Little Women Musical Aims for Sentimental, Not Mawkish

Special Features   Little Women Musical Aims for Sentimental, Not Mawkish The creators of the new Broadway musical Little Women are seeking to avoid the one thing that many people associate with the beloved coming-of-age tale by Louisa May Alcott: indulgent sentimentality.
Maureen McGovern in rehearsal for Little Women
Maureen McGovern in rehearsal for Little Women Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In the 1868 novel for young people, based on the author's own New England family life during the Civil War, boy gets girl, girl spurns boy, friendships shift, siblings are separated, a father is absent due to war, dreams are hatched, and one sister dies.

"I call it a three-hankie musical," Maureen McGovern, who plays Marmee, the matriarch of the March family, told Playbill On-Line. But it's also got "a lot of laughter," she added.

The company members rehearsing toward the Dec. 7 first preview of the musical at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway are all "on the same page," as they say, regarding the subjects of sentiment, emotion and crying: It's the audience's job to feel, it's the actor's job to tell a story.

"You can't make it cloying!" said producer Dani Davis. "You can't. You've got to be truthful and deliver the emotion with great honesty.We are never going to that maudlin place. I'm very proud of that. I think you could just go overboard with a story like this. I think we take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride: The highs are very high, the lows are low and it feels very satisfying."

For Davis, the production is a labor of love. "I have adored the book since I was a child," she said. "I read it as a kid. I grew up 30 miles from Concord, Massachusetts, so I was constantly at Orchard House [the home of the Alcott family]. This heroine, Jo March, is such an enormous inspiration. I read Allan Knee's book that he created for an earlier version of the musical, and he had set such an incredible tone that captures the essence of the heroine. This captures the essence of that novel that we adore and yet has its very own story to tell." As generations of readers know (caution — spoiler!) the coming-of-age tale includes the death of a sister, Beth, from scarlet fever, and shows how it impacts sister Jo, who longs to be a famous writer.

How did Megan McGinnis, who plays frail Beth, approach the subject of too much emotion?

"Our creative team is so amazing that I've never had to worry about that," she said. "I've totally trusted them. They encouraged me, for my final scene, to get out all of the emotion that I can during rehearsal so that I won't have to worry about that happening in performance."

The wide-eyed actress doesn't see the death of Beth as a sad thing, though oceans of tears have been shed by readers since the 19th-century.

"I think of it as the most optimistic of all their journeys," said McGinnis. "Beth's entire reason for living is to make Jo happy — in a way, she gives up her entire self to Jo. It's as if she can no longer live any more. It's almost a sacrifice in some way. She's always so concerned with Jo and I think that's so wonderful. Her view of life is so glowing that even when she dies, she's not afraid to die."

The death of Beth will inspire Jo, played by Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, to write great things — including the story of the sisters' lives.

"One of the most beautiful things is that it's about five women and how they make each other stronger," McGinnis observed.

One of the dominant ideas in the musical — which has music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and libretto by the aforementioned Allan Knee — is the notion of creativity continuing in the face of loss. Jo could sit around and sob all day about Beth, or she can be prompted to stoke the fire inside. Since musicals usually peddle optimism, you can guess which path Jo will take.

Was Alcott serving up the idea that creativity is the natural enemy of despair?

"She is saying that," director Susan H. Schulman said. "I think we all feel very deeply about this issue in the show. What we've discovered is the healing nature of creativity. In this particular case — for me — it's the healing nature of theatre. For Jo it's the healing nature of her art, her writing. That's what Marmee is trying to tell her. If she gives up now, she lets grief stop her from creating what she can, and she is not in any way honoring the memory of her sister who believed in her so much and kept saying to her, 'You're going to do great things, I know you are.'

"When Jo finds her voice as a writer, she finds it out of great loss and grief. Then she finds a way to turn that into something that is truly inspirational for years to come for many generations. She does create something astonishing — we're watching it."

Still, there must have been tears in the rehearsal room?

"Pretty much," Sutton Foster said. "That's been a challenge. You can't go there. You can't do it on stage. We did readings and I wasn't able to get through moments. It's gotten easier. We definitely had moments where we had to stop. I would finish the song, and I would be sobbing and feeling everything. But if it happens, you hope that it's not the actress crying — that it's something from Jo."

McGovern admitted, "I spent the first two weeks of rehearsals just weeping on the sidelines. Usually you have to dig so deep to find something emotional every night in a show. If anything, with this, I have to keep it at bay. It's everyone's family: There are pieces of everyone's family on stage, which I think is one of the reasons it's such a timeless piece."

"I think the word 'sentimental' has been used in a very pejorative way lately," Schulman observed. "Things can be sentimental and not be mawkish. Sentiment, if you look at the meaning of it, its original meaning, is meant to be 'fully felt,' 'completely felt,' 'emotional' — I think musicals must be emotional, they must be deeply felt, they must be about passionate things. People cannot sing about things they're dispassionate about. I often get a tic when people say, 'I hope it's not gonna be sentimental.' Well, it is filled with sentiment, and I would have it no other way. But it's incredibly funny and inspirational and it's filled with a lot of energy and is very modern. It's about very modern issues people still face today."

Echoing the still-contemporary themes of war, parenting and loss, is a score that has a contemporary feel — Howland and Dickstein aren't writing dainty Stephen Foster pastiche.

"Well, we feel it's a contemporary story, without being overt about it," said Dickstein. "Just as there are contemporary qualities to the music and the characters and story and certainly the lyrics, I'm still conscious when I use a word or a phrase, I look it up and see if it was used at that time. I want to be true to the period. What we always say is that we're honoring its essence — the spirit of the story, yet also trying to bring out what's in it that is modern. [Alcott] was a modern woman."

Composer Jason Howland explained, "We've had people come to presentations in the past two years, and people have said, 'Somebody needs to talk to the composer — it's not period at all.' One of my strong influences is Richard Rodgers, who always managed to have the idea of the world he was operating in without ever being overt. Like with The King and I, he didn't write in the pentatonic scale all day long for that show."

Howland continued, "We have one overtly period number, 'Off to Massachusetts,' but otherwise, Jo is a contemporary heroine, so the contemporary sound of it makes sense. At the same time, there's no overt anthemic pop song from Chess and nothing electric in the pit. I hate synthesizers in the pit."

The 10-actor chamber musical, capitalized at $5.6 million, has 12 musicians and a conductor in the pit.

Some cast members admitted to being passionate about the novel since their childhood, and some, like star Sutton Foster, said they didn't read the book until they began work on the musical. "I never did, isn't that horrible?" Foster said, a little ashamed that she isn't a part of a wider sisterhood of "Little Women" fans. She has since read the book, of course, but not its sequels "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys."

"When the script landed on my desk, I had never read the book," said producer Randall Wreghitt. "I had seen a couple of the movies. When we were in school, the girls read 'Little Women' and we read 'Tom Sawyer.'"

Like producer Dani Davis, Dickstein adored the novel: "I read the book as a girl. I have a copy of the book that was my mother's, when she was 12 years old. I read it when I was 12. I remember being very torn about which girl I was: I knew I wanted to be a writer like Jo, but I like to think maybe I was pretty like Amy or Meg or somewhat sensitive and deep like Beth. I certainly re-read it when I started to writing the show."

When Dickstein and Howland came aboard the project, they were working from an existing libretto by Allan Knee. Other songwriters were previously attached to the show. In effect, the new songwriters inherited an orphan script.

"What I saw was a libretto without songs," Dickstein said of Knee's work. "I saw his scenes and it was very moving when I read it the first time. Part of the reason I knew I wanted to — and had to do this show — was I felt that he had such a great sense of Jo's passion and yearning to be herself, her own woman, which I think is true to the novel, 100 percent, and true to Louisa May Alcott, who was famous for saying 'I'd rather paddle my own canoe.'"

*

The musical is based on Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel for young people, a slice of Victorian family life that includes hardscrabble days, budding romance, Christmas joys and painful loss.

Sutton Foster won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and has, in recent public appearances, sung Little Women's big anthem, "Astonishing."

McGovern is the actress and recording artist known for everything from "The Morning After" to studio recordings of Let 'Em Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing, as well as appearances in Broadway shows (The Pirates of Penzance, 3 Penny Opera).

The cast also features Janet Carroll as Aunt March, Danny Gurwin as Laurie (the boy next door), John Hickok as Prof. Bhaer, Amy McAlexander as sister Amy, Megan McGinnis as sister Beth, Jenny Powers as sister Meg, Robert Stattel as Mr. Laurence, Jim Weitzer as John Brooke and Anne Kanengeiser (the standby for Marmee and Aunt March). The are joined by understudies Julie Foldesi, Christopher Gunn, Larissa Shukis and Andrew Varella.

Director Susan H. Schulman is known for Violet, The Secret Garden and The Sound of Music.

Little Women is an American literary title so obvious that it's a surprise that a musical version hasn't hit big on Broadway yet. A search of the internet reveals a number of musical versions of the 1868 property, which is in the public domain and therefore ripe for free picking by playwrights and songwriters.

Knee's libretto is based on the play originally commissioned and produced by TheatreWorks/USA.

Michael Lichtefeld is choreographer, Andrew Wilder is musical director, orchestrations are by Kim Scharnberg. Vocal arrangements are by Lance Horne. Designers are Derek McLane (set), Catherine Zuber (costume), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Peter Hylenski (sound).

The producers are Randall Wreghitt, Dani Davis, Ken Gentry, Chase Mishkin, Worldwide Entertainment, Ruben Brache, John and Danita Thomas, in association with Lisa Vioni, Thomas Keegan, Jana Robbins, Addiss Duke Productions, Scott Freiman and Theatre Previews at Duke.

Opening is set for Jan. 23, 2005. The Virginia Theatre is at 245 W. 52nd Street. For more information, visit www.littlewomenonbroadway.com.

The <i>Little Women</i>: Amy McAlexander (left), Jenny Powers, Maureen McGovern, Sutton Foster and Megan McGinnis
The Little Women: Amy McAlexander (left), Jenny Powers, Maureen McGovern, Sutton Foster and Megan McGinnis Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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