“People go to an adaptation of a classic to meet old friends," says the Tony Award-nominated director Susan H. Schulman, whose musical staging of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel Little Women began previews earlier this month at the Virginia Theatre. "But it's like when you go back to see them after 20 years and say, 'Oh, I forgot that!' or 'I didn't know that! What a great surprise!' That's exactly what this version of Little Women does."
Considering Schulman shepherded such musicals as The Secret Garden and the revival of The Sound of Music to Broadway, it's perhaps no surprise that she's encountered "at least five different versions of Little Women over the years," the director reports. But it wasn't until she read Allen Knee's current adaptation, with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, that Schulman signed on. "It was clear these were three very, very talented people. And I think I've been able to help them articulate the story with a very strong point of view.
"The expectation is that you're just going to see four women in hoop skirts! But there's so much more. Because the fight of the individual still exists today: to be your own person in a world that tells you how you ought to behave, how you ought to look. Particularly women — we're constantly bombarded by those messages." Still, Schulman is quick to add, Little Women ain't just for girls. "I think any man can be empathetic to someone who — like Jo — has a strong passion, then loses that passion and tries to regain it."
Of course, Schulman is referring to Little Women's famous heroine, Jo March, arguably American literature's first feminist. Autobiographically inspired, Jo unabashedly mirrors Alcott's own life growing up with three sisters in Concord, Mass. during the Civil War. Whether defiantly wearing pants or writing novels (Alcott penned over 30), Little Women's Jo challenged the subservient female order of Alcott's generation to become, inarguably, a cornerstone character of American literature. "It was a very hard role to cast," Schulman says. "I needed that coltish vitality and an actress who could sing fabulously because the score is soaring, and she needed to embrace those songs fully." Fortunately, Schulman's dream came true upon watching Sutton Foster perform in Thoroughly Modern Millie. "When I saw Sutton I said, 'Oh my God, she's there — Jo! That's where she lives!'" While such stars as Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson and Winona Ryder have all eagerly sunk their teeth into Hollywood depictions of Jo, Millie's Tony Award- winning Best Actress wasn't so keen, at first, to take the Broadway bite. "When they approached me I was still in Millie," Foster says. "And I thought, 'Do I really want to go into another huge role like this?' 'Cause now, I know what it's like to be a lead on Broadway. It's hard. I have a lot of people counting on me. And I get scared. I'm probably more insecure now than I've ever been."
Still, sitting in her Millie dressing room and listening to a sampling of the musical on CD while reading the script, Foster says, "I just started crying — thinking how beautiful it was." She agreed to an informal read-through for Schulman and the producers. "I remember I sat down at the table and started reading, and I didn't have to 'work,' or 'try,' I just was her. I thought, 'If I turn this down I'll regret it for the rest of my life.'"
About Little Women's pre-Broadway tryout in Durham, North Carolina, Schulman says, "I knew how talented Sutton was, but I wasn't expecting to be amazed. She's fearless!" Foster's interpretation undoubtedly stems from Schulman's clear-eyed approach. "The reason the book's endured," the director says, "has to do with real, honest sentiments, and there's a big difference between sentiment and sentimental. You need to be careful not to use the word sentiment in a pejorative manner. If you didn't have sentiment, you'd have no musicals! You can only sing because somebody is feeling something a whole lot," she laughs. "And that's sentiment! I don't find this show 'sentimental' at all."
Likewise, Foster says, "No, it's got grit and heart." In that way, she sees similarities between Jo and Millie. "Though they have different landscapes, they're both these headstrong young women trying to break out of the chains of tradition. That's still true for so many women today. I mean, to live in a world where there hasn't been a female President of the United States? Even in the 21st century Little Women speaks to me. Even though it was written in 1868, it was so before its time. Though," Foster notes with thoroughly modern hindsight, "it was on its way."