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THE SECRET GARDEN TELLS QUITE A STORY By Peter Filichia

I’ve heard him say it more than once.

Thomas Z. Shepard, who’s won more Grammys for producing
recordings than there are players on a football team, has often talked
about his ideal cast album:

“It’s one that makes the story so clear that you don’t even need to
read the liner notes.”

Perhaps the best example of this is Shepard’s original cast album that
has just received its first vinyl release: THE SECRET GARDEN.

Nothing against Marsha Norman’s liner notes, mind you. But Shepard
took a dozen of her scenes from the show – ones that helped her win
a 1990-1991 Tony for Best Book of a Musical – abridged them and
placed them on the recording.

1: Military men must inform ten-year-old Mary Lennox, a British girl
who’s been living in India with her parents, that a cholera outbreak
has left her an orphan.

2: Five thousand miles away in Yorkshire, England, Dr. Neville Craven
tells his brother Archibald that their sister decreed in her will that if
she died, Lily would become Mary’s guardian. However, Lily has died;
thus widower Archibald, now a recluse who’s never emotionally
recovered from her death, has jurisdiction over Mary.

Neville suggests boarding school; Archibald won’t have it. He also
demands new clothes for Mary, none of which should be black
because “that will make the house sadder than it is.”

3: Mary meets Martha, the first sympathetic member of the
household. Being nice to the child isn’t easy, for she, to paraphrase
what Elliot Garfield sings in THE GOODBYE GIRL, has a chip on her
shoulder the size of Big Ben.

Hear how expert eleven-year old Daisy Eagan played this little shrew.
Eagan is still fondly remembered from her appearance on the 1990-
91 Tony Awards. As she accepted her Best Featured Actress in a
Musical prize, she shed tears as big as lemon drops before she said
“I’d like to thank my agent …”

4: Weeks pass before Mary meets Archibald, who blatantly admits
“I’m your guardian – and a poor one at that.” When Mary asks about
ghosts – are they making the sounds she hears each night? –
Archibald tells her “They’re only ghosts if someone alive holds onto
them.”

If FOLLIES isn’t Broadway’s most ghost-filled musical, this one must
be. However, THE SECRET GARDEN doesn’t merely show ghosts but
blatantly speaks about them, too. Many turn out to be blessings –
and not even ones in disguise.

5: Mary meets caretaker Ben who speaks of Lily’s beloved garden.
It’s undoubtedly fallen into disuse, for no one knows where it is. Ben
warns Mary that if she even tries to find it “you’ll be back on the boat
– or worse.”

With a warning as dire as that, you know Mary now won’t stop
looking for it until she finds it.

6: Along the way Mary meets Martha’s brother Dickon, who’s Ben’s
assistant. He gives her an inadvertent hint on the garden’s location.

Dickon is John Cameron Mitchell in quite a different role from Hedwig
(of Angry Inch fame) whom he’d play seven years later. The
character’s favorite adjective is “wick,” a synonym for splendid.
“When a thing is wick,” he sings, “it has a life about it.” Mitchell does
a wick job in each of his five cuts.

7: In his puzzled and perfunctory manner, Archibald asks Mary if she
would like “toys, books or dolls.” He’s surprised when she instead requests “a bit of earth” to create a garden. Because Mary has that in common with Lily, she’s found a key to Archibald’s long-locked heart.

Speaking of a key, Mary finds one in the ground. Now she must find
the door. That’s a nice twist on what usually happens in such stories
where the door is found first and then everyone goes searching for
the key.

8: In her quest for the garden, Mary enters a room and finds Colin,
Archibald’s equally reclusive young son who rarely leaves his sickbed.
So that’s where those eerie sounds have been coming from!

Compared to Colin’s cantankerousness, Mary’s last name could be
Sunshine. What’s really plaguing the lad is his belief that his father
hates him. He may be right: Lily’s difficulties in giving birth to him led
to her death.

9: Neville again urges Archibald to send Mary away; instead,
Archibald decides he’ll be the one to leave. He also blames Neville for
alienating him from his son – that “You’ve made me terrified for him
to look at me.”

10: Although Marsha Norman’s script had Lily’s Ghost wordlessly lead
Mary to The Secret Garden, Shepard knew that a recording would
need to state it. Thus he had Mary add “There it is! There’s the door!

There’s the door to the garden!” Soon she’s telling Colin of her
discovery.

11: Neville is furious that Mary has found Colin and tries laying a
guilt-trip on her as big as the trip made by Magellan. We admire Mary
for standing up to him and insisting that she’s doing the boy much
good.

12: But after Mary leaves Neville, she confides to Martha that the
man might be right.

The songs take over for the rest of the recording. Well, these shows
are called musicals, after all, and not booksicals. So the Tony-
nominated score with Norman’s lyrics and Lucy Simon’s music is of
course the recording’s main event.

Having the golden-throated Mandy Patinkin on hand as Archibald
Craven is certainly an asset. As soon as he starts “I Heard Someone
Crying” you’ll know he’s in great voice and you’re in great hands.

Because vinyl has a softer feel than digital recordings, Patinkin comes
off exceedingly well in his nine tracks. And yet, a powerful highlight
occurs when he and Robert Westenberg, who plays Neville, deliver
the showstopping ballad “Lily’s Eyes.” Here they note the similarities
between Mary and the woman that, in fact, they both loved.

Alison Fraser, who received a Tony nomination for her Martha, sings
the lilting “If I Had a Fine White Horse.” It allows her to note the
many downsides of being wealthy. (Bertolt Brecht might have called
it “Song of Rationalization.”)

As Lily’s Ghost, the much-beloved Rebecca Luker begins and ends
the album. Luker has proved in her many Broadway appearances that
no one ever need ghost her voice. Once again: the warmth of vinyl
conquers.

(And they don’t come any warmer than Rebecca Luker).

Shepard has also often expressed a fondness for sound effects.
(Remember the rolling of dice in his Grammy-winning 1976 recording
of PORGY AND BESS?) “Sound effects make you feel more like you’re
part of the action,” Shepard insists. So in THE SECRET GARDEN, he
made certain to add a robin’s chirping and a storm’s arrival.

When THE SECRET GARDEN was being readied for its 1991 premiere,
Celia McGee in New York magazine wrote that “the show’s hard-core
audience will be little girls, not-so-little girls and the women that used
to be them.” So if you’re still looking for an extra present during this
holiday season for your sister, aunt, girlfriend or wife, here’s THE
SECRET GARDEN’S new handsome gatefold vinyl issue. It’s available
only through Barnes & Noble, be it at one of their 640 stores or via
bn.com.

(Of course, CDs make excellent stocking stuffers, don’t they?)

You may e-mail Peter at [email protected] Check out his weekly
column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and Tuesday at
www.masterworksbroadway.com . He can be heard most weeks of
the year on www.broadwayradio.com .