Childhood Confidential

By Coen, Stephanie | American Theatre, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Childhood Confidential


Coen, Stephanie, American Theatre


They are icons--perhaps the most beloved icons--in the field of classic literature for young adults: Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery and Frances Hodgson Burnett. The awkward, unformed years of our collective childhoods are made infinitely more palatable by the books that they bequeathed to us: Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and others.

But even icons need shaking up every once in a while, and a sudden proliferation of productions that take on these authors from new angles seems sure to do just that. The Sweet Revenge of Louisa May, a musical fashioned from Alcott's little-known Gothic stories, debuts at Maryland's Olney Theatre through Oct. 23. The Wooden Hill, a memory play inspired by Montgomery's journals, premieres at the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto through Oct. 22. Sara Crewe, based on a fairly obscure story that eventually became Burnett's A Little Princess, takes the stage of the Seattle Children's Theatre through Oct. 29.

What all three productions have in common--besides their natural links to strong, turn-of-the-century women writers is how they reveal new facets of their authors. Alcott's Gothic thrillers, for instance, are filled with heroines who smoke opium and hashish, stalwart heroes who are forced to compete with their own evil fathers and, in classic melodramatic fashion, storms that rage at sea. As critic Madeline Stern points out, they are precisely the kinds of "sensation stories" Alcott's Jo wrote for the Weekly Volcano--not what we expect from the author of Little Women.

Orphans and mad scientists

The Sweet Revenge of Louisa May began its journey to the stage 10 years ago, when designer Bill Schroeder gave playwright Burton Cohen copies of Alcott's Behind the Mask and Plots and Counterplots. Cohen decided to turn the "blood-and-guts, amazingly convoluted" stories into a play, and set about developing the piece with director Jack Going at theatres from Alaska Repertory Theatre in Anchorage, Alaska to the Whole Theater in Montclair, N.J. Eventually Cohen joined forces with composer Stephen Hoffman and lyricist Mark Campbell turn it into a musical--which Going is directing at the Olney, with set and costume design by the man who started it all, Bill Schroeder.

Cohen's book--which takes Alcott's characters literally all over the map, from Cuba to England to Louisiana to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.--is a hybrid of Alcott and his own reimaginings of her stories. There are two interrelated plots: one a love quadrangle complete with passion denied, lovers scorned, revenge exacted and two deadly falls from a cliff; the other the story of an orphan heiress locked in a sanitarium beset by a mad scientist.

The Sweet Revenge of Louisa May marks the sixth collaboration between Hoffman and Campbell, and their fourth with musical director David Loud. Written and composed in a heightened, 19th-century, grand-operatic style that recalls Leonard Bernstein's music for Candide, it is gleefully over-the-top, with Hoffman writing against what he calls his usual "more delicate, introverted musical style" and Campbell's lyrics a veritable cornucopia of rhyme, alliteration and metaphor. "It's very easy to make fun of these stories," the lyricist admits. "The difficult thing well, it wasn't difficult for us, because we love and believe in it so much--is not to make it camp. The characters' emotions should outsize the proscenium."

Few happy endings

"She had a dreadful life. She was a depressive, she was married to a manic-depressive Presbyterian minister who believed he was eternally damned it was probably the worst marriage in the history of Canadian literature--and her whole life was just a constant battle to stay afloat emotionally."

That's playwright Don Hannah's account of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Canadian author whose Anne of Green Gables series may be one of the most affecting depictions of childhood and adolescence ever published. …

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