It takes a lot of women to make a Coram Boy.
Or so it would seem, looking at the program credits of the London stage success that goes by that name and begins performances April 16 on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. The novel for young adults that inspired the National Theatre production was written by India-born, England-raised author Jamila Gavin. The book was adapted by British playwright Helen Edmundson. And a third woman, Melly Still, put the production on its feet.
The subject tackled by this distaff triumvirate is the fate of a group of young boys in 18th-century England — some of them with parents, some without, all of them menaced in one way or another. And the show's feminine side doesn't end there, for the boys are, in fact, played onstage by young women. "We didn't want to cast children in those roles," explains Edmundson, who makes her Broadway debut with this work. "They wouldn't have been able to bring the depth that was needed to the parts." Plus, adds Still, "I wanted to achieve the boy 'treble' sound."
That sound is no small matter, for those fictional boys do sing in the play, and sing well. In the first act they raise their voices at a choir school. In the second act, it's at the Coram Foundling Hospital — the institution that gives the drama its name. The real-life hospital was founded in London by Thomas Coram, who was appalled at the wantonness with which the welfare of children was disregarded at the time. "There was an enormous problem having to do with unwanted children, whether it was illegitimate children or families who were too poor to care for their children," says Gavin. "You only have to look at the newspaper covers today and that whole problem is still there in certain parts of the world." Gavin came to her topic in a roundabout fashion. "I heard, just in passing, that long ago someone called a Coram Man would collect unwanted babies and children and would traffic them, but frequently many would die and were abandoned by the wayside." Not certain if this Coram Man was a real person or a rural myth — but sensing the basis of a good story — she began to do research. Her work eventually led her to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, which is now known as Coram Family. (The Foundling Hospital ceased operations in the 1950s.) Even then, she didn't quite get to the bottom of the Coram Man tale. Did he exist? First she was told no, then the murkier "not officially." "I realized that there was this whole underworld of trafficking."
In the book, the underworld is chiefly represented by Otis Gardner, an itinerant tinker of undiluted villainy who collects infants in the name of Coram and then buries them in shallow graves. Though it sounds like an unlikely subject for a tween novel, "Coram Boy" was a success, winning both a 2000 Whitbread Award and a fan in National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who apparently spends his spare time scouring the shelves at Foyles for adaptable material.
"Nick Hytner had read the book and approached my agent," says Gavin. At the time, she had already sold the rights to a children's theatre. But when that group proved unable to pursue the staging, the National was contacted. Then the race began. "We were very pressed for time," Gavin says, "because by the time they got the rights, it was January, and they wanted to put it on by the following November, so everyone was working flat out."
Hytner lieutenant Tom Morris hired Edmundson to adapt the book. Edmundson read the book overnight and then wrote the first draft in five weeks. "It was much faster than I normally work. I had to write three scenes a day to get there."
While working on the second draft, Edmundson and her colleagues concentrated on weaving music into the plot. For the children in the story, singing and composing are very often the only saving graces in a dismal, loveless life. A 20-member choir performs onstage, and one young man finds salvation in George Frideric Handel himself, who was a benefactor of the Foundling Hospital and is a character in the play. "There is one hour and ten minutes of music in this two-and-a-half hour show, most of which is sung," says Still.
"They invested so much of their budget into making sure that music is the bedrock of this story and this play," marvels Gavin.
Of course, audiences need not worry about boning up on Handel and 18th-century English social history to enjoy Coram Boy. They can approach it the way Edmundson finds many children have — as an adventure story. "I think there are fairy-tale elements: Children being threatened and there being a baddie. It has Dickensian elements."