By Hannah Hessel Ratner
Marsha Norman is on a mission. The award-winning playwright’s career has covered Broadway, Hollywood and numerous theatres worldwide. Her accolades include a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award® and, in 2016, the Dramatists Guild Career Achievement Award. She has co-directed the playwriting program at Julliard for nearly a quarter of a century. And at this point in her career she is determined to tell the story of women.
“We have to tell the whole human story,” Norman explains. “If we don’t tell the story of what women and girls have accomplished, done, seen, said, brought about, missed out on, we are missing half of the stories of life on the planet.”
Norman was not aware of the story of Mary Lennox when, in the late 1980s, she was approached by producer and set designer Heidi Ettinger to adapt The Secret Garden. The opportunity was unexpected but welcome—though Norman had never written a musical before, she often daydreamed about it, imagining those around her breaking into song. But her success to that point was as a writer of dramas, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning ’night, Mother and other plays that dealt with intensely dark issues such as suicide or prison. Now Ettinger and Norman had to figure out how to put a 10-year-old girl at the center of a multi-million-dollar musical.
As the process unfolded, later incorporating composer Lucy Simon, they determined that the success of the musical would be found in the strength of the young Mary. She remembers, “We were thinking: let’s cause the musical theatre world to turn around for a moment and look at this girl as a valid and powerful hero.”
To focus on Mary, Norman had to make changes to the original story’s plot and structure. In Burnett’s book, Mary recedes from the center of the story as Colin gains focus. She knew as an adaptor she needed to be careful not to alienate a generation of readers who had grown up with the novel. “I quickly discovered it was one of the most beloved books of all time. I even discovered there was a Secret Garden secret oath. I would mention that I was working on it, and people would immediately put their hands over their hearts and say, ‘Ohhh. That was my favorite book from my childhood’—in those same exact hushed words.”
Adaptors have to remember the readers and, if living, the author—something she had to consider with her adaption of The Color Purple, currently enjoying a revival on Broadway. Though she sees the adaptor’s obligation to the original as important, she says simply, “I’m not afraid of it.” Since The Secret Garden novel is public domain, Norman had more flexibility to restructure the story. But with the balance of obligation in mind, she knew it was her duty in transitioning the work to the stage not to lose the heart that people love.
“What people love about this story,” Norman reflects, “is the safety and protection that awaits Mary. What spoke to me was the implicit promise that parents want to make to their children, that whatever happens (even if I die of cholera at a dinner party) you will find a safe place to grow up, where people will take care of you, and love you: you will find a home.”
But Norman discovered the core of The Secret Garden’s appeal is not only the story of the search for home that she likens to The Wizard of Oz. Mary is not just a girl caught in circumstances out of her control—the final resolution is brought about by Mary’s own actions. “By helping others, she is herself healed…She does this with the most natural and simple and human desires. She’s helping Colin because he needs help. The end. That’s who Mary Lennox is.
“The novel speaks to the power of the natural world to heal a broken soul, and instructs the reader that it is through helping others that you yourself are saved. The book says: Go outside. Don’t dwell on your losses. Trust your ability to help other. Eat simple food. Exercise. These ideas come up over and over in the book. And clearly, they are instructions we still need to learn, given their prominence in today’s medical literature. She wrote this book in 1911. That she was ahead of her time is putting it mildly. Or perhaps it reminds us that as humans, we keep hearing the same good advice. But do we take it? That’s a whole other topic.”
The humanitarian spirit at the heart of The Secret Garden led to the enormous success of the 1991 musical. On Broadway the soaring melodies and hopeful story resonated beyond simple family entertainment. Many have commended the production for its ability to speak to people who are grieving by showing the resilience of the human heart. It remains a show that viewers connect with very deeply. Norman used to hear from people touched in childhood by the book—but now generations of young people have been brought up on the musical.
Seeing the impact of Mary’s story deepened Norman’s commitment to telling more stories of women and to providing support for female playwrights. As an educator, that commitment has become an imperative. Each year Julliard accepts an equal number of male and female writers. With over 20 years of playwrights finishing the program, Norman started to realize that she was leading a “controlled experiment”—and she was unhappy about the outcome. The female graduates, she points out, have not been recognized or elevated in theater as they should have—or even produced at the same level as their male peers.
“That’s not okay with me,” she declares. “It’s not okay to train people that I know are going to have a harder struggle than the men to be recognized. That’s just not right.” So, instead of just noting the imbalance, Norman has turned into an advocate and leader for change.
With fellow playwrights Julie Jordan and Theresa Rebeck, Norman founded The Lilly Awards Foundation. The group strives to honor the work of women in American theatre. In addition to annual awards, they provide tools and fund resources like The Count, a national survey that tracks the rates of production for female writers, as well as writers of color. Beyond the Foundation, she is striving, along with Jordan—her “comrade and colleague in the struggle”—to make real changes that can help female playwrights lower barriers, including ways to fund childcare. After “dragging my children all over the country whenever I had workshops,” she knows first-hand that childcare is a fixable problem faced by many female playwrights at their most productive age.
She crafted her own balance of motherhood and career at a time when change seemed inevitable. Her work gained prominence alongside the successes of Wendy Wasserstein, Tina Howe and Beth Henley. She thought they had succeeded. But, she now sees that the wave of success was short lived, observing, “After a couple of years the door slammed shut behind us.” Knowing this history, she is even more determined to make changes that stick. “Asking theatres to help us tell the stories of women seems like a thing we shouldn’t have to do—but it turns out it is.”
With this in mind, her writing is focused on stories that she is afraid will go untold without cultural support. She is currently writing a musical about two of the many women who fought in the Civil War dressed as male soldiers.
Marsha Norman uses the phrase “powerful luminous female energy at work” to describe Mary Lennox. It is a phrase that resonates with Norman’s work to spotlight the stories of women, stories that are relevant and demanding to be told, just like The Secret Garden: “People still feel lost; people still suffer disruptions in families that cause them to feel like they don’t know where their home is.” Through these stories, Norman aims to create real change, moving us towards a world where “children will be able to grow up and find a place where they belong and live in joy and hope”—the very world that we glimpse in Mary’s garden.