Wheelock Family Theatre Presents Little Women: The Broadway Musical
Hot on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s Oscar- nominated film, another take on the Louisa May Alcott novel
Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is an enduring work in American literature. Since its publication in 1868, the story of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, has never been out of print, winning generation after generation of fans. It has been adapted more than a dozen times for television and film, most recently in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 critically acclaimed Oscar nominated movie starring Saoirse Ronan.
Boston audiences now have a chance to encounter the March sisters in a live stage version. The latest production of the Wheelock Family Theatre (WFT), Little Women: The Broadway Musical opens this weekend and runs through February 23. With music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindy Dickstein, and book by Allan Knee, this musical adaptation debuted on Broadway in 2005 in a production starring Sutton Foster as Jo.
WFT associate artistic and education director Nick Vargas, who is directing the musical, says he and artistic director Emily Ranii were looking for a musical with a small cast, one that would appeal to children from early elementary through middle school. Then he remembered a community theater production of Little Women he was in when he was 18 (he played the elderly Mr. Lawrence). “It has this timeless quality of great characters, great story, and great themes—finding one’s own path, fighting for what you want, and allowing yourself to be changed along the way—that all of us can relate to,” Vargas says.
And of course, coming on the heels of a hit movie dealing with the same plotline didn’t hurt.
“I think Greta Gerwig decided to direct her film because she heard we were doing the musical,” jokes Ranii (CFA’13), a College of Fine Arts Opera Institute lecturer and academic program head of the BU Summer Theatre Institute. She says the musical is an ideal fit for WFT: “Everything we do here is about demonstrating to our audiences that their voices matter. And these girls find their voices in four different ways. Sharing this story now is a way of saying, any way that you find your voice matters and is important, and we celebrate who you are, just as you are.”
The musical adaptation features sweeping ballads sung by the sisters, collectively and apart, as well as quieter numbers, like the plaintive “Days of Plenty,” sung by the March sisters’ mother, Marmee (played by veteran actor Leigh Barrett), following the death of Beth.
Starring in the lead role of Jo March, a character Alcott based largely on herself, is Wheelock veteran Sirena Abalian, who began her association with the theater playing a Girl Scout in a 2004 production of Ramona Quimby. This show marks her 10th role at WFT, but her first in five years (she recently graduated from York University with a degree in environmental studies). Playing Jo, she says, is the hardest role she’s tackled.
“Jo’s a lot more complicated than she appears,” Abalian notes. “As much as we like to look at her as a role model, she has a lot of growing up to do in the course of the play.” The actor says it’s been especially rewarding to keep discovering new things about the character in rehearsal. “Even within one song, she’s still trying to decide what words comes next in a story she’s writing and how to piece it all together, which is so much fun to play as an actor.”
She says Jo goes through a huge emotional arc in the course of the play. “She starts off very head-in-the-clouds and feverishly passionate. By the end, she’s dealt with a lot of loss,” Abalian says. “She keeps that passion throughout, but she’s a lot more grounded by the end—she knows how to tame and respect that fire.”
For Abigail Mack, who plays Beth, the Wheelock production is a return to a favorite play. A junior at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, Mass., Mack starred as Jo in another production of the musical when she was 12, shortly after the death of her mother. She always hoped she’d have a chance to play Beth, she says, in part because the character reminds her so much of her mom. Beth “is brave and she just expresses her love, and my mom always did that. She was the most loving person I’ll ever know. That’s one of the reasons why Beth connected so much with me. She’s a character who always puts others first and that reminds me of my mom.”
Mack says that in finally being able to play Beth, she gets to sing her favorite song in the show, “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” which Beth sings to Jo when she knows she’s dying. “Beth says, ‘I never made plans for what I was going to do when I grow up. I’m not afraid to die, but the hardest part will be leaving you, Jo.’”
Barrett, an award-winning actor who has starred in productions of Passion, Grey Gardens, and Gypsy, says she’s always wanted to play Marmee. The thrill in portraying a character who is often glossed over, she says, is trying to make an audience see why the character makes the decisions she does. “This is a woman who was not following gender norms at all in terms of how mothers at the time were counseling their daughters to act,” Barrett says. “I think she wants to see her daughters blossom beyond what is expected of them. She’s a woman who herself married for love, not money. She wants her girls to follow the rules and be respectful and polite, like we all want our kids to be, but she allows them to do it in their own way.”
And in the end, that may be the secret to why Little Women still connects with young audiences. “Each sister finds her own path, and Marmee creates a world where that’s possible for her girls,” says Ranii. “We need the inspiration Jo gives us: that you can go out and make your own rules to change the world.”
Little Women: The Broadway Musical runs through February 23 at the Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 Riverway, Boston. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Ticket prices range from $20 to $40. BU faculty and staff get $10 off with code BUSTAFF. Purchase tickets here, call 617-353-3001, or email WFTtix@bu.edu. Student rush tickets are available for $10 one hour before showtime, at the box office only. ASL and AD performances are Sunday, February 9, and Sunday, February 16, at 2 pm. Note: there are no evening performances on Friday, February 21, or Saturday, February 22.