Receiving the Richard Rodgers Award, with librettist Allan Knee, for their musical Little Women was a definite high in 1998. Getting cut loose from the project by the producers who were taking it to Broadway was a serious low.
Charting the details of the songwriters' painful separation from the show (in April 2000) is a "Rashomon" experience: For participants on both sides there are different points of view about how and why an award-winning score did not make it to Broadway.
Lyricist Hubbard and composer Oler have moved forward to other projects, including the creation of their own fresh version of Little Women, inspired by the novel by Louisa May Alcott.
"It was not a marriage made in heaven, in 20/20 hindsight, but we tried hard to make it work," Oler said of the team's experience on the earlier Little Women, optioned by producers Randall Wreghitt, Dani Davis and partners.
After the songwriters received what they call a "nominal" settlement from the producers of the current Broadway version — which has a much-revised libretto by Allan Knee and totally new score by lyricist Mindi Dickstein and composer Jason Howland — Hubbard and Oler, in possession of their original score, turned to other musical ideas. But they did return, after two years, to the beloved family classic about four New England sisters who come of age in the 1860s.
Their earlier Little Women experience shook their faith in show business, they told Playbill.com, but not their faith in their partnership or their creative powers. To restore themselves, they returned to The BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, the prestigious training ground for musical theatre writers, where they had met 20 years ago.
"Being at BMI again was truly a salve to our wounds," Oler said. "From the first day we went back, it was like, wow, there's people who think that we're good. It was absolutely essential to our healing to feel that."
"We had a family there," Hubbard said.
At BMI, in front of fellow songwriters and moderators, they presented songs from their new work, a musical version of the Arthur Wing Pinero play, The Enchanted Cottage, a project they had flirted with since 1993. Thomas Edward West, who collaborated with them on shows for Theaterworks/USA, is the librettist.
"We changed horses," Oler explained. "[After Little Women] I said to our agent, 'We're not a one-show team and we're doing something else now.'"
The Enchanted Cottage has since been seen in New York City readings in 2002 (for NAMT) and 2004 (for NMTN/NYMF), and the work on it continues. The writers said they're ready for a workshop or some kind of production.
Oler and Hubbard, both Long Islanders married to other people, also fell in love with an independent film from 2000 called "Two Family House" and — after contacting the director-screenwriter Raymond De Felitta — began developing a stage musical of it. De Felitta serves as librettist for the show, now called Buddy's Tavern. It was selected for the 2004 ASCAP/Disney Workshop in New York City.
The story takes place in the 1950s, in a blue collar neighborhood on Staten Island. Hapless Buddy Vasalo buys a house with the intention of turning it into a bar where he can sing to his customers. An Irish immigrant couple live in the home, but complications arise in the lives of the characters when the Irish wife gives birth to a mixed-race child.
"It's a romance that takes unexpected turns that are warm and human," Oler said.
"In a sense, it's a little bit of a blue collar fairy tale," Hubbard said.
After their difficult divorce from the Broadway-aimed Little Women, how did Oler and Hubbard come to return to the idea of their own musical version of Little Women?
"Kim and I had made an agreement that we weren't going to work on Little Women until someone asked us," Oler said.
And then someone asked them.
Sean Hartley, a lyricist and librettist and BMI Workshop member known for the intimate musical Cupid & Psyche, was putting together a spring 2003 concert of material by winners of the Richard Rodgers Award and listened to Oler and Hubbard songs — and fell in love, they said.
"I felt they were very true in spirit to the book," Hartley told Playbill.com. "It had a chamber feeling, which seemed to fit the book. It's about these people who don't have a lot of resources; there's one piano in the parlor and it's about everyday things they want to do."
Planning to draw on the Alcott novel and work with the existing songs (which Oler and Hubbard own), Hartley offered to write a new libretto for the project.
"Sean worked from the novel and reconceived the show from the ground up," Oler said.
"He had never seen [Allan Knee's] book," Hubbard added.
"He asked not to," Oler said. "So we wrote many new songs and rewrote every song that we used from the original score in some way."
"I Have a Garden," a standout song remembered by some who attended the 1998 York Theatre reading of the much earlier version of the show, is sung by matriarch Marmee. It tells of her four daughters — using the metaphor of a garden — and how one of her blossoms was "lost to winter's frost."
Coinciding with Hartley's involvement, a community theatre producer named John Wulp (a former Broadway producer) heard a tape of the tunes in 2003 and expressed interest in the property for the popular community and educational theatre he runs on North Haven Island in Maine. Wulp commissioned Hartley, Hubbard and Oler to put their version together and it was staged in a 16-performance amateur run in summer 2004, inaugurating a new theatre there. Broadway and Hollywood designer Ann Roth supplied the period costumes.
The cast in remote Penobscot Bay totaled 30, and the writers got a chance to be part of what was essentially a full-production laboratory of their dawning new show.
Their hope is a publishing and licensing deal for the fresh Little Women, and a future that includes a first-class Equity production.
"We may very well want to do a version for a small cast and a version for a large community theatre cast," Oler said. "There are easily ways to reduce the cast size if necessary."
The two-act show is about the entire March family, the songwriters said. "Each of the four sisters has a journey of her own," Oler said. "It is a period piece, and that is reflected in the score, the book and the design."
The most important thing about the experience of returning to the Alcott story, Oler said, was "to honor our own instincts about the material and to do so, if possible, with a collaborator, as we found in Sean, who was willing to listen. We're not seeking someone to be yes-man to us, we want a collaborator."
The good news for Oler and Hubbard, she said, is that "we have these three amazing collaborators" on their current shows.
Oler and Hubbard's songs have been heard in such Theaterworks/USA family shows as Pets!, When the Cookie Crumbles, The Secret Garden, Class Clown, Harriet the Spy and Babes in Toyland. They are represented by Sarah Douglas of Douglas and Kopelman Artists.