she was called in to audition for Carousel, and I remember saying, “Audra, if you get Carousel, you take it because that would be incredible for your career. But boy do I want you as Lily.” And then she got Carousel.
BEN: And then half a dozen Tonys. Obviously I’m a musical theatre nerd, and something that has always fascinated me is the 1991 Broadway season. It was a pretty amazing year for new musicals: The Secret Garden, Miss Saigon, Once on this Island, and The Will Rogers Follies all opened on Broadway that season, and the one to win the big prize was The Will Rogers Follies. Looking at the history of these four musicals, that kind of makes my jaw drop. It’s certainly the least remembered, produced, or “canonized” of those nominees.
MARSHA: The Secret Garden is one the most performed musicals in America; that’s better than a statue.
LUCY: Absolutely. But there was no question about the fact that we were not up in the running for Best Musical at the time.
MARSHA: The Will Rogers Follies also had a very starry team with Peter Stone, Cy Coleman, Tommy Tune, etc. I mean The Will Rogers Follies was a creation of the old boy network.
LUCY: Do you still believe that?
MARSHA: That the theatre world is controlled by men? Yes Lucy, I still do believe it is, for the most part. But it’s clear from shows like Hamilton, this revival of The Color Purple, and Waitress there are changes afoot. But Waitress is the first all-female creative team on a musical since The Secret Garden. Twenty-five years! That’s what we are up against and that’s why I founded The Lilly Awards with Julia Jordan. That’s why we’re on such a campaign now for gender parity in the theatre. We’re training women, but that’s not the issue — it’s getting them heard. Getting them to know what makes the business work. We want the stories of women to be told by women. We want to hear the voices of the whole human chorus onstage, not just the guys.
BEN: Do you have any tips for people doing the show?
MARSHA: The garden has to bloom. The garden can’t just symbolically suggest it is blooming at the end. It has to be a stage full of flowers.
LUCY: One of the things we always find in any production is the importance of getting the right balance between the adults and the children. At the end of the day, this is a musical that attracts families. This is an adult play, but it’s one that children love, and connect to. So for me, that balance has always been very important.
MARSHA: They have to tell all of the stories. Not just Mary’s. They have to tell Archie’s story, they have to tell Lily’s story — and the Lily story is bigger than we imagine — you know she doesn’t just appear when it’s time to sing; she’s on a mission. It’s important to look at everybody: Dickon, Martha, Ben, Colin. They all get “home” in a different way. I think one of the most powerful things in the story is the search for home. All the great plays and musicals are about home. I don’t mean that to sound clinical, but it is true. That’s why we go to the theatre. To find out how people find their way home. We will watch that all night. But you need to keep the audience’s attention in the right place for it to work.
BEN: What a beautiful thought. Thank you! I’d like to wrap up with some big questions. What does this musical mean to you? How has this show changed you? And do you feel different because of it?
LUCY: It’s given me a home. I started music as a folk singer beside my sister Carly [Simon]. But I knew I wanted to tell stories through music. I worked on a musical version of Little House on the Prairie for ten years, and it taught me how to go from a pop song to telling a story through music. So I learned on that and then when Marsha and Heidi came to me with The Secret Garden, I had my foundation.
MARSHA: I got to work on musicals because of this experience. And making musicals is the best thing there is.
BEN: And one of the hardest I imagine.
MARSHA: Yeah, it’s really hard, nearly impossible. But that’s part of what I really like about it, that it requires that the writers and the creative team rise to the occasion. You have to bring your A-game or stay home. A lot of things can go wrong in musicals, but boy when they go right, it’s just ecstasy.
Photo (L-R): Ben Coleman, Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman. Credit: Courtney Kochuba.