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Behind the Scenes at The Secret Garden
Part One
By Rob Lester

Also see Part Two


(clockwise from left: Will Chase, Jaclyn Niedenthal, Steven Pasquale, Laura Benanti, Jamie McGonnigal, Stafford Arima, Max Von Essen
A concert version of the Broadway musical The Secret Garden will be performed for one night only on Monday, December 5th at 7:00 pm at The Manhattan Center, 311 West 34th Street in New York City. This fundraiser benefits a summer program for teens with HIV through The Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation and is a major theatrical event for World AIDS Day. Talkin' Broadway was invited behind the scenes to observe the process and meet the players.

Sometimes the fly on the wall can have a very good time indeed. It should be no secret that The Secret Garden looks like a truly special and exciting event. As seen in rehearsals, planning sessions and informal talks, the talent and dedication of those involved with the show is very impressive.

This is the third such event and all performers and production staff donate their time. Previous shows presented were Children of Eden and Pippin, both with scores by Stephen Schwartz. Some particpants of the earlier events are returning for this concert. Laura Benanti, featured in both of the prior shows, again lends her exquisite soprano, well known to audiences from her work in Swing! and the Broadway revivals of Nine, Into the Woods and The Sound of Music. She sings the role of Lily, who (seen as a ghost and in flashbacks) is the lady whose neglected garden becomes a metaphor for life. As Ms. Benanti has an allergy to some flowers, including (ironically enough) lilies, the flowers you see on stage will have to be fake, the only artificial note in this show that is so full of life.

Another alumnus of Children of Eden, Max Von Essen (recently in Dance of the Vampires and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), is in the cast as Albert (he and Sara Gettelfinger as Rose are young Mary's parents). Michael Arden, who played the title character in the Pippin event and created a sensation in Bare, brings his likable charm and stage charisma to the role of Dickon. His sister in the story, Martha the maid, is played by Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), and her Spelling Bee co-star Deborah S. Craig is also in the company. The brothers are played by Will Chase (Lennon) and Steven Pasquale (A Man of No Importance, Off-Broadway's The Wild Party and television's "Rescue Me"). Director Stafford Arima (Altar Boyz) confides that "there is some intense chemistry between Laura and Steven. There is not going to be one dry eye in the house after, 'How Could I Ever Know?'" And the list goes on: Jenny Powers (Little Women), Matt Cavenaugh (Urban Cowboy), Shonn Wiley, Ben Magnuson and more. David Canary, who began in musicals long before his two decades plus on TV's "All My Children" (and, yes, "Bonanza") appears as Ben.

Artistic producer of the events, Jamie McGonnigal, has been eager to do this show, as Marsha Norman's book and lyrics and Lucy Simon's music are close to his heart. As he says, "... it's one of the most beautiful scores ever written for the Broadway stage. I did the show in summer stock several years ago and there is something so magical about it. When we started the World AIDS Day Concerts at The Riverside Cathedral there was something that happened that evening ... something that can't really be put into words other than 'magical.' So, as cliche as it sounds, I really wanted to do a musical that could capture the same magic we had that evening." Lightning may strike again, as this story of redemption and hope is one of the most emotionally rewarding of stories and Broadway scores. Its focus on life triumphing over death and despair and how those we've lost continue to be with us is enriching.

Over a few November days, I sat in on some of the auditions. Many of the key players had already been signed, but some roles remained open, including the crucial child characters, Mary and Colin.  During the audition process for these roles, director Stafford Arima was very patient and focused, projecting strength in the quietest way possible. Composer Lucy Simon sat quietly at the table, her face lighting up when an auditionee really seemed to be at one with a soaring or tender moment in the music. Original music director Michael Kosarin is on board, and his guardianship of the music is rewarding to witness, even in an audition. To employ the unavoidable metaphor of the story, he watches over, nurtures and maintains it in rehearsal as a gardener would with plants and flowers. As a parade of pig-tailed and freckled children came in and sang their audition songs, it was clear that there was a great deal of talent from which to choose.

Most of the kids seemed comfortable, and indeed many are young in years but old hands at this, already veterans of Broadway shows. Most were prepared, some having gone the extra mile to memorize a scene from the show rather than read it off the page. The staff took the time to greet and chat for a moment with each child, who all chirped "Good!" when asked how they were feeling, even if they looked a bit unsure or nervous.  Audition songs ranged from an expected "The Sound of Music" to one I'm sorry I missed, a very young boy who took on the title song to Hair, complete with dance movements.  The director often took extra time with youngsters, to see how they'd take direction. A few girls sang in perfectly lovely, sweet voices but without the requisite drama in the score's key song, the yearning "The Girl I Mean to Be." He asked each of them what place she longs to be at in real life (Disneyland? Grandma's house? Answers ranged from Paris to a Broadway show) and to think of that when singing the lyric. Asked to read the lyric as a monologue instead of singing it, he instructed them to focus on the words and then try singing again. "Now I want you to bring that same colorful dynamic to the song, all right?" One tiny, wide-eyed girl nodded enthusiastically, and seemed to indeed, get it. 

Several boys and girls from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang auditioned and reported they loved being in the show, especially getting a chance to ride in the flying car. "Yes, it's so cool!!" enthused one.  Some were called back and asked to read the scene where the feisty Mary discovers and meets the bedridden Colin, who she'd been unaware lived in the vast house she's recently moved into after her parents' death.  Before beginning the reading, one hearty-looking boy asked politely, "Should I sound sickly?" The group was asked to read again, being paired up differently the second time to see how the chemistry might change. (And it did.)


Jaclyn Niedenthal and Laura Benanti
Ultimately chosen were two exceptional young actors (I confess I was silently rooting for both): Jaclyn Niedenthal and Struan Erlenborn. They seemed to be holding up extraordinarily well in an evening rehearsal I attended this week.  "She's been here since 10:00 this morning!" someone in the big hall was heard to say. The young actress seemed bright and alert. As he did at the auditions, the director graciously thanked performers for their attention and patience. I observed him working with Jaclyn as they refined the moment in the opening where she learns her parents have died. He showed her how to turn slowly in a full circle as the devastating news sank in. "No need to move robotically. You're isolated, isolated, isolated ..." And she looked up at him with a big, willing smile and piped up with a chipper "OK!", then the smile instantly turned into a look of utter despair. As Stafford told me, "Working with young talent like Jaclyn and Struan is something that is incredibly rewarding. These bright young actors are at the top of their game. They are unique, energetic, focused and dedicated. They come prepared to rehearse and are an absolute pleasure to work with. I can't wait for the audience to witness new stars in the making."

Jaclyn and Struan got a few minutes to relax and the chorus came in. This is no small group; it's sixty men and women, and when they raised their voices as one in an Act One number, it was powerful and thrilling. All of the singers will remain onstage throughout in this version, and they are being directed to be constantly "present," lending their energy and focus to the events as witnesses and a supportive force. Lucy Simon's music grabs the heart even in rehearsal with a sole piano.  In the actual production, the orchestra will number 34 and will feature William Brohn's orchestrations. Rosie's Broadway Kids represented in the company will provide choral support and were warmly welcomed at a recent rehearsal. 

Barbara Rosenblat is a vital member of the team. One of the hats she is wearing is dialect coach, and she reminded the choir of the British vowel sounds needed. She's often seen pulling an actor aside, whispering specific instructions. Those of us who were fortunate enough to see the original Broadway cast in 1991 remember Barbara as the stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. She is the only member of the original company to return for this event, and she repeats her role. "Not only do I have goosebumps, I feel as though I've never left it," she told me, brushing aside the decade-plus since the original production closed. She talked about how they are prioritizing rehearsal hours "using the time we don't have," and reflected on the timelessness of Frances Hodgson Burnett's original story and the musical. "Given the current state of the world," she sighed, "I think its gifts are more necessary than ever, with its universal themes." She's enjoying seeing this new cast exploring the roles and finding how the universal themes resonate.

Director Stafford Arima began an announcement addressing the company with, "Friends in the room, could we have quiet for just a moment?" Then he thanked everyone again. "Friends" is his favorite word, bestowing respect on all and encouraging a sense of family. Jamie commented late one night, "Knowing Stafford's work in particular from his production of Ragtime, I thought he'd be a great fit. Then when speaking to other theatre professionals who'd worked with him, I knew it would be a great fit. Many see The Secret Garden as a chamber musical, and our challenge with this being such a grandiose concert is to keep the intimacy within the storytelling but find ways large enough to tell the story that involves everyone in the theater." Stafford seems to be finding ways to do this. Despite the actors having cell phones strapped to their jeans and clutching Starbucks' cups, those of us observing felt already pulled into another era once the English accents and dialogue were heard.

The director tells me he is very excited, but shares his joy with the original creators of the musical. "Marsha and Lucy are beyond themselves in excitement about seeing their show brought back to life on the concert stage. Their support and enthusiasm has been wildly infectious. What is even more exciting is that they have gone back to their original show and made some cuts and trims to 'personalize' this concert experience. The storytelling energy of a concert is vastly different from telling the story in full production. So, in many ways, audiences coming to see this Secret Garden will be experiencing a 'brand new' version.  There is a captivating and timeless story that we're going to tell on December 5th - a theatrical valentine with a healing message."

That message seems especially appropriate given that the ticket sales benefit a summer program for teens living with HIV.  The program, TLC (Teens Living with Challenge), gives these local adolescents a chance to be with others in the same situation in a camp setting in upstate New York. One of the co-producers, Erica Lynn Schwartz, adds, "I had a great time with these benefits in the past; however, when I went to Camp TLC and saw how the Foundation really runs and could use our help, I realized that through this concert we really have an opportunity to affect change and improve the quality of life for so many. This entire experience has been incredibly rewarding, from the amazing creative team in place, to all the actors who have not only donated their time for rehearsals and the performance, but have gone above and beyond by making special promotional appearances and volunteered their services at every turn. I cannot thank everyone enough. For me, it has been life-changing." Details on the organization can be found at the website www.JDAF.com.


The cast has a Secret
Meanwhile, back at rehearsal, the countdown continued. Laura Benanti filled the room with her golden voice, inspiring awe, but she was focused on a gesture she'd meant to include and had forgotten. "You're about to die," instructed choreographer Todd Underwood with a straight face to one group as a death scene was set up. And there was a huddle in another corner about whether the principals should join in the singing of a particular line the chorus could take on their own, or if they should relish a moment silently. There will be a lot of moments to relish in this production, ad I'll tell you about some more in my next report.


Tickets for the December 5 one-night-only World AIDS Day benefit performance of The Secret Garden are available through www.TicketCentral.com (phone: 212-279-4200). Showtime is 7 pm. Doors open at 6:15 for a Silent Auction. The location is The Manhattan Center, at 311 West 34th Street (at Eighth Avenue).  Jamie McGonnigal's producing team includes Brad Bauner, Adam Caldwell, Josh Fiedler, Ryan Hill and Erica Lynn Schwartz. The Storm Theatre is the co-producer. Tickets to the benefit range from $50 to $150 with donations welcome. For further information, please visit the website, www.WorldAIDSdayConcert.org.


Photos: © BenStrothmann.com. See more photos of the cast here.


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