After their collaborations on Jane Eyre and Emma, two classic literary works that became full-blown musicals, director/book writer John Caird and composer/lyricist Paul Gordon were playing the “What musical should we write next?” game.
Jane Eyre had not gone terribly well on Broadway in 2000, but Emma, which started smaller at TheatreWorks in 2007, garnered great reviews and had several more productions around the country.
For such literary guys, it should come as no surprise that the next project came in the form of a book. One day, Caird’s wife, Maoko Imai, gave her husband a copy of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs. In Imai’s native Japan, the novel is considered something of a classic, and she thought it might be interesting to see the story adapted for the stage.
When Caird read the novel about an orphan named Jerusha Abbott and her benefactor, Jervis Pendleton, who anonymously underwrites her college education, he found it to be “quite subtle and intellectual, very emotional and heartwarming—also a little bit challenging.”
Caird gave Gordon a copy of the book, and Gordon, who was fresh to the story, found it “clever, witty and interesting.”
“It was just ripe with words that could be put into lyrics,” Gordon explains on the phone from his Los Angeles-area home. “That’s one of the first things I look at when adapting a novel in the public domain. I know I can always use any part of it for the lyrics. I could easily see how this or that letter could make a song.”
Indeed, many songs. The musical Daddy Long Legs made its world premiere in October in a coproduction among three theatres: Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, where the first staging took place, TheatreWorks, which hosts the show this month, and the Cincinnati Playhouse, where the show runs in March.
The show is a two-person chamber musical with a six-piece orchestra, though early in its development it was a one-woman song cycle. For a while, it was even a dance-theatre piece.
“That was an interesting tangent,” Caird recalls on the phone from his home in Tokyo (he splits his time between Japan and England). “All the characters that Jerusha talks about in her letters came to life and were played by dancers. We worked with the choreographer David Parsons and had workshops in Florida and New York. I loved it, but more performers made the show more expensive and put us into a slightly weird genre nobody quite knew what to do with—the show was half-dance, half-song. We didn’t ultimately go in that direction, but working with David helped us a lot with character and movement.”
With the idea of dancers set aside (Caird says he’d love to revisit that notion someday), the collaborators focused on what they loved about the novel and began to find the characters’ voices. Caird turned to novelist Webster’s own 1913 stage adaptation of the book but found it lacking. “Frankly, it’s not very good,” he says. “She wasn’t a dramatist. She spoiled a lot of the effects of the novel and diminished Jerusha.”
Caird says he doesn’t really understand why Americans never took to the book Daddy Long Legs. “Maybe it’s because Jean Webster didn’t have a big oeuvre. She hasn’t become famous for other pieces,” Caird explains. “The 1955 film with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron may have rather killed interest in the novel, and it didn’t help that Fred Astaire was much too old.”
That Hollywood version isn’t the only adaptation of Daddy Long Legs. Webster’s stage version ended up on Broadway in 1914. On-screen, Mary Pickford starred in a well-received silent movie version in 1919, and the Shirley Temple vehicle Curly Top was a loose remake of the Pickford outing. The Brits, who are nearly as fond of Daddy as the Japanese, turned the book into a musical called Love from Judy in 1952, and though it was a hit—it ran for two years—the show never transferred to Broadway.
The challenge facing Caird and Gordon was to faithfully adapt the novel they both admired so much, even though the book consists of a single voice in the form of letters that Jerusha writes to a man she’s never supposed to know.
As a musical, the writers felt they needed to expand beyond Jerusha’s voice and develop the character of Jervis, the silent benefactor. Because the novel is from Jerusha’s point of view, Caird had to essentially crawl into the character of Jervis and write him from scratch.
“In most of the adaptations I’ve done, I was hesitant to stray outside the pages of what the original piece offers,” he says. “Here I just felt I had to get my pen out and do some detective work figuring out what the man reading the young woman’s letters would be feeling about what he was reading in them, how he should respond, and how long he should keep up the deception.”
Gordon feels Caird found Jervis’s voice “brilliantly.”
“I fell in love with the character John created,” Gordon says. “I was able to draw songs and lyrics from the letters Jervis was writing back to Jerusha but always at the last minute fails to send.”
For the show’s sound, Gordon headed in a pop direction and crafted something that brings to mind the amiable pop/folk of Shawn Colvin or Paul Simon. The finished product, while remaining firmly in the musical theatre world, is more folk-pop than Emma and a far cry from the weight of Jane Eyre.
Having now written three shows together, Gordon and Caird have definitely clicked as collaborators. Caird calls Gordon “a joy to work with” and “someone who comes to the party with no ego.”
“The best collaborators are the ones who always want the work to be better,” Caird says. “Paul is not frightened of challenge or debate, nor does he worry about the status or the parameters of the job description. He is quite free to talk to me about directing or the libretto just as I can talk to him about the music and lyrics.”
Caird, the man who codirected the Royal Shakespeare Company’s monumental The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, not to mention a little musical called Les Miserables, “commands an enormity of respect,” Gordon says. “He never raises his voice. If someone throws a tantrum, he just remains calm and finds an opportunity in it. He’s so intellectual, so up for a challenge. He has such respect for actors and sees behind the emotion to an actor’s fear or confusion.”
Gordon calls his working relationship with Caird a “push and pull” because they are equal partners and equal creative partners. “Our battles are good, healthy battles,” Gordon says. “Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. But I will, in the end, defer to him because he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s an extraordinarily gifted man, and he’s almost always the smartest one in the room.”
The 1955 Daddy Long Legs movie, probably the most famous adaptation of the book, features a 54-year-old Astaire wooing a 24-year-old Caron to the strains of the Oscar-nominated song “Something’s Gotta Give.” And it presents certain problems for Gordon and Caird’s show.
“I’m an Astaire fan and I had never heard of or seen of the movie until this project,” Gordon says. “A lot of people have seen the movie, a lot haven’t. If they have, with no disrespect, it works against us. It was made in a different time. The age difference between Astaire and Caron is creepy. We’ve gone to great lengths to keep our Jervis young. The creep factor is not there. It’s not in the source material, and it’s not in our piece.”
Caird says some American theatregoers are diligent about doing their homework before they come to the theatre. He says, if anything, people should read the book before seeing the show.
Between Ventura and Mountain View, Daddy Long Legs will undergo a few minor tweaks. The road beyond the first three stops is at this point unknown. Of course, both collaborators say landing in New York would be grand but, ultimately, not entirely necessary.
“America is a very big place with lots of space between each of the big towns,” Caird says. “The Manhattan-centricity in the U.S. is a little bewildering. It’s all very well people wanting things on Broadway, but what about the rest of the country? There are passionate theatregoers everywhere who don’t have a perception of Broadway as a hub of their own actual theatre community.”
Caird says he admires the model of theatre companies banding together and giving a new show a running head start.
“I’m keen on this model of starting off works and producing them in different locations,” he says. “It brings the costs down for each theatre and it gets the piece to a much larger audience. This show needs a small theatre. It mustn’t be a bullfrog and blow itself up. Wherever it goes, it should be in a little playhouse where its merits can be fully explored.”
Gordon says there has been some interest from a Canadian theatre in bringing Daddy Long Legs in for an open-ended run, or, if the fates decree, he could see the show running in a small Broadway house or a smaller off-Broadway theatre. Another possibility involves publishing the show and letting a bunch of theatres do it.
“There’s certainly a lot of value,” he says, “in theatres performing a lovely, two-person musical that makes people feel good.”
Daddy Long Legs begins performances Jan. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, and runs through Feb. 14. Tickets are $34-$67. Call (650) 463-1960 or visit theatreworks.org for information.
Chad Jones is a Bay Area theatre writer for TheaterDogs.net. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.