Pollyanna, the eternally sunny orphan so associated with optimism that her name is found in dictionaries, will sing in a Manhattan reading of a new stage musical version of the 1911 Eleanor H. Porter novel, Nov. 17-19.
Lyricist-librettist Don Loftus and composer Andrew Sussman get a chance to hear their work — Pollyanna! — in its first full reading, directed by Gary Slavin and musical directed by Barbara Anselmi. The Equity-approved reading, Loftus told Playbill On-Line, is private and the goal is "so we can hear it and adjust it for possible production."
Loftus snd Sussman said the show has a traditional Broadway sound, with period flavor, and does not shy away from the story's dark edges. After Pollyanna's parents die, she moves in with her joyless Aunt Polly, in a town where the adults hold grudges and are slaves to duty and propriety that diminish their humanity.
"Annie is a much 'cuter' show than this," Loftus said, suggesting the tone is more akin to the Lucy Simon-Marsha Norman musical, The Secret Garden. The authors add that the show's tone is a mix of Our Town and The Music Man.
Loftus and Sussman previously collaborated on a musical one act called The Olympians and the full-length Abbey Victoria, a serious-minded musical comedy that made references to musical theatre conventions (it was staged in Pennsylvania). They have also worked on separate projects — Sussman, music director of Cumberland Valley School of Music is Pennsylvania, on a show called A Touch of Bourbon; and Loftus, an executive by day, on one-acts and plays. Pollyanna! was dreamed up as they brainstormed in 1999 about possible projects and yearned to tackle a purely commercial show. The idea of something about an orphan — along the lines of Oliver! or Annie — might be the right idea, they thought.
"Orphans always sell," said Loftus, with a laugh.
As it turned out, the beloved Porter novel entered the public domain in January 2000, meaning the writers did not need to pay for rights to the story. Their work began in 1999.
Once Loftus explored the novel, he said, "It seemed like it was written to be a musical. Even the chapter titles sounded like songs to me."
The 11-actor show, which relies heavily on a child actress, lured 300 performers to the audition. Loftus said beyond the commercial viability of an "orphan show," he does feel a responsibility to write something for young audiences.
"I do think we need to start training a new audience," he said. "I think we have to get kids interested in the theatre. We need new works targeted at younger people."
He said the show and the novel have a dual focus: On Pollyanna and the "miserable adults" in the town. "What I tried to punch up is the idea of what we do to each other in terms of screwing up our lives and making each other unhappy," said Loftus.
The novel, "Pollyanna," spawned an industry of related media and merchandise: Prose sequels (some written by women authors after the death of Porter); a 1917 Broadway play with Helen Hayes; four film versions including a silent picture with Mary Pickford, a BBC TV version with Elaine Stritch as Aunt Polly, the Haley Mills Disney classic and the TV musical "Polly" (an African-American retelling). There were also games ("The Glad Game") and countless dolls.
For information about Pollyanna!, call (212) 517-3486.
— By Kenneth Jones