New audiences find new meaning emerges from 'Secret Garden'

February 15, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

In the classic children's novel "The Secret Garden," a curious orphan girl discovers a hidden garden that proves the key to family secrets.

Tony-winning producer Heidi Landesman found the story surprisingly relevant to modern audiences and built from it a Broadway musical, whose touring production opens in Baltimore tonight.

Although the original story was aimed at children, Ms. Landesman says "The Secret Garden" speaks to adults, too, more than a half-century after Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the novel.

"I think it's aging extremely well, that story -- maybe because we are more aware of the psychological implications of loss and death, how there are different ways to deal with it," she says in a telephone interview.

In the musical, willful Mary Lennox (Jamie Cronin or Lydia Ooghe alternating in the role) is sent after her parents' death in India to live in a gloomy estate on the English moors.

She finds loss has left its mark there, too, upon her widower uncle Archibald Craven (Kevin McGuire) and his sickly son Colin (Andy Bowser, a Bowie resident).

How Mary's spirit breathes new life into the family, as she symbolically renews the hidden garden of her deceased aunt, provides the story from which Ms. Landesman mounted a musical, in collaboration with writer Marsha Norman, composer Lucy Simon (sister of pop star Carly and opera singer Joanna) and director Susan H. Schulman.

The producer says she was drawn to the 1911 Burnett novel after hearing an English recording of an earlier musical adaptation of the story.

"I didn't really like it, but I went back and read the book, and found it followed a lot of those very, very basic rules that make a story work: the transformation of main characters . . . taking the audience to a different time and place . . . and a central love story."

Even better, she concludes, " 'The Secret Garden' has the benefit of having a wonderfully satisfying ending for the audience."

The touring production has been on the road for more than a year and recently spent eight weeks in Japan, where Ms. Landesman says its storybook setting was well-received.

Ms. Landesman did not get to go, however, for she was deeply involved in her set designs for "The Red Shoes," which opened and closed on Broadway in December after just five performances. The $8-million show ranks as one of Broadway's biggest bombs.

Yet Ms. Landesman concedes the "The Red Shoes" has some parallels with "The Secret Garden": a little girl at its heart, a beloved cultural predecessor (the 1948 film with Moira Shearer) and a story that appeals most strongly to female audiences.

So why did the formula fizzle?

"I certainly thought it was a wonderful idea for a musical, but I think everyone involved in the show had a different idea about what show they were doing," says Ms. Landesman.

She blames a generational gap. Producer Martin Starger, 61, composer Jule Styne, 88, and Stanley Donen, 69, worked with Ms. Schulman, 47, Ms. Norman, 45, original director Lar Lubovitch, 50, and herself, says Ms. Landesman, who is 42.

"Everybody had very different ideas about what musicals are. There's just kind of no way to reconcile that, I learned," she says.

Would "The Red Shoes" have been successful if, like "Secret Garden," an all-female team was in charge?

"It would have been a different show, but who knows if it would've been a successful show?" she replies diplomatically.

But she adds, "It would have been about the ballerina, not the impresario."

She contends the producers paid too much attention in their story to the character of Boris Lermontov, who falls in love with a rising young ballerina.

"All those little girls who go to the show are not really interested in the problems of the mid-life crisis of this character. They're interested in the ballerina," Ms. Landesman contends.

Ms. Landesman says the touring production of "The Secret Garden" is "slightly scaled down" from the Broadway musical and takes advantage of a novel technology she adapted to evoke Victorian area children's cards.

For Broadway, her original artwork -- she won a Tony for set design -- was translated by computer into meticulous dot patterns that were painted onto the flats by gigantic spray-painting machines.

"A lot of the artwork is based on color lithography of that period, and collage, which also used a dot technique in printing.

"To re-create that with hand painting would have been, if not impossible, very time consuming," she says, noting that as a child she always found such Victorian art "kind of creepy."

For the touring production, the same computer programs were used -- although she changed some things here and there -- and the painting was done upon flexible vinyl backdrops, allowing easy transportation and adaptation into theaters of different size.

She also notes that while the Broadway cast included Mandy Patinkin and Tony-winning child actress Daisy Eagan, the road-show company "is a wonderful cast, and has been really able to bring some nuances to the show it didn't have."

Ms. Landesman also divulges she is currently working on bringing to Broadway yet another adaptation of a period movie: the Gershwin-scored Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn classic, "Funny Face" (1957).

The movie about the fashion industry, she contends, "is real resonant now, more so than ever, when you consider the power of those models . . . the power of the fashion industry in terms of creating icons."

And when will it make Broadway?

"Who knows? Whatever it takes," she replies. "It's impossible to create schedules when planning shows. The shortest time is 18 months, and that is if you're very lucky and don't make any mistakes at all."

"The Secret Garden"

When: Tonight through Sunday; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Lyric Opera House

Tickets: $25 to $45

Call: (410) 481-SEAT, 889-3911

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