Entertainment

A Rare Peek Inside a Semi-Secret ‘Secret Garden’

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When Marsha Norman suggested the idea to producer Jerry Goehring to stream the 2018 workshop over a deadlocked Broadway revival of “The Secret Garden” as a benefit, he thought it was a great idea.

He just didn’t know if it would be possible.

“I said,” To be honest, I don’t know it’s ever been done before, “said Goehring, a member of the team that was out to bring the magnificent musical, which has never been revived there since the Tony Award, onto Broadway In 1991 he won the production with Mandy Patinkin.

Securing the rights to stream a musical – let alone a workshop, footage that should never see the light of day and show actors in their harshest form – can be complicated.

But it helped that Norman, the musical’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, was already on board – as was new director Warren Carlyle (“After Midnight”) and all 21 actors, including Sierra Boggess (Lily) and Clifton Duncan (Archibald Craven) and Drew Gehling (Neville Craven).

“They all asked ‘Please, what can we do to help?'” Goehring said this week.

The buy-in of all the members involved and the compensation of the actors were the conditions for the Actors’ Equity Association, the union, to give approval for the project, which will benefit the Dramatists Guild Foundation and the Actors Fund.

“They said they rarely get requests for archive footage,” said Goehring, who teamed up with producers Michael F. Mitri and Carl Moellenberg to develop the project. “But if at the end of the day 100 percent of the members on the show agree, we could do it.”

The two-hour workshop, which includes a full run of the show with no costumes or sets, premieres Thursday, May 6th at 8 p.m. on Broadway on Demand and will remain available until May 9th. It is dedicated to Rebecca Luker, the musical Original Lily, who died in December aged 59, less than a year after announcing she had ALS

“It’s wonderful and terrifying at the same time,” said Carlyle, who directed and choreographed the workshop. “It’s at its roughest, with all of my terrible ideas and some good ideas. It’s really like pulling the curtain back. “

Göhring said the workshop showed the production in its “early stages” – and was never intended to be seen by any kind of audience, let alone the public.

“We weren’t going to invite anyone,” he said, noting that at first the writers just wanted the opportunity to get a first look at the entire show – artistically. “But it turned out to be so special that everyone agreed that we should invite our friends in the industry, including Broadway theater owners, to hear their opinions.”

Based on the 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the musical tells the story of an orphaned English girl whose personality blossoms when she and a sick cousin restored a neglected garden. The original Broadway production brought in three Tonys including Luker, Patinkin, a pre-Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell, and 11-year-old Daisy Eagan, who won Mary Lennox for her performance as heroine.

The revival, Carlyle said, is a “total redesign”. It will offer reduced sets, more intimate orchestrations and a different scenic design. But all of Lucy Simon’s songs are intact, he assured the fans of the original, who just shifted – not that anyone would dare cut “Lily’s Eyes”.

“We joke that we lost a lot of big bushes,” he said. “A lot of the big scene transitions from the early 1990s have been eliminated, so it really goes a lot better.”

It is clear, said Carlyle, that the workshop is a rough draft: the garden is imaginary; the dress code more t-shirts than vests. Pieces of tape on the bare floor mark the edge of the stage and the position of the grand pianos. There are few props.

“There are no frills,” he said. “This enables me, as a director, to ensure that we understand the story correctly.”

To keep track of scene changes, the team added digital renderings by production designer Jason Sherwood (“Rent: Live”) as transitions. But in the end, said Carlyle, the material speaks for itself.

“The book Marsha wrote and Lucy’s music are so powerful that you can be in an empty room with talented artists and move around just like it’s on a Broadway stage,” he said.

There are reasons the Broadway show never got revived: critics said the elaborate set and costumes made the actors struggle to be in focus, and the book was overflowing with supporting characters.

“Whether ‘The Secret Garden’ is a compelling dramatic adaptation of its source or just a beautiful, stately shrine is sure to be the subject of intense public debate,” wrote New York Times theater critic Frank Rich in his review of the original. “For one thing, I often had problems getting the pulse of the show.”

Broadway is still a destination for the future, said Goehring, although the pandemic has set the time axis in motion.

“We are currently not looking for new investments,” he said. “Our only goal is to raise money for nonprofits.”

The 2018 workshop was the last in a series of high-profile iterations of the musical, which included a 2016 concert at Lincoln Center with Ben Platt, Ramin Karimloo and Boggess. David Armstrong directed a production at 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC in 2016-17.

No cast has yet been determined or the theater secured, but Göhring hopes the orchestrations will take shape in the fall.

“As soon as we’re all back in the same room, we’ll keep working on it,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to do this as best we can,” he added. “No matter how long that takes.”

In the secret garden: workshop and livestream experience
May 6th to 9th; livestream.broadwayondemand.com

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Robert Dunfee