How “The Secret Garden” Made Me Love Musicals

Show-Score | By Laura Kressly | Oct 3, 2017

Laura saw her first Broadway musical at the age of ten...and found her bit of earth.

When I was ten years old, I came home from one of my first sessions at my elementary school's drama club and declared to my parents that I was going to be an actress.

Like most parents, they thought it would be a phase. They believed I would eventually grow out of this whim and do something sensible. (They were partially correct.) Still, my dad, an assistant principal who loved musical theater, realized he had a new buddy to share his interests with. If I was going to be an actress, then he would take me to a Broadway show.

As it was 1992 and there was no internet, he had to pick up a New York paper from somewhere in our suburban, Pennsylvania town to find current show listings. With plenty of care -- and after discussions with my mom over what would be suitable for my young age -- it was decided that my first Broadway show would be the musical adaptation of “The Secret Garden.”

I had read Francis Hodgson Burnett’s children's book, but it never occurred to me that it could be a stage musical. The thought of seeing the story brought to life in front of me was foreign and thrilling. Though I had seen musicals in local theaters before, this felt like something special, made just for me.

The whole trip was to be an adventure: We'd have to get up early to catch a bus into the city, have some lunch, and then see the matinee before heading home on the bus again. The excitement was almost unbearable.

And the plans didn’t stop there. Worried that I might not understand the musical, since it’s not strictly a children’s show, my parents sought out further information about how it was staged and how the story was told. I was thoroughly briefed in advance, and one particular scene that was described to me still sticks in my memory, 25 years later.

At the start of the show, Mary Lennox is 10 years old - “Like me!” I thought - when she finds out a cholera epidemic has orphaned her. Rather than have the audience see a graphic death scene, the opening number uses copious amounts of red fabric as part of the choreography to represent pain and mortality.

Going into the show, I was anticipating this moment, but actually seeing it was even more powerful than I’d imagined. It was strange and beautiful and exotic, and it was the first time I experienced that now-familiar pull in my stomach when I see remarkable theater.

And that was just the first song. The scale and spectacle of the musical left me awestruck. That evening my dad told my mom I didn’t look away from the stage once. High up in the mezzanine, I wanted to get as close to the action as possible. I wanted to be in it. This, this, was what I had to do.

That 10 year old did grow up to be an actor in the end. But that's not all. I also set up and ran a small theater company. I produced and  directed. I taught high school drama. Most recently, I moved into theater criticism and writing. In that capacity, I see about 250 shows a year. Every now and then I see a show that makes me sit on the edge of my seat, holding my breath, unable to look away. In that moment, I'm 10 again and rediscovering the power of theater's storytelling for the first time.

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