Duke University will host the pre-Broadway tryout of Little Women: The Musical, a brand-new musical written by Allan Knee (libretto), Jason Howland (music), and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) and staged by Tony Award®-nominated Broadway director Susan H. Schulman, Oct. 13-31 in Reynolds Industries Theater. Theater Previews at Duke, the producing arm of the university’s Department of Theater Studies, will co-produce the Broadway debut of Little Women, with Randall L. Wreghitt, Dani Davis, and Ken Gentry.

The show, which is based on 19th-century American writer and proto-feminist Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical 1869 novel, stars Tony-winner Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie) as spunky would-be writer Jo March and pop singer/actress Maureen McGovern as Marmee, the ultra-resilient mother who holds her New England family together while father is away fighting in the American Civil War. Little Women: The Musical starts previews in New York City on Dec. 2 at the Virginia Theatre.

“I read Little Women as a child,” recalls Susan Schulman. “I must have been 10 or 12 years old.” After reading Alcott’s classic story about life on the home front during the Civil War, Schulman says, “I wanted sisters who were closer in age to me. My own siblings were much older than I was…. I longed to have that kind of loving relationship, to have sisters around me, to have what Jo March called, ‘that loving league’ [of sisters].”

Schulman adds, “I loved the fact that Jo put on shows, because my friends and I used to do a small version of that. I remember directing them even then.”

So, for Susan Schulman, Jo March was not just Louisa May Alcott’s fictional alter ego and her favorite character in Little Women. “Jo was the first role model that I had who inspired me want to be a director,” Schulman admits. “There she was directing shows. Jo was the director and the writer, and she starred in them, too. Growing up in New York and seeing a lot of theater, I have always wanted to do theater, and I probably have Jo March to thank for that in no small way.”

Despite her love for Little Women, Schulman previously rejected the opportunity to direct a number of musical versions of this beloved masterpiece of 19th-century American literature before signing on to take the helm of the current production. “I never went past reading [the other scripts],” Schulman says, “because I couldn’t find a point of view in [them] that I felt was strong enough to warrant making a musical based on this classic.”

This time, Schulman says, when the producers brought the script to her, “Initially, I was skeptical, as I always am. But what really intrigued me is, I thought [Little Women: The Musical] had the potential to be a unique telling of the story. The writers are very talented and open to my ideas, and I thought we would work very well in collaboration.”

Schulman notes, “The point of view of [Little Women: The Musical] is very much Jo’s point of view. In this musical, which is based on Little Women and not really a slavish adaptation of the book, we’ve used the characters and many elements of the story. In the book, Louisa May Alcott is the narrator, and the story is told from her [omniscient] point of view.” But Little Women: The Musical has Jo as the narrator and major driving force, Schulman explains.

Susan Schulman directed the Broadway debut of The Secret Garden, the 1991 Tony-winning musical by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the 1989 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd and the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music. She received a 1990 Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Musical for her staging of Sweeney Todd.

“I think there are iconic moments in the book [of Little Women] that are in the show. People who read classics usually have read them many years ago.” So, many of them never noticed that the ending of the musical version of The Secret Garden was not the same as the ending of the book, Schulman chuckles.

She adds, “I don’t think any musical adaptation of a classic can be slavish to the text. You choose the incidents from the book that are most dramatic and most theatrical. I think the most important thing is that you are true to the author’s intent….”

Susan Schulman says, “I think Jo March is a great musical theater heroine. She goes through an amazing journey in the show. She discovers herself she discovers who she really is and she goes through a catastrophic loss and an epiphany in which she discovers the healing nature of her art.

“She understands that you can love someone with all your heart and soul and still not protect them. That’s a difficult thing to learn in life. She’s also a very modern woman. She wants to be herself, an individual, a creator, to not disappear without a trace. She wants relationships on her own terms, not society’s terms. That makes her very modern and well before her time,” Schulman says.

Casting this musical was a definite challenge, Schulman claims. She explains, “You have to have people who can sing the roles. So much of the emotion is in the music. I feel strongly that the actor must be able to really sing the music. So, I knew I needed two very strong and very pure theater voices…. Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern have two of the finest theater voices around today…. Some voices are great, but they don’t carry emotion [or give] the lyrics… their proper weight.”

Schulman claims Foster and McGovern “are exquisite theater personalities. They are bigger than life when they are on the stage,” Schulman says. “I never tire of watching their faces…. There’s a physicality required in Jo that are part and parcel of Sutton…. So much of her physicality and humor are in her body.”

Indeed, Schulman thought that having Sutton Foster play Jo March was so important to the project’s success that the production was delayed until Foster completed her commitment to play the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

In addition to director Susan Schulman, the show’s production team includes Broadway veterans Derek McLane (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting), and Peter Hylenski (sound).

Schulman says the show’s set is deliberately “open and airy so the [audience’s] imagination can form the various locations…. The surround is the attic. We go to other places from the attic. The attic is her place, her sanctuary,” where Jo March goes to think and to write.

Because Jo remembers some events in flashbacks, Schulman says, “We try to come in and out of scenes in a very cinematic manner, so that the storytelling is fluid from Jo’s point of view. We wanted very much to do this on a set that is open and is full of air, so we can control the light and the darkness.”

She adds, “We don’t have [Kenneth Posner’s] full lighting package in Durham, but we will have it on Broadway. It is very atmospheric. You feel the sun, the way the lights come through the slats or not.”

Schulman says, “Cathy Zuber did a beautiful job of making the costumes be clothes. This is not a feather-and-sequin show obviously…. The costumes are so beautifully clothes, and the women wear them the way they would wear them.” Thus, a change in colors can reflect a character’s change in mood.

Susan Schulman says her friends from New York who have seen rehearsals were surprised at one thing: the amount of humor in the script. She says Little Women: The Musical “is funny as well extraordinarily moving…. Jo is a character. She’s what my mom used to call a pistol. That has been the biggest surprise [to emerge during rehearsals].

“What could be better,” Schulman asks, “than to make you laugh and to make you cry.”

Second Opinion: Oct. 10th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by staff writer Orla Swift: http://www.newsobserver.com/lifestyles/arts_entertainment/story/1718936p-7979765c.html [login required].

Theater Previews at Duke presents Little Women: The Musical Wednesday-Thursday, Oct. 13-14, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 16, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 17, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday, Oct. 19-21 and 26-28, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 22 and 29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 23 and 30, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 24, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 31, at 2 p.m. in Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $25-$35, with $5 student and group discounts. 919/ 684-4444 or http://events.duke.edu/box_office/. Theater Previews at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/LW08232004.html. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=386277. University of Virginia (About Louisa May Alcott Page): http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/ALCOTT/ABOUTLA.html. University of Virginia (Little Women Home Page): http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/ALCOTT/LWHP.html.