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Three Questions with Playwright Marsha Norman

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Anya Rothman as Mary Lennox and Charlie Franklin as Dickon in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Secret Garden, directed by David Armstrong. Photo by Teresa Wood.

This year, the original production of The Secret Garden turns 25 years old. In an interview with Marsha Norman (book and lyrics), we reflect on the lingering effect of The Secret Garden, as well as how relevant the 1991 production proves 25 years later.

When did you first encounter/read The Secret Garden?

Marsha Norman: Because I grew up in a reading-restricted household, I didn’t know The Secret Garden until 1987, when Heidi Ettinger called me up and asked if I’d like to write the book and lyrics for the musical she wanted to produce. Quickly I 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. I know much more about it now, the things that you can’t leave out, and the things you have to put it to make the story fair to Mary, like keeping her in the story past the point where she finds Colin, and getting Archie to give her the garden in the end. Maybe I even had some ideas about the author herself, Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was upstairs in her study writing day and night to pay the army of gardeners who were always working around her various properties.

What about Burnett’s novel spoke to you? How do you think it speaks to audiences now, both young and old?

MN: What spoke to me was the implicit promise that parents want to make to their children: that whatever happens, you will find a safe place to grow up, where people will take care of you, and love you: you will find a home. The novel also 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 others, eat simple food and 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 the 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 we keep hearing the same good advice. But do we take it?

What specific changes and discussions have you had about this piece? What did you take away from the Broadway production, and what did you want to expand or focus on in this new, ongoing iteration.

MN: When we [Lucy Simon penned the music] wrote the show 25 years ago, people were used to musicals that lasted over two hours, and producers could easily afford to pay for a 27-piece orchestra. This time around, we wanted to make a shorter, faster moving, yet more elegant show with all the things people loved and nothing else. We’re telling the same story this time, with most of the same songs, but connecting them in new ways. We can’t wait for you to see it, whether it’s your first time or your fourth.

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