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A Cast Album I Love: ‘The Secret Garden’


A musical about how nice it feels to go outside, “The Secret Garden” unfurled on Broadway 29 years ago. It adapts Frances Hodgson Burnett’s kid-lit classic, famous for its sullen heroine, 10-year-old Mary. In Mary’s defense: If cholera had killed both my parents and I was then packed off to a lonely Yorkshire manor inhabited by a traumatized uncle, a nefarious doctor and a dying cousin, I might sulk, too.

In Yorkshire, Mary discovers a walled garden, once tended by her dead aunt. Nudging the garden back toward life, she revives her family, too. The original Broadway cast — including Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker, Daisy Eagan, Alison Fraser and a pre-“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” John Cameron Mitchell — is unbearably lush. Lucy Simon’s score swirls light opera with English folk music. Me, I can barely keep one windowsill lily going. But this is the cast album I click on when I want to have a good cry — a pleasant change from all the bad ones.

When the musical opened, not many critics threw bouquets. Marsha Norman’s book skews more Gothic than the novel (singing ghosts!) and introduces psychosexual elements I didn’t catch on my first listen, when I wasn’t much older than Mary. But I love it now — and loved it then — for its crabby heroine; Norman’s plain-spoken, atmospheric lyrics; the cast’s thrilling quartets, trios and duets; and the creators’ confidence that a musical about a lonely girl didn’t have to slant bright or cute or basic.

“The Girl I Mean to Be” This is Mary’s manifesto, a kiddie “A Room of One’s Own.” Eagan, who won a featured actress Tony for the role sings — clear-hearted and lark-like — about needing privacy and safety to form a coherent self: “A place where I can bid my heart be still/ And it will mind me/ A place where I can go when I am lost/ And there I’ll find me.”

“Lily’s Eyes” A lot of high school drama-nerd hilarity spun around this song. One version: “Lily’s Thighs.” Another took the lines “She has her eyes/ She has my Lily’s hazel eyes” to very macabre places. The songs outsize feelings encourage parody. But they also invite a beautiful wallow in Patinkin’s impossibly emotive soprano as he duets with Robert Westenberg about the dead woman they both still love. (Yeah, the sex stuff is weird.)

“Wick” Mitchell’s big number, it argues for hope and growth, even when everything — plants, hearts — feels withered. Is it twee? Maybe. Does Mitchell’s Yorkshire accent sound like he has a scoop of moor in his mouth? Yes. But listen for its energy and optimism, and the luster of Mitchell and Eagan’s twining voices.

“Hold On” I don’t go for many songs where servants impart folk wisdom to their charges, but I go for this one, particularly when graced with Alison Fraser’s honeyed alto. It’s a bear hug of a song, almost overwhelming in its comfort and insistence on resilience. Its lyrics remind me, even amid a headlines-induced spiral, to wait it out and say, “It’s this day, not me/ That’s bound to blow away.”

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