Syracuse Stage, a professional theatre in residence at Syracuse University, creates innovative, adventurous and entertaining productions, including new plays and bold interpretations of classics and musicals. This season they are presenting LITTLE WOMEN as their annual Holiday Family Musical.
This new musical, based upon Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 19th century novel, vividly brings to life the March family of Concord, Massachusetts. In a time of war and sacrifice, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, guided by their mother Marmee, grow from girls into women, through romance and courtship, illness and loss, loving and letting go.
Kim Oler and Alison Hubbard’s moving Richard Rodgers Award-winning score, by turns funny and touching, is seamlessly matched by Sean Hartley’s wise and witty book. This is a LITTLE WOMEN like none you have ever seen or heard before.
Syracuse Stage’s Joseph Whelan recently sat down with the LITTLE WOMEN writing team and discussed the process of writing this lovely new show.
Writing the Book: An interview with Sean Hartley
JW: You came to this project after most of the songs had been written. How did you find out about it?
SH: I was working as a producer for the Kaufman Center, doing a concert focusing on the winners of the Richard Rodgers Awards, and I came upon a cassette tape of songs from Little Women , which won the award in 1998. I happened to be in a BMI workshop with Kim and Alison and I approached them and said, “I heard the songs for Little Women and they’re good. What’s happening with them?” They said, “Nothing.” So I told them if they were ever interested in developing a new book, I’d like to work on it. I don’t know if that rekindled a spark, but a few months later they commissioned me to write the book.
JW: I understand there were more than thirty songs at that time.
SH: Sometimes they had written two or three songs for the same moment.
JW: How did you proceed?
SH: I started with the scenes that already had songs. I read the novel and began to imagine how the songs corresponded to the book. Then I focused on the really key scenes and worked those. They became a framework for the house. That led to me a sense of what was missing, what we still needed to fill in.
JW: What was missing?
SH: There was no song for when Laurie realizes he’s in love with Jo. It’s crucial because he goes from being a friend to being in love. That’s an important part of the first act now. I felt Jo’s relationship with Laurie needed to be developed. I also felt we needed to make more of Meg’s wedding with John Brooke. It’s crucial for Jo and Meg. It’s the breaking point for Jo and Laurie. Jo has to decide—what does she stand for. I think we also develop the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer more fully.
JW: And there’s Jo’s relationship with Beth.
SH: The Beth of the play is a fuller character than the quietly suffering, saintly sister of the novel. The impact Beth’s death has on Jo is especially important. It galvanizes her and ignites a desire within her to be a better writer. Through this experience, Jo gets to know herself and examines her convictions about life. She discovers the difficulty of writing a story that’s deeper and true. Initially, I worked with Jo as a narrator because I felt it was an effective way to tell the story. But my experience of losing my own sister began to color everything for me. I began thinking of it in terms of Jo losing Beth. That led to the scenes in the attic between them.
JW: Why is this story appealing?
SH: If you step back from some of the Sunday school aspects, you can see why the book is so popular. The conflicts and problems are real, even though the advice and solutions are so goody-goody. I think the truthfulness of the situations draws people in. There’s something in the material, itself, I think. The characters start to feel like family members. It starts to feel a little bit like this really happened.
Writing the Lyrics: an interview with Alison Hubbard (lyricist)
JW: When did you first encounter the novel?
AH: I first read the novel when I was a kid. I have two sisters. One of the things that really resonated was the sister thing. There’s a closeness but there’s also a tension. I thought that part of it was fairly real. The book has such atmosphere. It is a sepia world of a bygone time, a time of poverty and war, with everyone in the family banding together. There is the safe world of the March household surrounded by the dangers of the outside world.
JW: As you revisited the novel in order to work on the show, what changed for you?
AH: I was into romance as a kid, but my taste tended more toward Laurie than Fritz. Now I understand Jo’s attraction to Fritz. In fact, my husband is a bearded professor.
Also, Marmee’s mothering: she’s the quintessential, unconditionally loving mother who allows her children to go off and get into trouble so that they will learn a lesson on their own. What mother really has that much patience? Now, after raising my daughter, I understand how hard it must have been for Marmee to raise those children by herself.
JW: What is your process with composer Kim Oler?
AH: Our process is so convoluted that it’s hard to even describe it. It’s as if you know there’s a treasure buried in a forest, and you set out to look for it. You get lost, you blame the other person, you backtrack, but you still know it’s there. You keep imagining what it can be. Finally, you get the scent and you find your way to it. The process is really first getting an inspiration. Sometimes that means finding a title, but usually it’s more vague than that. It’s just knowing that there is some kind of emotional mother lode in a particular moment in the script or in the book.
JW: Any examples come to mind?
AH: One of the earliest songs was “Hold onto Me.” Reading that part of the novel, we would weep. There was something so understated but powerful about the chapter when Beth was dying and Jo couldn’t let her go. Jo took Beth to the sea shore to try to restore her health. I drove to Lloyd Neck, an exclusive part of Huntington that’s right on the water. We don’t live there, and only residents of that part of the town are allowed to loiter. I pulled the car over to the side of the road, looked out at the water and started to scribble. I was crying, and had written three or four lines of the first verse leading to the title, when a cop pulled up and told me to move along. That was that. But I’d found the scent of the treasure by then. I went back to Kim and he got it. I trust Kim to tell me if something is working, and if it’s really working he sits down at the piano, which was what he did. After we got to the title I wrote more of the lyric. There is usually a time when I have a lyric more or less roughed out, and the two of us are working side by side. He’s working on the music, and I’m adjusting the lyric at the same time. It’s always a patchwork, back and forth thing. But we’re always reaching for that treasure, and finding our way to it, knowing it’s there. The final stage of writing anything for us is acting it. We both sing, and we’re really bad actors, but we love to act and sing our songs. When we sing our songs at the piano we refine them.
JW: Little Women was first produced by a theatre in Maine. What was that experience like for you?
AH: It was amazing. A man named John Wulp called us from Maine and said, “ I want to produce your show.” We had won the Richard Rodgers Award for our Little Women score, and John Wulp had heard the tape. He commissioned a new book by Sean Hartley. Our show was the inaugural production of a beautiful new theatre on North Haven, a small island in the middle of Penobscot Bay. My husband said was not Off-Broadway, it was off-shore. The last leg of the trip was by motor boat. An entire town of New Englanders put on a show about New Englanders. On our first trip there our “little women” sang “I Will Try.” It was literally the most moving experience I have ever had as a writer—to hear that song sung by these untrained high school girls, who had such love and understanding and reverence for what we had written.
JW: Audience response tends to be quite emotional.
AH: They weep. Handkerchiefs for the men.
AH: It’s about life. That’s really what it is. It’s about family, about war, it’s about marriage, it’s about children, it’s about a writer who has a dream and is out of place in her world but still finds a way to succeed and flourish.
Composing the Score: An interview with Kim Oler (composer)
JW: What was your response to Louisa May Alcott’s book?
KO: I cried on every page. I believe all us adults share somewhere inside a desire to create a better world, through our lives and through our children. The March family is a shining city on a hill – Marmee and Father are impossibly good, and the four girls are achetypes. My wife and I try hard to be good parents, but we fall short of our ideal every day. LITTLE WOMEN inspires us to be better.
JW: Did the time period influence your composition?
KO: I’ve always been a fan of mid-19th century American literature and song, and majored in American Literature in college. Coincidentally, at the time I started work on this project, the Ken Burns Civil War series was current. I loved the score and looked forward to drawing on that style in our songs. But when I write songs for the theatre, even when doing a period piece I filter the music through my own sensibility. I never attempted to write traditional 19th century American music for LITTLE WOMEN, except in places in the underscoring for the party scenes, or the song “The Music Of Our Home”, a song Beth has written, where I wanted to be true to time and place. Hopefully our score sets modern audiences comfortably in 19th century Concord, while helping them relate to the characters and their journeys personally through the play.
JW: In what ways do you factor in the other theatrical elements, such as choreography?
KO: In every way possible. One of our producers once said, “Don’t ever play me a piece of music if you don’t know exactly what’s happening on stage at every moment.” By that he meant staging, movement, choreography, costume changes, scene changes, everything. We ‘see it all’ in our heads before we’re through with our writing, but we are often surprised, delighted and moved by what a new director, a new cast, a new production can bring to our material that we hadn’t even imagined. What a thrill that is!
JW: You and Alison Hubbard wrote more than 70 songs for the show. Not all of them are in it. Do you have any regrets about some of the songs not included?
KO: We may write what we think is the perfect song for our show, and sometimes it’s a song we love completely. A colleague once said, “You can only write what you know at the time.” We never want to put a song on stage that doesn’t serve the drama, however good that song might be, because it may be a stone in the path that has emerged since we wrote it. We did indeed write a lot of songs we loved that are not in the show. But many of them I hardly remember anymore because I’m happy with what replaced them, and the show works better without them.JW: There are so many elements to consider—character development, plot, specific moments in each scene—how do you balance all those when writing a song?
KO: It’s a challenge. Alison and I sit across the room from each other for days, weeks, sometimes for a month or more (as was the case with the song “I Will Try”) talking, singing, drafting lyrics and melodies. LITTLE WOMEN is a big book, and we had to be efficient in our dramatization. The more characters and events are competing for our focus in a particular moment we are musicalizing, the more difficult this can be. “I Will Try” was a moment in which we wanted to show the contrasting ways each of the four girls felt about their father and themselves. If we could get the song right, we knew it would be a prism that illuminated them all in a single scene, and would advance the plot at the same time.
JW: How do you know when it’s right?
KO: I listen to my gut, I listen to my collaborators, and I listen to the audience as the show plays.
JW: Have you found Little Women to be a rewarding experience?
KO: Yes. It has brought me more life lessons, both joyful and painful, than anything I’ve ever done. Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN is an icon. Serving it has been an enormous challenge, and an enormous privilege.
(Special thanks to Joseph Whelan and Syracuse Stage for allowing us to post this interview.)