Come to My Garden: A Look at Broadway's Little Known Masterpiece

Taylor Lockhart
I recently got the chance to be in a local community theatre production of The Secret Garden and aside from being an overall fantastic experience it opened my eyes to a musical that I probably wouldn’t have listened to at least not for quite a few years otherwise. I’ve mentioned the show quite a few times in the past, especially when talking about my least favorite year for the Tony Awards, 1991, as opposed to my favorite year, 1954. Not the best year, not the year that had the most success but my favorite year... but then again the biggest show that year was Kismet so what's really all that great about it. Oops, my bad. I just offended the one diehard Kismet fan out there. Anyways in 1991, several really stellar shows opened on Broadway such as Miss Saigon, Once On This Island, The Will Rogers Follies, Children Of Eden (Not Broadway but it did open on the West End that year), and The Secret Garden which is obviously the show were going to be talking about.


The Synopsis

The show begins with a solo from Lily who is Archibald’s dead wife but you don’t know that yet so for now she’s just some angelic voice singing about flowers. The show really begins with Mary having a nightmare in her home in India as various people around her sing a version of the nursery rhyme “Mistress Mary” and then die horribly. Once everyone is dead she wakes up to find that the nightmare was real and everyone is actually dead and she as well one black snake are the only living things remaining in her village. She is put in the care of one of her father's fellow british army men who gives her a home until she is adopted by her uncle Archibald. Her uncle’s assistant Mrs. Medlock travels to pick her up and take her to the Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England. They travel through the moor, miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse, and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep and Dickon because he’s the Johnny Appleseed of Yorkshire. There’s also a terrible whistling that sounds like howling wolves. Truly home sweet home indeed. They arrive and Archibald refuses to see Mary because doesn’t know what to say to hey. Mary is shuffled up to her room where she hears someone crying and wonders along the endless hallways to find them. This will come into play later. In the morning we meet Martha Sowerby a cheerful yorkshire maid who is terrible at everything but they keep on because she sings very nicely. Go listen to “Hold On” and tell me if you’d kick someone who could sing that out. Mary finds herself traveling about Misselwaithe’s many areas of garden. These gardens are not secret. I feel that it's very necessary to make that clear. Mary meets Ben Weatherstaff the gardener who introduces her to her first friend, The Robin. In the distance Dickon is singing about how spring is about to begin and also about how Mary has arrived at Misselwaithe. It’s a metaphor and there will be a lot of those in this show. Mary meets Dickon who immediately is mysterious and hands her a penny's worth of seeds for her garden that she doesn’t have but she could. He’s so mysterious. He then teaches her how to speak to the robins and that she needs to use Yorkshire to talk to them. Mary believes him and Dickon conveniently places the key on the tree for mary to find when she goes to grab her skipping rope and leave...or in some productions, it’s just there in the tree for some reason. It doesn’t really matter but I like the former more. Mary proceeds to return into the manor where she asks her uncle for a bit of earth and he has a full on mental breakdown because Mary wants a garden and Lily loved gardens and Dr. Craven sees that Mary being in the house is making Archibald’s condition worse and they sing the best song in the show about how they both love and miss Lily. Later Mary hears someone crying again and travels to find Archibald’s ill son, Colin who has been crippled his entire life due to a disease that could kill him if he used his heart too much. Colin is a spoiled brat like Mary was in the beginning before meeting The Robin and Yorkshire’s Mysterious Johnny Applessed and Mary has a lovely chat with him before she is reprimanded by Mrs. Medlock and Dr. Craven who tells her she can never see Colin again. She ends up running outside to the gardens where the ghosts of people she knew in the past attempt to traumatize her for life by reenacting their deaths and attempting to grab her like zombies. In the midst of it all Mary’s father runs to her and shows her the way to Lily who shows her the door to the garden which as the act ends she opens up with the key. Act Two opens up with Mary in a dream where she’s having a birthday party with everyone she’s met and learned to love from India and Yorkshire. The party is cut short though when Colin dies and Mary wakes up. Poor kid just really can’t catch a break. Archibald is in torment and decides to run away to Paris to try and free his mind. Before he leaves he visits his boy as he’s done most nights while he sleeps and reads a bedtime story showing us that Archibald isn’t completely a neglectful father.Though he is still pretty neglectful. Mary returns to Dickon with terrible news that the garden is dead and Dickon lets her know “that it’s not dead, it’s just wick!” and they sing a song about it. Mary meets back up with Colin and promises to take him out to the garden. Later at night, Martha and Dickon wheel Colin out to the garden where they perform spells and chant to “Come Spirt and Come Charm” to make him get well. The spirits do show up but no one sees them and they perform indian chants that are cut in most productions because the song is way too long. Colin musters the ability to stand for the first time and they are caught by Ben Weatherstaff who joins in their secret club and reveals he has been tending after the garden because Lily told him to. Later, Dr. Craven tries to send Mary off to school and she throws a tantrum and invokes the power of witchcraft and the rage of an eleven year old girl to get her to leave. Dr. Craven puts her in time out and scolds Mary who after being told she can’t see Colin anymore again tells him what the audience has been thinking, “You don’t want to see Colin get well. You want him to die so you can have this house for yourself.” Dr. Craven almost hits the child before sending her away and returning to sulk. Upstairs Mary believes she’s going away for good and Martha tells her to “Hold On” and convinces her to write a letter to her uncle telling him to come home. Archibald in Paris has been haunted by the thoughts of Lily and Colin everyday and after receiving Mary’s letter finally comes to terms with wife’s death in a heart wrenching song and builds up the courage to return home and resume his life as a father. The kids come into the garden once again as spring has sprung and they play as Archibald returns to hear their loud noises and comes to find the Secret Garden open and inhabited by the children. Mary and Colin run to him as Archibald sees that Colin is no longer sick and is standing and running and playing along with the other children. The two embrace and Dr. Craven is left with no words as to how they kept this all from him Archibald pretty much fires him and offers to let his brother use his flat in Paris so he can be free of them once and for all and let go of “The enormous weight he has carried on their behalf”. Which come on, he did basically look after your kid for eleven years despite the pain that it caused him due to his unrequited love of Lily and tried to do what he thought was best for you so maybe the guy deserves just a little bit more than a boot out of the show because I honestly think Dr. Craven was always trying to do the right thing even if it ended up hurting people and maybe deserves just a bit better but that’s just my interpretation. Dr. Craven leaves and after a push from Martha, Archibald realizes he’s forgotten about Mary. He tells her she will have a place in the family and this home for as long as she lives and gives her the Secret Garden as all of the dreamers one by one leave until all that’s left is Lily. She leaves Archibald marking the moment he can finally stop grieving her and move on to the rest of his life safe with his family in her garden.

A Bit Of History

Now that you know a bit more about this show let’s take a look at “a bit of history” which is quite possibly the worst pun in the history of the blog. If someone wants to research that for me go ahead but I wouldn’t recommend it. As we previously mentioned the show opened on Broadway in 1991 with music by Lucy Simon and lyrics and book by Marsha Norman. The original cast featured Daisy Eagan as Mary Lennox who would go on to play in the show again in the concert production as Martha. It also featured Mandy Patikin as Archibald Craven, Rebecca Luker, Robert Westenberg and John Cameron Mitchell who went on to write Hedwig And The Angry Inch. So yeah the cast was pretty star studded and is more so now. A version would later open on the West End which changed a lot that nobody needed changed and wasn’t very good so it’s not the one Samuel French sells. Oh, yeah Samuel French owns this show. Why? I have no idea. They own like 15 really good musicals and musicals like Side Show and Heathers I can understand why MTI didn’t buy that, but The Secret Garden is technically a kids show. I mean it’s extremely metal and it’s kinda like if Dr. Suess wrote a musical on existential dread but when I bought the book from some Books A Million it was in the kids section so you’d think MTI (known for its wealth of family friendly musicals) would’ve eaten it up but if they did I wouldn’t be able to keep my script I wrote all my Yorkshire translations in so I guess it’s a good thing in the end. Anyways we got way off topic and I almost missed the best piece of history of all. Let’s talk once again about the worst Tony Awards of all time. Bug off Great Comet fans I don’t care about your tears. In 1991, The Secret Garden was up for pretty much everything alongside Once On This Island, Miss Saigon, and The Will Rogers Follies. It ended up winning nothing except Best Book which could not have been more deserved and we will talk about that in a second. It didn’t win anything else though and Best Musical I can understand and probably in a fair world would’ve just gone to Miss Saigon first instead. I love The Secret Garden but I can say that Miss Saigon was just a bigger and better production overall, but as much as I love Boubil and Schönberg, I mean who doesn’t go ahead and raise your hand because I know you do. Other fans will realize from earlier in the article that I also love Ahrens and Flaherty, and even for how much I dog The Will Rogers Follies, I really love Cy Coleman's work and consider Barnum one of my favorite musicals but The Secret Garden just has a score like I have never heard before and absolutely deserved if nothing else The Best Score win. 

I Heard Someone Crying

It was me. I was the one crying after finishing my first listen through this show. I didn’t cry when I saw Titanic. If dog dies in a movie it’s not fun but it probably won’t get the waterworks going but, this show got me. The only other two shows that has done that are Big Fish and Dear Evan Hansen and I’m convinced the ladder is just because the other two just broke my ability to hold back tears. Big Fish made me cry because of how incredible the story came around in the end and I believe I’ve already talked about that one in the past. I honestly can’t remember. The Secret Garden made me cry in it’s very last song because of how damn gorgeous it is. I already told you to go listen to this musical for yourself but if for some reason you didn’t I mean it, go do it now and then come back and finish this article through your waterfall for eyes. The music itself does it job in always conveying the mood and letting us know how the characters feel but there’s more subtle things in this musical that I don’t notice in any many other musical. For starters, every character has their own different kind of musical style but it all blends together to not be jarring and feel like they come from different musicals. Oliver does a very similar thing but the music doesn’t always fit together. A great example of this is the song “The Letter Song”. The music when Mary sings sounds a little like a xylophone. It’s what one could only describe as childish sounding like children's music and as the music transitions to Archibald’s solos more instruments are added and the music becomes more complex and heavy. It shows us two different characters who feel two different things and have them sing the same song in entirely different ways. Another example is just how different Dickon’s songs sound to everything else in the show. They feature a lot more, what I would describe as country elements and the song feels like it takes place in some sort of nature wonderland. I honestly couldn’t begin to describe how Lucy Simon composed the show. I can only say that every song makes you feel a distinct thing and that's something that's a whole lot harder to describe to if you haven’t listened to the music. It’s honestly nothing short of a masterpiece and I found myself feeling this sense of delight at the simplest things like Simon’s various glissandos that are used in the main motifs. Glissando? Motifs? I’m not a music major. The nice sounding notes at the beginning and end of the show. Yeah, I really like those and the music is very pretty to put it curtly.

It’s A Maze

I would imagine adapting a book like The Secret Garden would be pretty difficult but Marsha Norman does a fantastic job to the point that it does a very rare thing in making an adaptation that in undeniably better than it’s source material. There’s a whole lot of chapters of the book that are mashed together in one scene and so you get some weird lines like Mary just blurting out “Colin, we’re cousins.” The best thing the adaptation does though is bring the characters of Archibald, Lily, and Dr. Craven into the limelight. In the original book the entire story focuses around the kids with the first half of the book being about Mary. The second half of the book being about Colin which is probably why the line “I almost forgot you in all of this” is given to Archibald in the musical because it seems that Burnett completely forgot Mary existed while finishing the book. Oh and I can only assume there was some stipulation that Dickon had to mentioned in every other sentence whether he was in the scene or not because the book is pretty much 90% people just saying how good of a boy Dickon is. I mean he is but it seems kind of unnecessary to the plot. In the musical however, the children are given about half the show and the adults are given the other half. It’s something you never want to see an adaptation without it again. The relationships are so human and the parts with Archibald and Dr. Craven and Archibald and Lily are the most heartbreaking and compelling parts of the show. Another addition are the Dreamers which are ghosts from Mary pasts who aren’t called ghosts for reasons I can’t explain and don’t know. Their character descriptions state they are, “there to follow Mary from her past life until she gets settled in her new one.” which is pretty much right on the money. They show up in most symbolic moments and leave at the end of the show as Archibald welcomes Mary into the family and gives her the garden. There’s also in that part at the end of Act One where they all reenact their incredibly gory and bloody deaths in front of Mary as she wanders around a maze in a thunderstorm. It’s a really great family show make sure to bring the kids. Overall there’s been a whole lot of adaptations of this book. Some that turn Mrs. Medlock and Dr. Craven into Disney villains who just want to kill Colin and inherit the manor but this musical really paints them how I feel they should be as human beings who are selfish and sometimes arrogant but really just are trying to do the best thing even if that varies from character to character. The best example of this Dr. Craven who is sculpted from even less than Archibald and clear love and hatred for Colin combined with his backstory of living his brother's wife, Lily makes him the most fascinating character in the show and one that takes a whole lot of careful thought to do justice. The show ended up winning the Tony Award for Best Book and for how it brings us a new look at previously neglected characters I can say to give that to any other show that year would’ve been absolutely absurd.

The Conclusion

I always get a little carried away in these and maybe lose the point completely along the way but this is honestly a really special show and has been added to a list of my favorites that if it keeps growing the word “favorite” will lose it’s meaning entirely. If you get the chance to see it I absolutely urge you to because most versions of it completely live up to the standard of its music and script with it’s visuals, directing, actor portrayals. Talk of a revival has been ongoing forever and it was confirmed and then subsequently unconfirmed. I have no doubt though that Lucy Simon’s masterpiece will eventually find its way back on Broadway. The show has given me a real appreciation for a hundred plus year old book that I wouldn’t have ever read without it and seriously if you still haven't listened to that soundtrack go do it now. Mandy Patikin, John Cameron Mitchell? What more do I have to say. It’s while maybe not my absolutely favorite one of the best musicals I’ve ever encountered and a 9/10 if not a perfect 10/10. 

Since I talked so much about how great this show is it’s time for you to see it yourself and so it’s time for my favorite ending segment, The Upcoming Productions! Is it called that? It’s honestly been a while since I did an article like this. It might be called, Current Productions or something like that. Who cares!

The Upcoming Productions!

The Secret Garden @ Lake Dillon Theatre Company from 6/30/2020 to 7/26/2020 in Colorado

The Secret Garden @ Missouri State University from 4/2/2020 to 4/5/2020 in Missouri 

The Secret Garden @ The Center For The Arts Inc. from 8/23/2019 to 9/6/2019 in Tennessee

The Secret Garden @ Highland Park Community Theatre from 7/25/2019 to 8/3/2019 in Minnesota

The Secret Garden @ Lake Country Players from 3/20/2020 to 4/6/2020 in Wisconsin

The Secret Garden @ Leon High School from 7/12/2019 to 7/21/2019 in Florida

The Secret Garden @ Santa Clara University from 5/29/2020 to 6/6/2020 in California 

Hey, remember that time I listed a Newsies production from all 50 states. I’m never doing that again! So, you can find all the shows I missed at https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/471/the-secret-garden

Thank you for this article and I encourage you to come back next month because I have what might be my favorite article I’ve done yet cooking up and I’m so excited to put it out there. That’s really all I’ve got. I’ve been Taylor and you’ve been you and I hope you a fantastic rest of your july and I’ll see you sometime in August with that special article. Goodbye.