Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 15, 2010

Love letters

Creator of the musical 'Emma' returns to TheatreWorks with an epistolary romance

by Rebecca Wallace

The creator of the 2007 TheatreWorks hit "Emma" is back with a new musical, another tale of romance centered on a strong woman. This time he jumps the pond from England to New England, from Jane Austen's day to 1908.

Paul Gordon wrote the music and lyrics for "Daddy Long Legs," the tale of plucky orphan Jerusha Abbott, whose university schooling is unexpectedly paid for by an anonymous patron. The man, Jervis Pendleton, asks only that she write him regularly about her progress. As time goes on — and Jerusha grows up — Jervis becomes increasingly charmed by her letters.

The 1912 Jean Webster novel centered on Jerusha. However, the musical, which opens at TheatreWorks next week, also includes Jervis as a full character.

"My first take was going to be a one-woman musical ... a one-act with songs and letters," Gordon said. "I still think that would be a very interesting version of the piece."

Then John Caird, who wrote the musical's book and is directing the TheatreWorks production, wanted the character of Jervis to be created. With two people on stage, a new world of harmonic possibilities opens up.

"That's really where the magic started to happen, this transition from a one-woman show to a two-hander love story," Gordon said. "Musically it opened up a lot of very nice avenues."

The resulting show is a 23-song pop musical that Variety magazine called "wholesome," with "winsome melodies." One theme is that while Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) is continually discovering something new, so Jervis (Robert Adelman Hancock) is opening up through her enthusiasm.

In the song "Things I Didn't Know," Jerusha begins by admitting that she had no idea Henry VIII was married more than once, or that "people came from monkeys." Later in the song, her voice blends with Jervis' as they both sing: "I always feel like I'm Alice in Wonderland, stranded in Vanity Fair / Once upon a time, oh captain, my captain, I'm so many years behind."

The band consists of piano, bass, drums, violin, cello and guitar — both acoustic and electric. Electric guitar might seem surprising for a story in the early 1900s, but Gordon says it blends right in.

"I'm trying to create a sound that's a little more contemporary but still within the confines of musical theater," he said. "I was a little concerned about the time period. But I don't really write in time periods."

The project began when Caird and Gordon became taken with the Jean Webster novel. It was definitely not, Gordon said, because of the 1955 Fred Astaire movie of "Daddy Long Legs," in which Astaire is considerably (some say creepily) older than his Jerusha, Leslie Caron.

Gordon said the pair enjoyed Webster's "simple, sweet children's story" and the kind humor of her prose, a nice change after the heavy "Jane Eyre" musical they wrote together. That show was performed in TheatreWorks in 2002 and went on to Broadway.

In "Daddy Long Legs," the character of Jerusha also proved irresistible. Spiritual and spirited, she's a young woman driven by ahead-of-her-time social ideas. At one point she observes, "Wouldn't I make an admirable voter if women had rights?" "She's also very strong and independent. Even though she's receiving money from this strange benefactor, she's very diligent about paying him back and realizing that he doesn't own her because of it," Gordon said.

Jerusha is a role filled with acting and vocal opportunities. When the production team held auditions last March, McGinnis said she told her agent, "Please, please, please get me in."

McGinnis knew both Caird and Gordon; Caird had directed her as Eponine in a Broadway revival of "Les Miserables," and McGinnis had also auditioned for "Jane Eyre." While she didn't get the part, Gordon remembered her, and they became friends. He later gave her a CD of "Daddy Long Legs" songs, to see what she thought.

"Everything about Jerusha speaks to me because she's so human. She's full of flaws like everybody, and the whole story's about her learning," McGinnis said.

This time, when McGinnis auditioned for Gordon, she got the part. It's a good lesson for actors, she said. "You never know — who you'll meet, who will see you. It always comes back around."

McGinnis, who grew up in Southern California and now lives in New York, has been doing theater since she was a child. She originated the role of Beth in the 2005 Broadway production of "Little Women"; other Broadway shows have included "Beauty and the Beast" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie." She's still best friends with Sutton Foster, who played Millie.

Robert Adelman Hancock's past shows include the national tour of "Mamma Mia!" and regional productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Fantasticks."

As for "Daddy Long Legs," it first played recently at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. That was a co-world premiere with the TheatreWorks production and with the production that will open in March at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Much of the critical praise for the Rubicon performances went to McGinnis; Variety called her "magical," while a Los Angeles Times review stated that she "could no doubt have handled this as a one-woman show." The Times review, though, said that the musical needed to better explain Jervis' motivation for quietly helping the young orphan.

The show's creators were listening. While Gordon says the changes made since the Ventura show weren't major, TheatreWorks audiences will see a more fleshed-out Jervis.

"Since he was created from scratch, that was the more challenging characterization," Gordon said. "We wrote a new song for the end of Act One that we think will better help the audience understand his motivation.

"We did some minor tweaks all through the show, trying to strengthen him. We changed a few other musical moments and tried to make things clearer. ... It's sort of nuances, as opposed to 'Act Two doesn't work.'"

Critical and audience feedback were the main reasons why Gordon and Caird made these changes. They also listened to their cast. "The person who knows the character the best is always the actor playing the character," Gordon said.

For Gordon, a show is an ever-changing being. He kept making changes to "Emma" after it left TheatreWorks for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and then when it went to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. There are several possibilities for its future, which no doubt will include revisions of some sort.

A show, Gordon says, is "like a piece of clay that you can keep sculpting." When is it finished? "I don't think it's ever done as long as I'm still on the planet."

What: "Daddy Long Legs," a new musical with book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, opening at TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: The show previews at 8 p.m. Jan. 20-22 and then opens Jan. 23, running Tuesday through Sunday through Feb. 14.

Cost: Tickets are $29-$44 for previews and $34-$67 for regular performances.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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