After a 23-year absence, The Secret Garden has unexpectedly experienced two resurrections within two months—the first downtown at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, starring Rebecca Luker in a reprise of her original role, and the second this past week by Manhattan Concert Productions at Lincoln Center, boasting a cast of Sydney Lucas, Sierra Boggess, Ramin Karimloo, Cheyenne Jackson, Josh Young, Nikki Renée Daniels and more.
Why the sudden interest?
Ask any of the cast members why they were drawn to The Secret Garden today and it’s one resounding echo: the score. Ask the woman who wrote that score and you’ll get another answer: healing.
“I think The Secret Garden is always relevant,” says Lucy Simon, the Tony-nominated composer behind Secret Garden’s majestic sound. “There’s not a time in my life where there hasn’t been a need to have that sense of rebirth and healing, whether it’s the garden or whether it’s the homeless or whether it’s craziness in the world around. We have to heal. We have to come together as people, as human beings.”
The songs that I wrote for this show came immediately.
Lucas, who played Mary Lennox, recognizes that her need for healing as Mary represents our need, just as the garden’s need for healing actually symbolizes Mary’s. “She was hurting, and she didn’t feel like she was loved,” says Lucas. “But everyone comes and scrapes away the dead wood [of her spirit] and reveals something really beautiful.”
The story’s theme of renewal propels Simon’s score. “I’m a nurturer, so that was my perspective [while writing],” says Simon. “I am much more Lily than any other person in this character. I’m a mother. I care for people.”
Boggess intuits that maternal nature in her approach to the role. “As Lily, watching her niece go through that, energetically, I just want to fix it,” says Boggess. “I want to help, but all I have is my energy. All I can do is sing to her.”
Yet, “singing is such an important way of communicating,” says Simon. You can hear Simon’s desire to wrap her audience in the blanket of her music, to comfort us. “It’s probably one of the greatest scores that has ever been,” says Boggess. “It’s the music that changes everyone, and then—with nature, [with] the garden— [it’s] the idea that the world, the planet can change you, can make you walk again, can make you be healed.”
Whether they’d listened to the score since childhood like Cheyenne Jackson, who played Dr. Neville Craven with steal, or had never heard it before, like Ramin Karimloo who played Archibald Craven with grace and gentility, Simon’s notes tap at heartstrings. “It’s such a beautiful story, but it’s the score,” says Jackson. “Anyone who’s ever spoken about it says it’s one of the most beautiful things they’ve ever heard,” says Karimloo. “I [listened to it for the first time] when I was out for a long easy cardio jog in L.A. in a park, and I’m listening to it, and I started tearing by the time I get to ‘How Could I Ever Know’ and I’m like, “Oh my God. How could I ever know?’
“It’s so beautiful, and there’s nothing else really like that around,” Karimloo continues. Of course, he and Jackson get to sing one of the most clamored-for songs, “Lily’s Eyes.”
“Ramin and Cheyenne singing ‘Lily’s Eyes’ is all my five-year-old self ever wanted,” says Ben Platt, who gave new life to “Winter’s on the Wing” as Dickon. “There are not a lot of male musical theatre duets,” says Jackson. “It’s like ‘Lily’s Eyes,’ ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’ from City of Angels and that’s kind of it. … It’s such a great song for our characters … and [Ramin’s] voice is just insane.”
Of all the songs in the show, that was one that almost didn’t exist. “We were doing a workshop in Saratoga, and I kept on saying, ‘They keep mentioning Lily’s eyes. We need to do something from the different perspectives,’“ says Simon. “I wrote it just during an hour. … It was during a total eclipse of the moon. I’m not religious, especially, but there was something really very special about writing that song.”
Though Simon confesses all of the music flowed without struggle. “The songs that I wrote for this show came immediately,” she says. “It was no problem trying to find…they spoke to me.”
The score earned a Tony nomination in 1991, alongside six other nods for the show, and Daisy Eagan (the original Mary Lennox and this production’s Martha) at age 11 became the youngest actress in history to win a Tony. But three months later, Eagan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed a year-and-a-half after that. Joining the cast of this Secret Garden, Eagan had prepared herself for overwhelming emotion, but realizes, “I feel, in some ways, like I’m healing my inner child.” She confides that the lead-up to this concert was bigger than anything; still, her onstage catharsis at the end of “Hold On” proves that healing is a process with which we may never truly finish, and therein lies the forever relevance of this Garden.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.