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Lucy Simon: ‘Women are not perceived as being commercial’

I’ve already written about the lack of female representation in musical theatre [1], at least at the composing end. Right now there are three outstanding female composers changing that on Broadway: Cyndi Lauper, with Kinky Boots, also now in the West End; Jeanine Tesoro, with Fun Home; and Sara Bareilles (with the forthcoming Waitress, previewing form March 25).

But the trail was blazed for all of them some 25 years ago when Lucy Simon composed the glorious score — at once operatic and influenced by pop – for The Secret Garden. By coincidence, it is being revived not once but twice in New York in the space of just two months for concert performances. I saw the first of them last month at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street, where the incandescent Rebecca Luker reprised her starring role from the original production. Next week, I’ll be returning to New York to see the second production in the rather grander environs of Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, where a cast led by Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo (reunited from the original cast of Love Never Dies), will be joined by Cheyenne Jackson.

Weirdly, the show has not otherwise (yet) had a major revival on Broadway, though other musicals of the 90s and even the 00s — from Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde to Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening — have already been reprised there in new productions.

When I met Simon in her Upper West Side apartment on Central Park West last month, she was in a reflective mood — both joyful of the success that The Secret Garden has had over the years and the impact it has had on people, but also sad about last year’s fast failure of her musical version of Dr Zhivago.

“When The Secret Garden first opened, I was the third woman who had ever had a Broadway musical produced,” she notes, “and when Jeanine Tesori got the Tony Award, she said how I and Marsha Norman had led the way for it. It was very rare for a female team to be allowed in — and even now, though female directors and book writers and lyricists are allowed in, there are still very few female composers. Part of that, I think, is that women are still perceived as soft and not really commercial. When I started writing Dr Zhivago, we went to the British royalty in the theatre world of directing, and many said I was not right for it.”

Today, she reflects honestly of Dr Zhivago’s failure, “I think the score is beautiful, but the production was a disaster — it obscured all of the emotion in every possible way, and it broke my heart.” It took over a decade to reach the Broadway stage, after try-outs in San Diego in 2006, then Australia in 2011. “It was a very long journey and one I wish I’d not taken. It was beset with so many problems. However, I was in love with the book and the process and the idea of art and love surviving war and brutality and that is still the case. We just disagreed with the director about how to present it.”

Musicals famously require all the collaborators on it to be working on the same page and stage, and that’s what happened to The Secret Garden — which like Fun Home and Waitress, had an all-female top line of creatives. As well as composer Simon and lyricist/book writer Marsha Norman, it was directed by Susan Schulman and designed by Heidi Landesman – the latter was also its co-producer.

But it is Simon’s Tony-nominated score that remains the show’s lush and enduring glory. And Simon is forthright about her gifts in this department. “I’m not a trained musician, but I really have an emotional connection to melody and what it should be.”

She recalls that when the show received its UK premiere, first at Stratford-upon-Avon then transferring to the West End’s Aldwych Theatre under the auspices of the RSC, the musical director Chris Walker told her, “It’s amazing, Lucy, when you change keys, you don’t think about it, but you go where’ve you want to go and it works.”

Much of that, she believes, comes from her prior career as a singer, in a double act with her younger sister Carly Simon. “Because I’m a singer, I just go right into melody. I know the way a voice should sound, and the translation of an emotion into a melody. When I write something I have to know how it feels in my voice first.”

I for one can’t wait to hear this score yet again next week, and I hope that it one day soon receives a revival in London. Finally, I ask her what advice she’d give to an aspiring writer, and she gives an inspiring answer: “Listen to your own voice — don’t copy anyone. You have to know your own voice and what you want to do. And go to the theatre: Hamilton is absolutely brilliant, maybe the most brilliant musical I’ve heard in years, because this young man [Lin-Manuel Miranda] took this amazing biography and found a way to tell it musically that was inspiring and original. I think that originality is the most important part of being an artist in the theatre.”