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Kindred Spirits: About the Playwrights

By Rachelle Hughes

 

Although The Secret Garden the novel was penned just shy of 100 years ago by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it is easy to imagine she would have found kindred spirits in lyricist and playwright Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon who turned her classic into a highly acclaimed musical in 1991. All of them had experience writing or working with children before they worked on The Secret Garden and all of them seem to be motivated by their past, whether it was the death of loved one, a musical family, or educating children.

Frances Hodgson Burnette

Author Frances Hodgson was born on November 24, 1849 in Manchester England, the third of five children to home décor store owners, Eliza Boond and Edwin Hodgson. After the death of her father, Frances’s mother decided to sell the business and move to America. At nearly sixteen, Frances and her family moved into an abandoned log cabin in Tennessee. Frances’s once prosperous family found themselves in more humble circumstances, and Frances began to employ her pen to help her struggling family. Dedicated to her creative hobby, she picked wild grapes to earn money for paper. Her persistence paid off, and when she was just eighteen her first story appeared in Godey’s Lady Book. The death of her mother further motivated her to pursue her writing career, and she was soon earning enough to help financially support her siblings.

In 1873 Frances married doctor Swan Burnett. After a brief stay in Europe they settled in Washington, D.C. Her writing career continued to flourish, and she had two sons, Lionel and Vivian. Although her writing credits at this time in her life were numerous, it was her best-selling novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) that cemented her reputation. In 1890, Frances confronted the death of a loved one yet again when her son Lionel died of consumption at the age of sixteen. Beset by depression, she looked for reprieve in spiritualism, theosophy and Christian Science, all topics that would find a place in her novels. Her novel The White People (1920) was dedicated to her son, Lionel.

Although her literary star was shining brightly, her marriage was unhappy. In 1898 she divorced her husband and returned to England to live with her other son. In her home in Kent she turned a walled and wild orchard into a rose garden. As she sat to write in her own garden she generated her first ideas for The Secret Garden that would be finished almost thirteen years later. During this contemplative time she wrote In the Closed Room, a novel that reflected her continuing grief for Lionel.

In 1909 she returned to America where she wrote while sitting in yet another garden. It was here she completed The Secret Garden. The novel began as a serial in The American Magazine in 1910 and was published as a book in 1911. Frances wrote over fifty novels in her lifetime, most of them for adults, but it is her book for a child that continues to capture our hearts. She died on October 29, 1924 in Plandom, New York.

Marsha Norman

Marsha Norman is one of the predominant female voices in American contemporary theatre; so it seems ironic that she would receive a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for The Secret Garden, Best Book of a Musical, an adaptation of a story that is a century old. Yet, Norman has always been consistent in choosing her literary topics. "I always write about the same thing: people having the nerve to go on," she once commented. (“Introduction,” Drama Criticism, ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau, Vol. 8 [Gale Cengage, 1998, eNotes.com], 2006, 16 Feb, 2009, http://www.enotes.com/drama-criticism/norman-marsha). Everything from her first award-winning high school essay to her work on The Secret Garden musical has addressed her concern with human suffering and man’s struggle with faith and independence.

Norman was born to fundamentalist Methodists Billie and Bertha Williams on September 21, 1947. A strict upbringing allowed few childhood friendships aside from her siblings. During her youth she relied on her interests in reading and music. Her musical talents were such that at one point she considered attending Juilliard School. Instead, she accepted a scholarship to study philosophy at Agnes Scott College, a private women’s college. After she graduated in 1969, she married Michael Norman. In 1971 she received a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Louisville. Norman spent a great deal of her pre-theatre time working with emotionally disturbed children at the Kentucky Central State Hospital and gifted children at the Brown School for gifted children. It is easy to imagine how the story of The Secret Garden would have had some familiar psychological territory for Norman. ("Marsha Norman," February 16 2009, http://www.bookrags.com/biography/marsha-norman-dlb/5.html.)

By 1976 Norman was writing full time. Her first play, Getting Out, based on a young woman patient at the Kentucky Central State Hospital, won the Gassner Medallion and Newsday Oppenheimer. She continued to write with some success but it was her fifth play, night, Mother about a suicidal woman that brought her many literary and theatrical accolades including the Pulitzer Prize. Other plays by Norman include Third and Oak, The Pool Hall, The Laundromat, Sarah and Abraham, and Loving Daniel Boone. She has also published a novel, The Fortune Teller and is the book writer for The Color Purple. She is co-chair of the playwriting department of Juilliard School and the vice president of Dramatists Guild of America. She lives in New York with her two children.

Lucy Simon

Lucy Simon was born in 1943 into a family of creative talent. Her parents were Richard L. Simon, co-founder of Simon and Schuster publishing house, and Andrea Louise Simon, civil rights activist and singer. Her older sister, Joanna, is a well-known opera singer; her younger sister is pop star Carly Simon; and her brother is a talented photo journalist. Still, Lucy Simon has found her own niche in this family of talented stock.
Lucy began her singing career at age sixteen, with her sister, Carly, as part of the Simon Sisters. In her stint with her sister she sang and composed children and folk songs until Lucy got married to psychoanalyst David Levine. After taking some time out to have two children Lucy revitalized her musical talents by getting involved with musical theatre. She realized she loved writing music that told stories and involved a whole cast of characters. Simon made her Broadway debut with The Secret Garden for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Her most recent work can be heard in the 2006 musical of Doctor Zhivago. (Chad Jones, “Lucy Simon’s Garden Grows,” January 18, 2008, http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/broadway/).

In 1981 she teamed up with yet another family member, her husband David Levine. They won a Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children for “In Harmony/A Sesame Street Record.” Lucy’s work has been heard in a wide variety of musical venues. She contributed songs to the off-Broadway hit A . . . My Name is Alice and Fanny Hackabout, a collaboration with Erica Long and Susan Birkenhead, and her setting of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod has been recorded by diverse artists. Lucy Simon continues to work her musical magic. She is hard at work on a musical adaption of Wuthering Heights called Heathcliff.


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