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

Also see Part One

The Secret Garden , music by Lucy Simon, lyrics and book by Marsha Norman, based on the classic book by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  will be performed this Monday, December 5 for one night only. A 6:15 pm silent auction precedes the 7:00 show.  See ticket information at the end of the article. 


Jaclyn Niedenthal with Laura Benanti
Actress-singer Jaclyn Niedenthal walked to an especially lovely spot in the secret garden. Actually, there was no garden yet.  We were still in an empty rehearsal hall at Chelsea Studios and the lovely spot was a piece of tape on the wooden floor.  But Jaclyn saw the flowers as she sang, under the watchful eye of music director Michael Kosarin (who also music directed and did the vocal arrangements for the original Broadway show in 1991).  Jaclyn loves the musical, but is too young to have seen that production.  She seems right at home, however, in this garden and show.  After the third time she ran through her song (I mean that literally - she has to run across the stage in excitement between verses), I asked the lively one if she always had this much energy.  "Pretty much!" she said and shrugged her shoulders.  Although she'd put in a long day and it was suppertime, she was brimming with good spirits and smiles.  As she located her coat, script, school bag, and mother, she told me she was very much enjoying playing the tough but troubled Mary in the classic story; then she checked the time because she didn't want to be late - she was going to work.  Jaclyn is in the cast of Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as is Secret Garden co-star Struan Erlenborn. 

Struan has been spending rehearsals lying across a few folding metal chairs.  The uninviting-looking chairs are a temporary substitute for a bed for his bedridden character, Colin. "I get to work with some great actors," he reported, saying this is what he likes most about the experience.  Working with the new generation of Broadway musical theater stars (Steven Pasquale, Laura Benanti, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Chase, Max Von Essen and Matt Cavenaugh, to name half a dozen) has been "fun" for them both.  Although Struan has a devilish sense of humor offstage, he has an angelic voice that helped him win the role.  His pure boy soprano singing, "Lift me up and lead me to the garden where love grows deep and true ..." will be one of many heart-tugging moments in this show. When asked "What do you think the message of this story is?" Struan immediately came up with, "that a miracle can come to you if you strive for it."  The role of Colin allows him to run through a gamut of emotions and sing some remarkable music. 

Company member Michael Arden has a special fondness for the role of Colin. "The Secret Garden was the first play I ever did and I played Colin," Michael recalled.  Like several people involved who spoke with me, the score is one of his very favorites.  "The show is stunning.  It's all about rebirth.  It's all about renewal."  He's very happy to be playing the role of Dickon this time around.  After watching him go through the song "Wick" a few times at rehearsal, I wasn't surprised to hear that he adores it.  He brings a lot to the performance, with the energy he brought to bear in Bare and the focus and care in various concerts throughout this year. He's especially involved with this role, discussing fine points of the characterization with director Stafford Arima and fine-tuning his phrasing of the song with Michael Kosarin.  Playing Dickon, who's so in touch with nature, is a treat for the actor.  "Dickon's hierarchy is totally different from everyone else - his ideas of how the world works - and the music reflects it."  Another thing keeping him busy is "learning the wacky accents we had a week to learn." He said it's been more funny than daunting to get his accent in synch with Celia Keenan-Bolger who is playing his sister Martha.

Both Michaels are finding their perspective changed in this return to the piece.  After Kosarin's Thursday session with Arden in the garden, he had some thoughts to share.  "The Secret Garden  was my first Broadway show as full music director, and I have terrific memories of it.  It's interesting looking at it again, as it feels as if it were a different person who did the work. I was a single man in my late twenties when I worked to help create the music for the show then, and now I'm in my mid-forties, with a family. Very interesting to see how one's point of view changes!"  The lasting impact of the Lucy Simon/ Marsha Norman score is one thing so many point to when it's discussed.  "Not only has the cast come to me one by one and said how much they loved it (and that some grew up with it - yikes!), but as I called up the original orchestra members, I kept hearing again and again how much they loved playing the score, missed playing the score, and would jump at the chance to play it again. Almost to a one, they said the same thing: that there are very few chances on Broadway right now to play music this lovely without bombast."  The return of so many of the original musicians "makes this as much a reunion as anything else. It should be a blast!" 

Assistant director Ryan Davis who, like production stage manager Gail Eve Malatesta and choreographer Todd L. Underwood, seems to be everywhere during rehearsals, took a moment to chat.  He's been "stunned" and impressed by the grand scale of this production, which will have about 100 performers, including a 60-member choir (not to mention the 34-piece orchestra).  "The way this show is written, it's an explosion of sound.  You don't get to hear that very much.  Most shows now are so small scale.  This is so ... epic. The first day I heard the whole choir singing together, I had tears in my eyes."  He wasn't the first to mention how, despite familiarity with the material and long rehearsal days, the emotional power is mighty.

Thursday, December first, was officially World AIDS Day, so it's not surprising that the AIDS charity, which is the performance's beneficiary, would be even more on everyone's mind.  When I asked a couple of other people involved for a comment on anything on their minds at the moment, that charity (The Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation and its summer program TLC: Teens Living a Challenge) was what came up.  Co-producer Josh Fiedler reflected, "Being a producer on this concert has been quite an experience. It's been at times exciting, overwhelming, tiring, and quite emotional, but at the end of the day, when I sit back and think about how it will make a positive difference in the lives of the campers at Camp TLC, and when I see smiles on the faces of Joey [DiPaolo] and Carol and Mike [his parents] - that makes it all worthwhile."

Another producer, Erica Lynn Schwartz had the same thing on her mind Thursday: "Mike, Carol and Joey are truly amazing and inspirational people.  Anytime the going got rough, all it took was a simple email or call from them that reminded us why we are all here.  As a producer, it's those who believe in you and the work no matter what that make it all complete."

Choreographer Todd sidestepped any thoughts about his own duties and saw the big picture, too.  "I know that the audience will come away from this performance loving this musical and production.  They will also know that they have been a great help to this wonderful foundation."  


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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