In 1991, 11-year-old Daisy Eagan became the youngest girl in history to win a Tony Award for her portrayal of the orphaned Mary Lennox in the Lucy Simon-Marsha Norman musical The Secret Garden. Twenty-four years later, Broadway history seemed to be repeating itself when Sydney Lucas was nominated for a Tony Award last season for her performance as Small Alison in Fun Home. Here was another gifted 11-year-old taking on a complex character in a musical also created by an all-female writing team. While Eagan had "The Girl I Mean to Be," Mary's song of yearning for a place to call home, Lucas had "Ring of Keys," Alison's cry for connection within her own lonely confines of sexual confusion.
Nearly a quarter of a century separates these cosmically parallel performances, but on February 21 and 22, Eagan and Lucas will finally get to share a stage for a Manhattan Concert Productions mounting of The Secret Garden, directed by Stafford Arima at David Geffen Hall. Eagan passes on the torch of Mary Lennox to Lucas, while she herself graduates to the role of Martha, Mary's chambermaid and sympathetic caretaker.
"That whole production really helped me through a very difficult time in my life," Eagan says, referring to her mother's late-stage cancer diagnosis that came just three months after winning the Tony. "I was able to be onstage every night sort of going through therapy — so the role holds a mantle of honor in my life."
As Martha, she gets to revisit Mary in a new way, becoming the one who encourages the lonely little girl to "Hold On'' in the face of tragedy and adversity. "It's like I get to go back and heal my inner child," says Eagan of her new character. "I was so lucky that every night I got to have Alison Fraser (the original Martha on Broadway) say those words to me. I don't know how I would have gotten through without that."
"My biggest hurdle is when I'm working with Sydney and Stafford will ask her questions [and] it's hard not to be like, Oh! I know the answer! It's not a test, and it's not your role," Eagan laughingly reminds herself.
"But it's really interesting to watch another girl develop that character," says Eagan. "She's very different from how I was. She's been in the business longer than I had been in the business when I was her age."
While Lucas already has a full IMDB page of television and film credits, before landing the role of Mary, Eagan's résumé only included a stint as Tiny Tim at BAM and the modest roles of Young Cosette and Eponine in Les Misérables. "I was not trained," she says. "It was something that I started doing on a whim just to see how I'd like it. And if I had not been so successful so quickly I would have abandoned it. That's sort of my habit…I don't think I'd ever even watched the Tony Awards."
Eagan's inexperience, however, turned out to be her greatest asset. "I've heard people say that part of the reason I was captivating as a kid was because I was so unaware of all that stuff. I was just me."
In their respective ways, however, both Eagan and Lucas have subverted the trope of the precocious Broadway starlet. "I think that's the big reason why I got Secret Garden," Eagan notes looking back at her auditions for the role (including her final callback where she asked composer Lucy Simon, book writer Marsha Norman, and director Susan Schulman to look after an egg she had decided to care for like a baby). "Lucy and Marsha were adamant that they didn't want 'Annies.' And at that point, that was the model [for a child role in this industry]. I think after The Secret Garden, the models changed."
The scrappy Matildas and Alison Bechdels currently on Broadway could be seen as the latest products of these altered models — one of the many ways The Secret Garden pushed the needle for young performers who don't fit the typical "Broadway" mold, and one of the many things Eagan has grown to appreciate about the role to which she will forever be tied.
"I resented it for a long time," she says of her unshakeable association with Mary Lennox. "Now that I'm at the ripe old age of 36, I don't mind it at all. I feel really honored to be a part of people's lives the way that people feel connected to The Secret Garden. I think that it holds a place in people's hearts that not all shows do, and to have been a part of that is humbling."
Watching other young performers having the experiences she did when she was a girl now has a special resonance for her. "I saw Finding Neverland and I thought, man, how lucky those kids are. They have no idea. They have no idea how lucky they are to get to do this. Years from now, no matter where they end up, [they] get to look back and say, 'my playground was a stage.'"
So what kinds of emotions come along with reliving your childhood? "It's been less weird than I thought it was going to be," Eagan says. "I thought I'd just be a weeping mess through the whole thing."
Still, there are a few moments in the show she can almost guarantee will hit a nerve. "I don't think I'll be able to pay attention during 'How Could I Know,'" a song delivered by the ghost of Mary's aunt Lily (played by Sierra Boggess) to her reclusive husband Archibald (Ramin Karimloo), asking forgiveness for leaving him too soon — and with a son to raise. "I'll have to go into the basement and plug my ears and pretend that I'm somewhere else."
And then there's the song her own Martha would sing to her every night at the St. James, which she will now deliver to Lucas.
"Maybe I'll get to 'Hold On' and just be like, 'I can't.'" We'll see when we do the first run through. I will probably have to be taken away on a stretcher."