Massachusetts couple Jason Howland and Dani Davis take Louisa May Alcott's
classic novel Little Women from the literary page to the Opera House
stage by Josh B. Wardrop
If you're a believer in destiny, then it was more or less preordained that composer Jason Howland would someday pen the songs for a Broadway musical adaptation of Lousia May Alcott's classic novel Little Women . Not only is Howland a native of the author's hometown of Concord, but while he and his family resided there, according to the composer, "We actually lived on Alcott Street."
Now, Howland and his wife Dani Davis-producer of the stage version of Little Women and a fellow Massachusetts native-are bringing their acclaimed musical home, with a cast spearheaded by stage/ recording star Maureen McGovern, for a run at the Opera House through January 22.
"It's been so exciting to bring a beautiful and powerful story like Little Women to life," says Davis from the home she and Howland share in New York with their two children. "Helping a classic that we both love to endure in a new way is tremendously important to us."
Howland and Davis got involved with Little Women after playwright Allan Knee had adapted the book (first published in 1868) into a stage play for the children's theatre group Theatreworks USA. Knee's initial collaborations with another musical team were ultimately fruitless, and when Howland and Davis got wind of the project they actively sought to try their hand at it. "We adored Allan's work, and we felt we could adapt it in a very powerful way," says Davis.
Researching Louisa May Alcott was a labor of love for Howland and Davis, and an endeavor that allowed Howland to literally come home again, as the whole creative team journeyed to Concord to visit Orchard House-the 19th century home of the Alcott family that now serves as a museum devoted to the clan.
"Dan Turnquist (director of Orchard House) was so helpful-he made their whole library available to us," says Davis. "And one day, they actually closed the house just for us, and started pulling out vintage clothes and papers-things not commonly on display-and they really let us occupy the house like the Alcotts did. Maureen was there, and we all just had a blast."
Adapting Little Women from novel to musical provided numerous challenges for Knee, Howland and lyricist Mindi Dickstein. "The biggest consideration is the length of the original book," says Howland. "Everyone has their beloved scenes and lines, which you can only honor with a 19-hour musical. So, it was daunting to try and choose the events we would adapt. The challenge was to find the seminal moments that really define and enhance the spirit of the book."
When it comes to the music of Little Women , Howland says that he was
guided by the classic composers of the genre-Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin,
Stephen Sondheim and others. "The novel is a classic, so we felt we should
score the piece like a classic musical," says Howland. "To write some sort of
modern pop score would have been a disaster-that wasn't the world these
characters lived in."
Having said that, however, it was also important to Howland to capture "the extremely powerful proto-feminist" that Alcott was. And, to that end, Howland said that a conscious effort was made to ensure that "all the songs that Jo-essentially, our representation of Louisa May Alcott-sings have a more contemporary feel to them."
In addition to bringing the characters of Little Women to life, Howland and Davis felt that they had a responsibility to pay tribute to Alcott herself and the importance her feminist ideals had to women of her time and beyond. "She was a forward thinker about everything," says Howland. "And Little Women really contains undercurrents of what it meant to be a woman in the 1800s-how you managed to fit into the stereotypes [held about the fairer sex] when you were a brilliant person in your own right."
To that end, Davis says the character of Jo March (always more or less a literary personification of Alcott to begin with) was given some scenes that directly echoed events in Alcott's life-such as a scene which opens Act II and sees Jo acting out one of her "potboiler" plays for a potential publisher. "Louisa May would perform these plays in parlors in order to raise money for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment during the Civil War," says Davis. "We had a blast delving into the personal histories of the Alcott family for the musical."
For Davis, one of the most exciting aspects of bringing Little Women to life as a musical was a chance to expose Alcott's legendary tale of sisterhood and female empowerment to a new generation of girls. "Louisa May Alcott herself, and her characters, were just great role models for young woman," says Davis, adding that she's heard from young girls who've been motivated to start writing fiction and get involved with drama after viewing Little Women the musical.
"I think that the 'tweens' of today are incredibly impressionable, but also believe in their own potential," adds Davis. "And if you provide good role models, instead of just images of T&A, the girls of today get inspired by that."
Despite the couple's tremendous success on and off Broadway, both agree that nothing can compare to the excitement of bringing such a deeply personal project to the region that influenced them, and it, so profoundly. "Little Women really belongs in Boston-it's coming home as we are," says Davis. "We can't wait to present this to family and friends, and we really hope that it speaks to people from Massachusetts the way it has to us."
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Little Women plays the Opera House through January 22. Refer to listing.