Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 21
Daddy dearestPCPA presents Daddy Long Legs, the newest musical from the co-creator of Les Misérables
BY AMY ASMAN
John Caird is one of the foremost writer/directors working in theater today. His collaborative efforts span decades and a variety of artistic media, including opera, musical theater, television, and a Siegfried and Roy stage show in Las Vegas.
He’s perhaps best known for adapting and directing the award-winning musicals Les Misérables and Jane Eyre, based on the beloved novels by, respectively, Victor Hugo and Charlotte Brontë.
Over the past several years, Caird has been adapting another literary masterpiece for the stage: Daddy Long Legs, the 20th-century coming-of-age novel by Jean Webster.
The epistolary tale follows protagonist Jerusha Abbott from humble beginnings at an old-fashioned orphanage to a prestigious girls’ college on the East Coast. A budding novelist, Jerusha writes an essay that catches the attention of a wealthy benefactor. The mysterious gentleman opts to pay Jerusha’s way through college, under one condition: She must write him a letter each month detailing her experiences.
Jerusha affectionately nicknames her benefactor—who chooses to remain anonymous—Daddy Long Legs after glimpsing his lengthy silhouette as he leaves the orphanage.
In a recent interview with the Sun, Caird said his wife suggested he adapt Daddy Long Legs for the stage.
“My wife is Japanese, and Daddy Long Legs is one of the most popular novels in Japan with young women. I read it and thought it would make a very wonderful small musical,” Caird said.
The Japanese version of Daddy Long Legs is set to begin in September. The American version will run at several regional theaters, including PCPA Theaterfest from Aug. 1 to Sept. 9, before making its London premiere in November.
“The novel isn’t very well known in the U.S., which surprises me because Jean Webster is one of the great American authors,” he said. “It’s a wonderfully truthful story about the growth of a young woman and her journey from ignorance to wisdom, from poverty to riches, from lack of opportunity to having a much better material and emotional awareness of the world.”
A stage production of Daddy Long Legs penned by Webster herself enjoyed a successful run on Broadway in the early 1900s. The novel also spawned two Hollywood films, one starring Mary Pickford in 1919 and the other starring an aging Fred Astaire in 1955.
Caird said the material presented some challenges in the beginning stages of the adaptation process because it’s written entirely in Jerusha’s voice.
“In the novel, the readers have to surmise what the gentleman is thinking from Jerusha’s letters. We don’t even know who he is until the last few pages. There’s a bit of a thriller aspect to it,” he said.
As a result, Daddy Long Legs came into the world as a mixed-media piece in which a singing Jerusha is accompanied by several silent dancers.
“It was charming, but it couldn’t have been commercially successful,” Caird said. “So I took a deep breath and decided to write it as a two-person piece.”
Using clues from Webster’s text, Caird and his collaborative partner, composer and lyricist Paul Gordon, created the character of 30-something Jervis Pendleton, the true identity of the illusive Daddy Long Legs.
Through Jerusha’s letters and Jervis’ subsequent reaction to them, the audience is transported back and forth between the two characters’ very different worlds.
“Jerusha starts with nothing and ends up with everything. Jervis is the exact opposite: He’s rich, he has the big house, he’s highly educated and very clever, but he’s also very lonely. He doesn’t have what Jerusha has in abundance, which is a loving heart and a clear view of how the world works and how people really are. They both have much to gain from each other,” Caird said.
The characters’ differences are mirrored in the production’s intimate set.
“I wanted [Jervis’] world to be intensely real. It’s almost prison-like,” he said. “He’s bound by the books he’s read, he’s physically surrounded by them. He’s much more versed in literature than he is in everyday life.”
In contrast, Jerusha’s surroundings are constructed using primarily trunks and suitcases.
“The trunks are a metaphor for the transience of her life, or like anyone in college before you own a lot of stuff,” Caird explained. “Her world is constantly changing, it’s constantly mutable.”
In her letters, Jerusha describes her dormitory and college campus, as well as trips to a nearby farm and church.
“She even goes to the top of a mountain,” Caird said, adding that using the trunks and painted backdrops “makes people really listen to what she’s describing in her letters.”
Jervis soon decides he must meet Jerusha in person, so he travels to her college to visit his genuine niece, Julia, who’s also Jerusha’s friend. The two quickly form a friendship that eventually blossoms into a romance.
“But she can’t admit she comes from an orphanage, even though he knows full well where she comes from. And he can’t reveal himself as her benefactor because he’s worried she’d never want to marry a man who has been that instrumental in paying for her education,” Caird said. “It creates great dramatic tension for the piece. It turns out that the two men she loves most in the world are actually the same man.”
While the show is considerably smaller than many of his other works, such as Les Misérables, Caird said it shares the same characteristics at heart.
Both Daddy Long Legs and Les Misérables, he said, “are telling a story of real human beings who have real emotions.”
Les Misérables is about a selfless man, Jean Valjean, who gives of his resources and emotional energy to help a young orphan in a seemingly hopeless situation. Daddy Long Legs is about an equally selfless man who gives an orphan the opportunity to become an educated and independent woman.
“The audience can empathize with the orphan or the one who gives the help, depending on how old they are, how affluent they are, and how able they are to help other people,” Caird said.
In a heart-warming instance of life imitating art, some of the proceeds from the Japanese production of Daddy Long Legs will go to Ashinaga, one of the country’s largest charities, to help children orphaned by the tsunami.
Ashinaga, it turns out, means “Daddy Long Legs” in Japanese.
Who is Managing Editor Amy Asman? Well, 24601 is taken. Contact her at aasman@santamarias