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Alcott sings
Little Women comes close to home

When she was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, director Susan H. Schulman (The Secret Garden) loved Little Women. "The library had a great children’s section and I would go on Saturday morning and just read," she explains over the phone from New York. She especially identified with Louisa May Alcott’s stand-in, Jo March. But not with Jo the writer — rather, with Jo the director of "penny dreadful" melodramas. "Little Women appealed to me immensely because my friends and I also used to put on plays — on the fire escapes."

Years later, plenty of adaptations of the 1868 classic about New England sisterhood had come across her desk, but something was always missing. Then came a musical, of all things. And it worked. "This version had the emotional highlights of the books — the things you can sing about."

Little Women opened on Broadway a year ago; This Tuesday it comes to the Opera House with original star Maureen McGovern as Marmee. McGovern has been attached to the project from early on, and her having a marquee name meant that the matriarchal role needed greater scope. It was one of the key decisions for composer Jason Howland. "At the root of great classical musical theater is a Horatio Alger idea of a young person pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and overcoming great obstacles. That’s Jo March to a ‘T.’ But to show that, you need a benchmark of what there is to accomplish — and Marmee is a wonderful strong, powerful woman."

McGovern was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for the role; in Boston, she appears alongside Kate Fisher as Jo. Fisher notes that Jo is a classic American character whose "appeal is universal. She’s up against so much, but she breaks the mold and won’t follow what everyone else does."

And when we meet Jo, she’s "at the height of her adolescent powers," says Howland. "She’s got her sisters and her mother, and she’s going to conquer the world." As the musical progresses, Jo’s circle grows narrower as each sister pursues a different path. "We were trying to capture a young person trying to do it all who’s rash and stubborn and who matures."

All while singing songs appropriate for her era. Howland drew inspiration for his score from his muses: Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. But another influence was Aaron Copland. "He helped define what the American sound was."

Although it may seem incongruous that Little Women, which offers intimate glimpses of the domestic lives of its female protagonists, should end up a big Broadway musical, Howland notes that "what fills a big space is the power of a moment versus the number of people on stage. Louisa May Alcott is examining issues that are really powerful and universal." He pauses. "So we didn’t need a kick line."

LITTLE WOMEN — THE BROADWAY MUSICAL | Opera House, 539 Washington St, Boston | January 10-22 | $25-$87.50 | 617.931.ARTS

Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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