Though Nottage told Playbill that she creates a playlist and writes her straight plays to music, her adaptation of The Secret Life of Bees is the first time she will construct a musical narrative. Still, Nottage knows it’s the right medium for the material. “Unlike other books I’ve read, it sang to me,” she says. “Every page I saw a song.” She, along with lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam) and composer Duncan Sheik (American Psycho, Spring Awakening), present an early workshop of the piece at Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theatre July 27–29.
Published in 2001 by author Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees is set in 1964 and told from the perspective of a 14-year-old white girl, Lily Melissa Owens. A child who lost her mother and lives with an abusive father, her maid, Rosaleen, is her surrogate mom. But when Rosaleen is arrested, Lily breaks her out of the hospital and the two embark on a journey to Tiburon, South Carolina. A film adaptation starring Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson (The Color Purple) hit theatres in 2008.
According to Birkenhead, the musical will depart—at least slightly—from the novel. “The story begins on a day that the day that the Voting Rights Act was signed,” she explains. “Rosaleen, who was sort of a secondary character in the book, has become a much more prominent character, as is the whole context of the Civil Rights Movement.”
And Sheik will provide that sonic context. “Duncan’s from South Carolina, so he’s been listening to lots of gospel music and soul and R&B from that period,” says Nottage. “So all of the flavor is going to be much infused into this musical.”
“There’s this really mystical quality to the story itself,” says Sheik. “It’s more uplifted. That’s where I think some of the more interesting compositional stuff can happen” outside of staying true to the South and 1964.
No matter the changes to this latest adaptation of the beloved novel, audiences can be sure that the emotion, excitement, and intensity of the 2001 story will be preserved once Bees swarms the stage.