The Secret Garden Gets a Bit of Pruning in Warren Carlyle's Reimagined Production in Los Angeles
Rumors of a Broadway revival of the 1991 musical The Secret Garden have been circulating for years, and every time there is a high-profile concert, they get louder, but it has yet to be revived on Broadway. Based on the beloved 1911 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel and featuring music by Lucy Simon and a book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, the original production played for 709 performances and won Tony awards for Best Book of a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for its young star Daisy Eagan, and Best Scenic Design (Heidi Landesman).
In 2018, a Broadway revival directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle was announced. A workshop of that production was held in 2018, but news of that revival was quiet until a film of the workshop was streamed in 2021 as a benefit for the Dramatists Guild Foundation and the Actors Fund. Now, Carlyle is one step closer to bringing Broadway its first Secret Garden revival with a production that started performances at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles this week and officially opens on February 26.
The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the revival, but it's also added new relevance to a show about a 10-year-old girl, Mary Lennox, orphaned by an outbreak of cholera and sent from India to live in England with her uncle, Archibald Craven. "It starts with this outbreak of cholera that kills over 30,000 people. So modern audiences now have a reference. They actually understand how scary it was. They understand that people died all around them," says Carlyle. "I don't have to work so hard to get people to understand what that means in this day and age."
He also says that during the pandemic, family became more important for many, while others were left isolated — both big themes in the musical. Archibald lost his wife, Lily, and keeps his son, Colin, bedridden and hidden away. "All these characters carry grief," Carlyle says, "There's a big amount of grief that I didn't have as much awareness of before the pandemic, and I think during the pandemic and the loss that all of us suffered, it's pulled the story into sharper focus."
Carlyle has worked on his share of revivals, including The Music Man, Kiss Me, Kate, and Hello, Dolly! (as choreographer), in addition to new musicals such as After Midnight and Chaplin (as director and choreographer). "I try very hard to enforce the same creativity and rigor on a revival that I have when creating new work," he says. ''I try never to take anything for granted. I invest in modern-day relationships and situations. Many of these can be applied easily to older classic stories. The most important quality of a successful revival in my opinion is the ability of the creative team to look at the show in a new way, to offer a slightly new point of view on the material, and to illuminate the work in a way it has never been seen before."
He has done that here, starting with the design. Carlyle says the word "reimagined" applies mostly to Jason Sherwood's emotional, nonlinear scenic design. "We don't have literal hedges or literal trees or any of that stuff. It's much more imagined," says Carlyle. He adds that his storytelling language has come out of Sherwood's scenic design. He has organized the whole production from Mary's point of view as opposed to what he calls the "wide shot" of the original. One of the criticisms of the original production (and a possible reason it hasn't been back on Broadway) is the story's scope and its number of characters that led to a lack of focus. Even the clothes are designed, by Ann Hould-Ward, from Mary's perspective. For example, when Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, picks Mary up at the beginning of the musical, Carlyle thinks she would look like a giant black raven on the station platform to Mary, and the costumes reflect that.
The performances have also been directed with Mary's outlook in mind. The cast includes a lot of faces familiar to both Los Angeles and New York theatergoers — Sierra Boggess as Lily, Derrick Davis as Archibald, Aaron Lazar as Archibald's brother Neville, Julia Lester as Martha, John-Michael Lyles as Dickon, and Emily Jewel Holder as Mary. It was important for Carlyle to have a diverse cast, and that was true for the pre-pandemic workshop in 2018 as well. "I want to make theater for this generation. I want to make theater for our audiences. And I want every single person in the audience to be able to point to the stage and say, ‘That's me,'" he says.
The rest of the changes are smaller, cutting lines here and there, about 20 minutes total, and smoothing out transitions. "The choreographer in me has tried to make it move really quickly and to go from story to story to story to story with little in between," says Carlyle.
As for the choreography, Carlyle says it's unlike anything he has done before. "It really is movement. I don't think of it as dance. It's truly movement. It's musical staging more than pure dance," he says.
Broadway is still the ultimate goal for this revival, but whether or not that happens, for now, Carlyle is happy to be doing the show in Los Angeles, especially because during the pandemic, he didn't know if it would ever happen, and he credits Center Theatre Group with saving the production when it had no home. "On that first day of rehearsal, I just said, ‘It's a miracle that we're all somehow here in this room actually about to start this,'" he says. "And that's how I feel. It's really miraculous that we're actually doing it."