In a program note for Daddy Long Legs, director John Caird wonders why the 1912 novel on which the musical is based isn’t considered a great American classic. I wonder the opposite – why its problematic premise has inspired a 16-character Broadway play, at least seven movies and now a two-character Off-Broadway musical, which has been bopping around regionally and internationally for half a dozen years.
In the musical, adapted by Caird (who was director and librettist of Les Misérables), with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (best known for Jane Eyre), Paul Alexander Nolan portrays a rich man who anonymously funds an orphaned teenager’s college education. He only requires that she write him a monthly letter, and that she accept that he will never reply, never meet her, never even tell her his name; an intermediary informs her she will address her benefactor as John Smith.
Megan McGinnis plays the spunky orphan, Jerusha Abbott, who comes up with her own irreverent name for the pseudonymous philanthropist — “Daddy Long Legs” — and usually addresses him as “Daddy” in her letters. Meanwhile, the man becomes attracted to Jerusha, and, in his real identity as Jervis Pendleton, furtively courts her. Jerusha dutifully writes to Daddy about Mr. Pendleton, not knowing that they are one and the same man.
Nowadays, such goings-on between an adult and a teenager would surely spark an investigation by the Office of Children and Family Services. It’s particularly uncomfortable when Jerusha writes Daddy about a boy her age whom she’s just met, and he launches a calculated campaign to keep her away from him.
However, the social and political implications of the anachronistic set-up are unlikely to ruin this adaptation of Jean Webster’s epistolary novel, especially for those who lean towards unobtrusively tuneful, romantic musicals. For one thing, it’s far from unfamiliar territory. Separate movies that are more or less based on the story have starred Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Leslie Caron with Fred Astaire, and Shirley Temple! Whether or not it can be considered a classic itself, it borrows elements from such beloved stories as Great Expectations, She Loves Me (the musical based on Miklós László’s play Parfumerie) and My Fair Lady (the musical based on Shaw’s Pygmalion).
The current musical, which has opened at the Davenport Theater close to Broadway, shows some sensitivity to 2015 sensibilities. While the age gap between Jervis and Jerusha is not stated explicitly, we are told again and again that Jervis is relatively young (and thus implicitly a suitable suitor for the recipient of his charity.) Jervis himself is troubled by his duplicity, and tries several times to reveal his identity to her. We get brief glimpses into his background apparently to explain away as social awkwardness his inability to be truthful – his mother died when he was 11; a woman he loved dumped him for “an English duke” and he hasn’t dated since; he is a shy, politically caring loner in a family of aristocratic materialists.
But it is Jerusha who allows Daddy Long Legs entry into the 21st century. The creative team has turned Jerusha into something of an explicit feminist: “Don’t you think I’d make an admirable voter,” she says at one point, “if women had their rights?” More importantly, the show revolves around her letters – the vast bulk of both the dialogue and the lyrics are Jerusha’s letters; when Jervis speaks or sings, he’s mostly reading aloud Jerusha’s letters. And those letters are as much filled with her studies, and her amused or bemused observations of life beyond the orphanage, and her intellectual discoveries, especially of literature, as her romantic stirrings. In “Things I Didn’t Know,” Jerusha sings:
I didn’t know Alexander the Great had conquered all of Greece
or people came from monkeys
I didn’t know that the Garden of Eden was all just a beautiful myth
(both a peek at her gullibility and a sly comment on the prevailing attitude on college campuses)
In that same song, alone in his study after reading her letter, Jervis sings:
I didn’t know that she’d be so clever
I never dreamed of such imagination
I never read thoughts so expressive
I really must reread the Count of Monte Cristo
None of Daddy Long Legs would work as well without the two performers who constitute the entire cast.
Paul Nolan has a mighty strong voice – on Broadway, he was both Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and the evil Bolshevik in Doctor Zhivago (the best performance in that doomed show) — but also a master at projecting shades of feeling: He portrayed Guy in Once. He manages to suggest a Jervis Pendleton who is vulnerable rather than venal, credible rather than creepy.
With her exquisite voice and just-right phrasing, Megan McGinnis lends song after song in the musical the aura of a memorable pop hit, even those immediately forgotten. She is able to make the depiction of Jerusha’s naiveté feel charming rather than patronizing, and her reaction at the inevitable conclusion of the plot (which I won’t spoil, but which is so predictable I don’t have to) makes you almost forgive how un-liberated it is. Though young enough to play a teenager (albeit one who blossoms into womanhood), McGinnis is already a six-time veteran of Broadway, from Beauty and the Beast to Les Miz to Side Show. Maybe now she will get the recognition she deserves.
Daddy Long Legs is on stage at the Davenport Theatre (354 West 45th Street, NYC, between 8th and 9th Avenues). Tickets and details
Megan McGinness sings “The Secret of Happiness” from Daddy Long Legs, August 15, 2015, Broadway in Bryant Park, recorded by NewYorkTheater.