BWW Interview: Suzanne Withem of LITTLE WOMEN, THE MUSICAL at Chanticleer Theater, Council Bluffs
You are a busy woman. I see you have INDECENT coming up at the Blue Barn and you are directing LITTLE WOMEN for Chanticleer. How are you going to manage all of this?
(Laughs.) Fortunately, they don't really conflict with each other. After Indecent, I'm directing Baskerville at Bellevue and there's just a little bit of overlap, but I have some plans in place to keep it all squared away.
I see you graduated from Papillion High School and UNO. You got a degree in theatre and a Master's in English. Is that correct?
How did you know you wanted to stick to theatre?
It has changed over my life. I saw a production of MY FAIR LADY when I was very young at Papillion LaVista High School. My mom took me to the ballet and opera, to plays and musicals when I was little. I entered college without a declared major, but quickly gravitated toward theatre. My parents both had education backgrounds, but I was pretty sure I didn't want to teach in a classroom. But then I found theatre education when I was working at The Rose, and I really fell in love with it. So education not only became a strong passion of mine, but was also my gateway into making theatre a profession rather than a hobby.
I see you stage managed LITTLE WOMEN for the Omaha Community Playhouse. Did that experience give you insight into producing the musical for the Chanticleer?
You know, it's interesting because I loved Susie Baer Collins' production and I loved being part of that. In fact, I'm still friends with several of those artists who performed in it. I'm very sensitive to not putting Susie's production on stage and instead am focusing on making it my own. That production was a Caravan production and not an OCP production so we had more time together than a regular production because it was the only thing we were all doing at the time. We weren't going to our day jobs and then going into rehearsal at night. It was a special period of time. Everybody got really close. I didn't have strong feelings about the story of Little Women prior to that, but I have strong affection-a real love-for the story of the musical as the result of that experience.
This wasn't something close to your heart?
No, and it's funny because I grew up the daughter of an English teacher. You know, I used to get in trouble at school for reading when I was supposed to be listening in math class, so you'd think as a young girl that I'd love the book, but it didn't click with me, and I'm not sure why. I've read it since then, and there are parts that I really, really like. Then, there are aspects of it that are 150 years old and really, really frustrating. So yeah, I came to the novel later in life as a result of producing this musical.
LITTLE WOMEN, THE MUSICAL was short lived on Broadway. It opened January 23, 2005 and closed May 22 of the same year with only 137 performances. Reviews were critical, stating that there wasn't sufficient character development to cause the audience to be invested and care about the characters.
I remember that. Ben Brantley, in the New York Times review said the musical was "like speed reading Alcott's novel." You don't get all the detail because each character is just sort of paraded past you. The original book was written like it was serialized. Each chapter was self-contained. Louisa May Alcott really wanted to introduce us to each of these sisters' stories as we went along, and the musical sticks to that. It wants to introduce us to Meg and Meg falling in love. It wants to introduce us to Beth and we get to know Beth. And then it wants to introduce us to Amy and we get to know Amy. Each of the sisters has "her song," and there are a couple of key songs with Jo and Marmee tying it all together. So, I understand why that critic was critical because they do try to cover so much character development so quickly. In the book Alcott really takes more time to flesh out who these people are. Since there's not a lot of text, we've spent a lot of time in rehearsal developing these characters.
One of the very first things we did after we cast and even before the first read-through, I invited the four sisters to come out to lunch with me. We sat around and talked about relationships and what it was like with our own siblings and mothers, and what our relationship to the book is, and how we saw each of the sisters. It was important to start that early.
Little Women the novel was primarily written as a book for girls. What will draw the guys to see the musical?
I think men may not know that it's a musical for them too, but it really is. Sitting here in my office I'm thinking about a book that I just read about Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux. It has a chapter that addresses that very topic. It talks about how it's been marketed as a book for girls; an experience that mothers and daughters can share. But so many men, when they read it, find the characters compelling. Jo is an interesting person, regardless of her gender. The kind of love that exists between a mother and daughter also exists between a father and daughter, or a mother and a son. The kind of sibling love in this book is love between sisters, but it could just as easily be love between brothers or brothers and sisters. My little brother is in town right now. Being reunited with him is --you know, you just pick up where you left off when you were kids. So that sort of mindset is universal.
It's universal in love and family connections and desire to move forward. It's universal in loss. (Spoiler alert: Beth dies). That feeling of a parent's loss for a child or a sibling's loss. The romance of falling in love, or surprise love, or love from a million miles away: those are all universal feelings. I think men, if they are open to it and don't let the title stop them, they will really connect with these characters as deeply as any woman might.
Were you part of the casting process? If so, what did you look for?
We started with the role of Jo. It was originally performed by Sutton Foster on Broadway, so we knew we needed a woman who could really sing that. Each of the other three sisters and Marmee also have very specific demands, so we looked first for who of the women auditioning could sing those parts because that's so important. My music director, Liz Stinman was critical in these decisions. Within that, we sorted women around in groups. They are stair step sisters, each is a year or two apart, so we wanted to see what they looked like as a group. That was an element. I also wanted to see how the actors related to each other. Were they comfortable interacting with each other? You can see actors who are open to connecting and who are going to make smart and interesting choices in the rehearsal hall. Those were things I was looking for. And of course, I was looking for someone who could do the sort of romance that Meg brings. Someone who was feisty and passionate like Jo. Someone who could be sweet and almost angelic like Beth. Someone with a little sass to her like Amy. We probably could have cast the show three times over because we had so many amazingly talented women audition, but these four were the ones who stood out and connected to each other.
Will you be sticking to that time period or making it contemporary?
That's a good question to ask me because that's the kind of thing that I would do. But no, I think Jo's struggles are very specific to 1860s; a woman wanting to enter the work force. A woman wanting to become a writer and support her family in 1860 means a particular thing whereas a woman wanting to become a writer in 2018 means a very different thing. So, we are definitely keeping it in the Civil War era.
The musical was written to be performed by a cast of 10 who played 18 roles. Meg, Marmee, Amy, Beth, and Aunt March doubled up with other characters as did Laurie, John Brooke, and Mr Laurence. Will you be doubling characters?
Yeah, we are. Louisa May Alcott herself wrote these sort of blood and guts stories that she sold as she started her literary career. In that style, Jo reads to us her Operatic Tragedy and a song called Weekly Volcano Press about a damsel in distress and the villain who is holding her at sword point and the hero who comes to rescue her. Those characters are played by the sisters and their male friends. The doubling is interesting. The damsel in distress is her romantic sister Meg. The evil troll is her little sister Amy, who she doesn't like and argues with. The hero knight is played by Mr. Laurence who lives next door. And the young hero is played by Laurie. They are sort of counterparts. It's cute the way it's set up.
Anything else you would like to add?
I love this story of sisters growing up together and I love the family and their closeness, but I really love Jo's drive and ambition; the way she overcomes obstacles. There's this thing about Jo. She wants to go off in the world, make a name for herself and have all these big adventures. But she wants to come back home to her family being exactly the same as they were when she left. That's not realistic. As he grows up, she realizes that. She runs into problems when Meg gets engaged, when Beth dies, when Amy and Laurie run off together, she's troubled by how the world is changing. She wanted home to stay as it was so she could go off and earn barrels of money so she could come back and take care of her family. Ultimately, she accepts that home is going to change as she changes and everything will be okay. I really relate to that. With my brother and his wife in town for Christmas for the first time in awhile, we're trying to resurrect some of the traditions that have fallen away. One thing we want to make happen is Christmas morning biscuits and gravy. But with multiple Christmases to attend, volunteer commitments at a local church, and various family health concerns, it was getting to be really challenging to make it just like it always was when we were kids. It was only when I pointed out that being together was what was important that everyone agreed biscuits and gravy made by the kids instead of the parents for dinner instead of breakfast would be okay. Things change, whether we want them to or not, so we have to love the past, embrace the present, and look forward to the future.
LITTLE WOMEN, THE MUSICAL runs at Chanticleer Theater in Council Bluffs from 18-27 January.