Director Andrew Ruthven has had an eight-year romance with the musical Daddy Long Legs, which both makes perfect sense and no sense at all.
As far as he can recall, he’d never read the Jean Webster novel on which the musical is based and only had a vague recollection of the 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire.
But the music from the show, which began its life in Ventura County, California in 2007 and went through several regional productions before landing in London in 2012 and Off-Broadway in 2015, drew him in.
“I’m a romanticist,” he says, “and I told Becky [Rebecca Udden, Main Street’s artistic director], we’ve got to do this.”
Apparently Becky listened; the musical opens at Main Street this weekend, with a book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon.
Daddy Long Legs is the story of Jerusha Abbott. A young orphan at the John Grier Home, Jerusha has a mysterious benefactor who offers to pay her college tuition on the condition that she write him a letter each month in hope she becomes a writer. This man, Jervis Pendleton, will not return her correspondence, and will only be known to her as “Mr. Smith.”
Jerusha, however, caught a glimpse of his tall and slender physique as he left the orphanage one day and christens him “Daddy Long Legs.” Over the course of her four years of college, Jerusha expresses her trials, tribulations and triumphs in her letters, and Jervis finds himself surprisingly affected by this bright, young woman.
Told entirely through letters, the coming of age story explores love and discovering who you are.
Ruthven has a thing about orphan stories. He’s an avid Anne of Green Gables fan. He’s performed—twice—in a musical about another orphan, Mary Lennox, in The Secret Garden.
“With Anne, with Jerusha in this show, they don’t fit into where they are at the beginning of their stories,” he says. “But as they grow up, they do. And they come to know who they are and what’s important.”
He’s also a sucker for a period piece, having grown up watching dozens of them on PBS. He’s a Downton Abbey fan; Little Women is one of his favorite books. So, it’s little wonder Daddy Long Legs has him excited.
“When I knew we were going to do it, I got the book and read it, and I would track it with the play to see what was there, what was adapted," he says. "Most of the dialogue comes straight from the book, and I was really taken with how well the musical weaves Jervis into it as a character, since in the novel we only read Jerusha’s letters.”
He knows the show is going to appeal to fans not only of musical theater, with its lilting melodies and often clever wordplay, but also to those who enjoy a good, old-fashioned love story—not to mention anyone who loves seeing a plucky young woman come into her own.
Having traveled such a long road with the show as a fan, finally realizing the opportunity to direct it was not without surprises for Ruthven. But the biggest was how the script and the music still have the power to resonate.
“I’m honestly surprised that I wasn’t an emotional mess [after one of our first full rehearsals],” he admits. “There’s a song called ‘Things I Didn’t Know,’ and in it Jerusha is writing a letter about all the things in the world she’d never been exposed to. ‘I’d never heard of Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy’; ‘I didn’t know that Henry the Eighth was married more than once’; ‘I’m opening my mind.’ And it’s just beautiful, this idea that someone is expressing herself for the first time. It’s moving to me. And if Jervis’ reprise to ‘The Secret of Happiness’ doesn’t just break your heart, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
Daddy Long Legs, May 19–June 17. Tickets from $36. Main Street Theater — Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.