25 Years Later: Composer Lucy Simon Reflects on Broadway Hit, 'The Secret Garden'

Starting Sunday, Manhattan Concert Productions will celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Broadway musical,with a two-night, star-studded production at Lincoln Center's New York's David Geffen Hall.
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Starting Sunday, Manhattan Concert Productions will celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Broadway musical, The Secret Garden with a two-night, star-studded production at Lincoln Center's New York's David Geffen Hall. "It's a very special score. I'm so glad that people love it and that it will come back to New York," composer Lucy Simon said. Fans will certainly agree. The massive hit, like its plot, warmed hearts across generations and is considered by many to be a personal favorite - as well as one of the best musicals of the late-20th century.

About its sensational success, Simon added, "One doesn't expect any such thing... I felt it was a very important score, but then again, I'm the composer. But, it was more universal than just my personal connection to it," she continued. "It felt like it was something that people grabbed hold of as a healing tool for them. From the first workshop on, the cast would go around pruning the potted plants [for example, and building lasting bonds]... it was just amazing how everybody connected to making it grow."

Pruning potting plants may seem strange to those unfamiliar with The Secret Garden, or its source material (a 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett). But, the show centers around an outsider, a young girl named Mary Lennox, who arrives at her uncle's home to find both a series of closed hearts among distant relatives saddened by the death of a loved one and an uncared-for garden. The unexpected catalyst who inspires change amongst an eerie setting and ghosts of the past, Mary simultaneously brings the garden and these relatives' hearts back to life. She does it with childlike purity and warmth that creates new bonds and, like the garden, cultivates beautiful new growth.

For Simon, achieving such incredible success as a Broadway composer was somewhat of a surprise. Originally a singer-songwriter (half of the "Simon Sisters," with Carly Simon), she had transitioned out of that career and became a mother. But then when she turned 40, sought to take on a new challenge.

"I'm not going to be on stage, I don't want to do that," she shared of her thought process back when she signed on to write the music for The Secret Garden. "I had grown up with going to musicals as a very important part of my history with my family... When I had children, and I was a mother, I didn't want to go on stage and be a singer-songwriter. I just turned my attention to the idea of telling stories through musical theatre," she said. "Also, I felt as a singer-songwriter I was too wrapped up in my own story, and I wanted to branch out and tell other people's stories, which were much more interesting than mine at that point."

While Simon makes the jump sound seamless, and others have done similarly to great acclaim (like Duncan Sheik, who wrote the music for Spring Awakening, which recently enjoyed a revival on Broadway), storytelling in an individual song is different than an entire score. Where a song requires the writer to convey a story or mood in four or five minutes, a musical demands they lay out fully developed emotional arcs for a range of characters, complemented with a cohesive and integrated score over an hour or more of material.

About this transition, though, Simon modestly said about writing the music with writer and lyricist Marsha Norman, "It just sort of happened naturally. If you see the whole picture... and it doesn't necessarily resolve at the end of the song, it continues... so that finally when you get to the last number, hopefully, you will have completed the [story] arcs of the characters that you've written for."

But, shifting focus for a moment, Simon was also quick to point out that "at the time it was very interesting, because [the show] was not initially accepted by the critics. They didn't understand it, they didn't connect to it, but the audience did. That was so rewarding."

"What's so gratifying is that it has become a part of this generation," she continued. "It's part of this past generation's sound. So many actors who are coming in now, say 'I went into musical theater because of The Secret Garden. It changed my sense of what one could do musically. It drew me in.' That is incredible."

"I always thought the score was beautiful," Ramin Karimloo shared. The Tony Award nominee, best known on Broadway for originating the role of Jean Valjean in the latest revival of Les Miserables will play Archibald Craven, Mary's uncle who is grieving the loss of her aunt, Lily. Karimloo (37) hadn't seen the show himself but now knows it more intimately through preparing for this role and says, "I just love the story as a whole. I love Archibald's yearning for Lily and how his relationship develops and evolves with Mary and Colin [Mary's cousin]... 'Lily's Eyes' is such an iconic song - I'm very much looking forward to singing Lucy Simon's score."

Joining Karimloo is an all-star cast including Cheyenne Jackson (Finian's Rainbow, American Horror Story: Hotel), Sierra Boggess (Phantom of the Opera, School of Rock), Ben Platt ("Pitch Perfect") and Sydney Lucas (Fun Home). Daisy Eagan, who originated the role of Mary Lennox, will play Mary's chambermaid, Martha. Eagan won the Tony Award for her role, and at just 11-years old was the youngest female Tony winner, a distinction she maintains to this day.

Karimloo also knows the transcendent nature of The Secret Garden and its profound effect on fans that has led them to continually share their stories, even 25 years later. "A friend of mine was telling me a story about how she saw the original production as a teenager and brought her boyfriend at the time to see it; it was his first time seeing something on Broadway," he shared. "She was nervous bringing what she described as an 'alpha male' to see a musical, but she said that even before the second act had started he was in tears. It was a moment that she remembers so clearly because this show has a way of really touching people."

"With the underlying themes throughout this show, I can see how it has had an effect like this on anyone who has been a part of it [too] ... Of course you hope it continues to affect, inspire and heal if it has that capacity. It's a truly powerful and beautifully moving piece of theater."

The Secret Garden will play Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall on Sunday, February 21 and Monday, February 22.

Steve Schonberg is the editor-in-chief of www.centerontheaisle.com and is regularly seen on NBC's "Weekend Today in New York."

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