Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Musical Rites of Spring

Over the weekend I performed one of my rites of spring: I reread my favorite parts of The Secret Garden and listened to the soundtrack from the original Broadway cast recording of the show. As far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t get much better than seeing a musical of one of my favorite books. Even if I don’t agree with parts of the adaptation, it’s usually pretty exciting to see everything I had imagined come alive on stage. With singing and dancing!

I prefer adaptations made by writers, composers and directors who stay faithful to the spirit of the book and use their creativity to develop storylines that were subplots in the original. The musical adaptation of The Secret Garden does an excellent job of this, particularly in the way it portrays the sad love story of Archibald and Lily Craven. In the book it was a subtext. In the musical they get a beautiful song about how Archie and Lily met (in a garden, of course) and how their relationship unfolded.

Another thing I appreciate about the musical is that a lot of the language from the book is in the lines of the play. There’s one wonderful scene in which Mary Lennox and Mrs. Medlock are taking the train to Misselthwaite Manor. Their lines, in the musical, are almost exactly as written in the book.

A more difficult musical for me to watch was the adaptation of Little Women. The musical did something interesting. It interspersed Jo March’s writing process and the sensational stories that she wrote with the plot of the book, which follows the March sisters and their friends. The musical had some wonderful moments, namely the song that Marmee sings after Beth dies, a duet between Beth and Mr. Laurence and a big production number where the entire cast acted out one of Jo’s stories.

But there were two points that I thought the show stumbled on. First they weren’t true to the spirit of the book. Mr. March, Jo’s father, was written out of the show. I found that strange, particularly considering that the March sisters are consumed with Mr. March coming home from the Civil War safely in the book. More troubling, Laurie was presented as a kind of geeky, pompous twerp – not the handsome, athletic, generous character that every fan of the book loves.

What do you think makes a good adaptation of a book into a musical? And what is your favorite one?

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