Such distinguished dramatists as Edward Albee and Lillian Hellman couldn’t do it.
And while we’re at it, neither Nobel-prize winner Pearl (THE GOOD EARTH) nor pop novelist sensation Erich (LOVE STORY) Segal succeeded when each attempted it.
We’re talking about penning the book for a musical — which is where the real theatrical money is.
Hellman’s attempt (CANDIDE) lasted nine weeks on Broadway. At least that was seven more than Buck’s (CHRISTINE) could manage.
Segal’s musical (HOME, SWEET HOMER) closed immediately after opening while Albee’s (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S) made its producer shutter the show before New York’s critics could even see it.
True, Albee wasn’t the original writer but was brought in to doctor and rescue. Still, you get the point.
So how has two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage fared in creating the libretto for the musical version of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES?
Damn good, in fact.
One might be less impressed with Nottage’s achievement given that she had a fine head start by having rich source material. But so did the four esteemed writers named above.
Nottage’s first smart decision was to avoid the cut-and-paste job that librettists from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS to PRETTY WOMAN have perfunctorily delivered in the last quarter-century.
If you’ve read Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 novel and/or have seen Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2008 movie, you’ll see that Nottage has instead dispensed some plot and character information far earlier than those artists did.
In the grand tradition of musical theater optimism, Nottage offers two surprises that make for a semi-happy ending. Some may brand her changes as too sentimental. Well, Ms. Nottage, I understand the reason why you’re sentimental — and so am I. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES has always been a tearjerker, and even with the elimination of a couple of dire twists, the racial harassment elements that remain are harrowing enough. BEES’ audiences will still find plenty of situations that will moisten their eyes.
It’s a coming-of-age story for 14-year-old Lily Melissa Owens who literally learned as an infant how awful life could be. “I’m the girl who killed her mother,” she glumly sings in Susan Birkenhead’s no-nonsense lyric.
Although the murder was an accident – Lily “played” with her father’s gun while he and his wife were arguing – what happened would be enough to devastate anyone, let alone a child.
Such an incident also toughens a soul, so Lily says she’ll die before she cries. Her father – whom she tellingly calls by his name T. Ray and certainly not Dad – does try to break her. The cruel and unusual punishment he’s given her in the novel and film is repeated here.
Nottage establishes that we’re in 1964 by starting the show with film footage of the day when then-President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That clip also reminds us what comparatively little progress we’ve made in the ensuing 55 years, what with many still trying to stop blacks from having their electoral choices counted.
When voting day comes around, Rosaleen, an African-American maid for T. Ray and Lily, is intent on casting her ballot. Lily accompanies and is immediately confronted by a townie who says with surprise and indignation “Where are you going with that colored girl?”
This is South Carolina, 1964, the time and place where a white is expected to be ashamed for befriending someone so ostensibly different.
Many men come forward to prevent Rosaleen from voting – a plot point that makes the story more relevant now than it was when Kidd started her novel. What Rosaleen does in anger isn’t very apparent from the way that director Sam Gold has staged it. We know, however, that no good can come from Rosaleen’s resistance, which gets herself in dire trouble.
Nottage’s early concentration on Rosaleen does run the risk of making the audience believe that this will be her story. No – Lily is the character who decides that that they should leave home and town. Never again will she allow T. Ray to dispense his weird punishment that plays hell with her knees.
They’re raw and red the first time we see them. They’ll become a metaphor as the show continues, for they progressively heal to a healthy pink as Lily finds her family and her calling, thanks to beekeeper and honey purveyor August Boatwright who takes her in.
The self-made entrepreneur dispenses advice to Lily: “You can’t run from the things that scare you.” We might think that Lily already has, but she’s actually running TO something. She wants to know whether her mother, before the fatal accident, had always planned to abandon her, as hateful T. Ray has told her. Lily must discover if he’s lying in order to dispense yet another act of cruelty.
After August watches Lily deal with the bees, she tells her “You’re a natural at this!” The kid responds “Am I?!?!” Elizabeth Teeter expresses such excitement that we infer that Lily has seldom if ever heard a compliment.
August has two sisters: June, who’ll never be a candidate for Miss Congeniality, and May, who’s had her own trauma that she handles far less well than Lily. That gives Anastacia McCleskey the chance to erupt with an aria that shows the feelings and life full of pain that that May has been keeping inside for decades.
Nottage retains the subplot from the book and film in which June is ardently pursued by the lovesick Neil. In those previous versions, though, June shows him such contempt that we wonder why Neil bothers. Nottage, with valuable support from both Gold and actress Eisa Davis, shows from the outset that June is at least somewhat interested. The musical instead makes June seem unaware of how to proceed with a man and fears that any show of affection will make her come across as a jackass.
Along the way, Lily meets Zachary Taylor, August’s godson.
He tells her that she appears to need someone, unaware that she’s considering him. Lily is, however, fearful of the consequences of loving a black man.
Teeter expertly shows the conflict just from the way that she uses her eyelids. They shyly close when she’s too nervous to face the lad — but not too fast so that she can savor Zachary for as long as possible. She opens them slightly faster when she dares to show interest — only to close them even quicker when she fears that she’s gone too far in showing her affection.
When Lily hears the sisters’ soul music, Teeter conveys astonishment at its glory. Anyone would, for Duncan Sheik has delivered full-bodied music that, unlike SPRING AWAKENING, sounds right for the era. From country waltzes to up-tempo rave-ups and spirituals, Sheik hits the musical bull’s eye.
Better still, he’s at last collaborating with a lyricist who can (or chooses to) rhyme. Birkenhead does splendidly in August and June’s powerful duet that will never be confused with “Bosom Buddies.” Rosaleen too gets a fine song of liberation. As August, LaChanze also gets a vivid solo number about beekeeping. Not since Stephen Schwartz wrote “It’s an Art” has there been a song where someone lets us see how very much she loves her chosen occupation.
LaChanze makes August a serious and centered salt-of-the-earth mother. When she tells Lily and Rosaleen that “Honey is the ambrosia of the gods,” we have little doubt that she truly believes it and isn’t just making a solid sales pitch. When Lily takes a taste, Teeter’s expression shows that she fully agrees.
When Zachary sings his That’s-the-Way-Things-Are-in-Racist-America song, Brett Gray lets us see that this is the last time Zachary will feel this way. We know that from now on, he’ll take action.
Saycon Sengbloh scores as Rosaleen, especially when dolefully noting to Lily that “Some memories ain’t worth the suffering.” Manoel Felciano gives T. Ray the reddest of necks. And yet, he’s a villain who manages to let us see the hurt that made him a bad guy. He ultimately isn’t as tough as he pretends to be or would like to be – not that Nottage gets sentimental here when handling him. As Neil, Nathaniel Stampley complains loudly as June turns down his proposals. You may be able to guess why near the end of the show he begins to sing loudly.
Gold’s fluid staging relies on theatricality rather than realism. To simulate bees that fly around, he has ensemble members position themselves behind August and Lily and wave wands on which bees are glued to the end.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty of realism in this show. For the past decade, theatregoers have become accustomed to looking forward eagerly to the next Lynn Nottage play. After they see THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, they’ll be anxiously anticipating the next Lynn Nottage musical, too.