Lucy Simon’s `Garden’ grows

Lucy Simon and I have something interesting in common. We both saw our first Broadway shows at the St. James Theatre. Hers was Carousel. Mine was The Secret Garden, which just happens to have a score by Simon.

During previews for The Secret Garden, which opened in 1991, Simon recalls standing backstage and feeling overwhelmed to be in the same theater where she fell in love with musical theater.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says on the phone from her New York home. “I remember thinking, `My God, this is so surreal.’ ”

Simon would go on to receive a Tony Award nomination for her musical work on The Secret Garden, which won Tonys for Marsha Norman’s book, Heidi Landesman’s set and Daisy Egan’s performance as young Mary Lennox, the hero of the story.

More than 15 years later, the show, which received some scathing reviews, has proven to be something of classic. Community theaters produce it often, and here in the Bay Area, there’s a Secret Garden sprouting somewhere every season.

This season, it’s Lamplighters Music Theatre producing the musical with an orchestra performing the original-score orchestrations (a first since the Broadway production). The show opens today in San Francisco and continues through Sunday, Jan. 20, then moves to Walnut Creek for performances Jan. 31 through Feb. 2.

The Secret Garden marked the first Broadway score by Simon, the older sister of pop singer Carly Simon, though she had worked for years attempting to turn Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series into a musical.

“There were always book problems,” Simon says of the musical that never came to be. “It’s hard to do something so episodic. And it was my first time. Some of the songs were terrific, and I’d like to be able to use them in something.”

Simon, whose father Richard was a co-founder of publisher Simon & Schuster, was surrounded by music throughout her childhood. With sisters Carly and Joanna, who became an opera singer, Lucy would sing three-part harmonies. Even simple requests such as, “Please pass the milk,” would be sung.

Lucy and Carly teamed up in the ’60s as the folk duo the Simon Sisters, and Lucy later struck out on her own as a singer-songwriter.

Looking back on her duo days, Simon says she admires the harmony.

“If you listen to those recordings, you can still hear those harmonies in my music and in Carly’s music. I can think of two of my songs, including `Wick’ from The Secret Garden, that were influenced by those harmonies from when we were teenagers.”

After taking time off to have two children, Simon attempted to revive her singing career, but when she got up on stage, she remembers thinking: “This doesn’t feel right. I’m a mother now.”

But music had always been a significant part of her life, and she realized that the songs she liked to write were the ones that told stories — not about herself but about other people. That led her to musical theater, where she was able to write for a whole cast of characters.

“When I compose, I use my voice, so when writing for characters I had to expand my range, especially for the male characters,” Simon says.

Having been a singer, Simon says composing with her voice, as opposed to on a piano or a guitar, for instance, was a natural.

“I understand the value of having the right note on the right syllable with the right expression,” she says. “I guess my strength is being able to translate emotion into music.”

Since Secret Garden, Simon has been hard at work on a musical version of Doctor Zhivago, which had its premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse and is now slated for production later this year in London.

She’s also re-teaming with Norman on a musical adaptation of Wuthering Heights called Heathcliff.

Why does Simon put herself through the rigors of creating musicals?

“I can’t but do it,” she says. “I have to write. I have to sing. I have to make something. Whether it is ever heard or not, well…, maybe The Secret Garden will be the one everyone will know, and people will ask, `Whatever happened to Lucy Simon?’ But that’s OK. Secret Garden has gone out into the world very nicely. It’s my love child and is precious to me. I feel it was a gift given to us that we now give back to the world.”

The Secret Garden is at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco, this weekend. It moves to the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, Jan. 31-Feb. 3. Tickets are $11-$46. Call 415-978-2787 or 925-943-7469 or visit www.lamplighters.org.

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  1. Pingback: Making a musical Garden grow | Chad Jones' Theater Dogs

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