July 1, 2020

McCarter Presents Emily Mann “In Conversation with Lucy Simon”; “The Secret Garden” Composer Discusses Past Works, Musical in Progress

MCCARTER LIVE: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing artistic director and resident playwright Emily Mann; and composer Lucy Simon (above). (Photo by Jamie Levine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Lucy Simon” was presented June 26. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated this final installment of McCarter’s series of discussions between Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann, and some of her collaborators on past and current projects.

Singer, songwriter, and Broadway composer Lucy Simon is working with Mann and lyricist Susan Birkenhead on a musical adaptation of Kent Haruf’s 2015 novel Our Souls at Night.

Her sisters are singer and songwriter Carly Simon and opera singer Joanna Simon. “There was always music in our house,” Simon recalls, speaking from her home in Nyack, N.Y. “My father [the co-founder of Simon & Schuster] was a wonderful pianist. My mother was a beautiful singer. We would all sing together. Joanna would bring home three-part glee club songs.”

A setting of Eugene Field’s 1889 poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” was Simon’s first composition. “I was in sixth or seventh grade,” she says. “We had to recite a poem to our class. I had difficulty remembering words; I didn’t have difficulty if I set them to music. Carly and I recorded it years later, and it became a big hit.” When Lucy was 16 she and Carly formed a duo, the Simon Sisters. “They were just a little bit older, and I wanted very much to be them!” Mann remembers.

Composing for Musical Theater

Simon was one of the contributors to the revue A… My Name Is Alice (1983). Brandishing a copy of the script, Alekson reveals that she performed in a college production. Simon composed two songs for the revue: “I Sure Like the Boys,” with lyricist Steve Tesich, and “Pretty Young Men,” with Birkenhead.

“The songs that I really liked writing told stories, so I thought, ‘I want to write for the theater,’” Simon explains. “I thought, ‘I love Little House on the Prairie,’ which I was watching with my kids. I got the rights to that, and started working with Susan Birkenhead. [The show] didn’t happen, because we didn’t get a book that worked. But Susan and I established a way of writing together that still works.”

The Secret Garden was Simon’s Broadway debut. Playwright Marsha Norman wrote the book and lyrics, based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Norman and Simon received a Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score, and Simon was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music. Mann calls the show “one of the most exquisite musicals ever. That score is breathtaking.”

Dr. Zhivago (2011) was written with lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers, and librettist Michael Weller, based on Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel. “I just loved the story,” Simon remarks. “It didn’t work in New York, but I’m happy to say that it’s doing beautifully in Europe.”

Our Souls at Night

In 2018 Norman and Simon received the Samuel French Award for Sustained Excellence in American Theatre. It was at that ceremony that Mann was introduced to Simon. Shortly after that event, the two eagerly began discussing possibilities for collaboration. Eventually they settled on Our Souls at Night.

“It’s about a widow and widower, who first form a friendship, and then fall in love,” Simon explains. “They’ve both been married to other people; this is the first time they’ve really experienced true passion, the communing of souls, and the communing of tremendous love.” She reveals that Haruf, who died in 2014, “was dying when he wrote this book. He wrote it as a love story — for Cathy [his widow].”

Mann is moved by “the isolation of these two [protagonists]. I don’t know too many times we see older people — they’re in their seventies — not only have a second chance, but they fall in love truly for the first time.” Noting that people are isolated because of COVID-19, she adds, “That need for connection and soul communion is something people understand and long for in these fractured times.”

Describing the process of drafting the show, Mann says that Simon “gave me a list of scenes. I went to the book, and she went to the piano — and into her amazing mind of melodies and ideas. We talked about what it meant to us … I came back with scenes, she came back with songs. We flew like the wind together; it came out in a rush.”

In 2017 Netflix released a (nonmusical) film version, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. “What was missing from the film was another dimension,” Simon remarks. “We felt that putting music to it would give it that dimension — and I think it has. You’re able to get into the inner workings of the peoples’ feelings and thoughts.” Mann concurs: “I love the spareness of language that covers the huge well of emotion underneath. What you can do with a musical is reveal that emotion.”

Simon sings a bit of the melody for the title ballad, which is ethereal. She reveals that most of the score will be in a country/folk idiom. She enthusiastically says that Mann’s contribution “is fantastic, and informs me, as a composer, what I need to do. That’s what’s exciting: when we inform each other.”

According to Simon, Birkenhead was asked to join the writing team after “it became clear to me that I write decent lyrics, but I need to have a lyricist who is as expert at that as I am in writing melody.” Mann observes Birkenhead’s approach to the material: “She needs to see the global picture, and ask the structural questions: how are we going to deal with style — musical theater structure [and] form?”

Of the show’s progress she says, “There’s a first draft of the book, which gets the story, down, and does it in linear fashion. We have, maybe, half the melodies … the next step is how we make it into something that’s fresh, new, and breaks new ground for musical theater.”

The composer acknowledges that the three collaborators “haven’t settled into a rhythm of working together, which I hope will happen in the next month or so. Then we’ll know how the three of us work. Emily and I work very well together; Susan and I in the past have written some spectacular songs. I just think it’s going to be a great conversation.”

This online discussion is part of Mann’s final week at McCarter. Although excited at the prospect of freelancing as a writer and director, she emphasizes: “I just wrote a letter to the community, thanking them for the 30 years of support, and [to say] how much I have fallen in love with this audience, this community, this theater, and this staff. I always said I had the best gig in the American theater, and I was not exaggerating.” Anticipating a time when it again is safe to attend live theater, she adds, “Maybe we’ll all meet opening night of Our Souls at Night!”

To view the conversation between Emily Mann and Lucy Simon, visit McCarter’s Facebook page. To learn about upcoming McCarter@Home events, visit mccarter.org/tickets-events/mccarterathome/.