A whole new ‘Anne’ at Goodspeed
Goodspeed show brings a musical touch to ‘Anne of Green Gables’
As so many children did, Matte O’Brien grew up with the “Anne of Green Gables” books. They were among his mother’s favorites, after all.
“I have loved those books for so long,” he says.
O’Brien, who is now a playwright/lyricist, says of the main character of Anne, “I always thought she was larger than life and would make sense as a musical theater character.”
So when he and collaborator Matt Vinson were encouraged by others, including agents, friends and family, to do an adaptation after creating a series of original works, O’Brien thought of Anne.
The resulting musical is having its world premiere at The Goodspeed.
The piece has a more modern feel than the original story, which was published in 1908 by author L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery; O’Brien says he and Vinson aimed for the show to be “simultaneously classic and contemporary.” The songs tend to have a folk-rock sound. And the actors are young adults, not children.
But the themes and ideas remain the same.
In the first “Green Gables” book (sequels followed), young Anne, an orphan, is adopted by adult siblings Matthew and Marilla in late 19th-century Canada. The brother and sister had wanted to adopt a young boy to help them on their farm, but the orphanage erroneously sent a girl instead.
The feisty, intelligent Anne has to find her way in her new town and with her adoptive parents and her new community.
O’Brien says that, in the books, Anne is progressive and ahead of her time.
What keeps resonating to him about the story is the idea of love.
“I feel like L.M. Montgomery talks about love in a very unique and sophisticated way in the book. … She doesn’t put one form of love above another,” he says.
His favorite relationship is the one between siblings Matthew and Marilla. They’re kindred spirits, and there is a profound platonic love between then, O’Brien notes.
Anne and her friend Diana, meanwhile, have a complex relationship in the book.
“The more I live with the piece, the more it’s such a really beautiful exploration of love in general and how romantic love isn’t the end all/be all. …You can build a really happy, beautiful community on these other forms of love, and they’re just as valid,” O’Brien says.
He notes that most literature, especially around the time that Montgomery wrote “Anne of Green Gables,” would have a central romantic thread running through it. But that’s not what drives Anne in the first “Green Gables” book. Gilbert is the closest thing to a traditional love interest, but Anne barely gives him the time of day, O’Brien notes.
“Basically at the end of book, they agree to be friends and on her terms,” O’Brien says.
Anne is focused instead of acceptance and love and community — in other words, finding a home — as well as forging her own path academically.
O’Brien adds, “This show is really, really funny, but it also catches you off guard especially in the second act with how truthful and honest and heartbreaking and bittersweet life is and relationships are. (So are) the coming and going of those relationships in life, whatever that means in the form of people moving on, and life and death, and growing up and all of those things.”
About the music
As for the music part of this musical, the work composed by Vinson blends elements of folk with a rock drive. Featured, too, are layered vocal arrangements that can be woven throughout and help the storytelling, Vinson says.
O’Brien says that the score is “super catchy” and “really has a lot of fun stuff going on in it.”
Fleshing out the characters
While Anne is an ideal central character for a musical, O’Brien says the book itself is “actually a pretty challenging piece to turn into a musical … The books are written in a super episodic way. Each chapter is, like, Anne gets into this kind of trouble, and she gets out of it. And Anne gets in this kind of trouble, and then she gets out of it. So each one is like a self-contained, little parable or something, which works great in the book. But for the arc of a musical, you really need a longer trajectory and more dramatic tension.”
In addition, in the books, Anne is very much the main focus, with the other characters held in secondary places. A musical shouldn’t have one figure dominate for too long, so the creators had to expand those other roles.
As for how old the characters are, O’Brien says the musical doesn’t peg the age of Anne and her contemporaries. When the “Green Gables” books were written, Diana and other characters were getting married at 17 or 18. In the stage version, O’Brien has split the difference between that and the ages at which people do things today.
“We don’t mention the age, but we assume Anne is arriving at Green Gables later than maybe the books would indicate (where she was 11),” O’Brien says.
Shaping the roles to actors
O’Brien says, “Wait till you see this cast. I’ve never had the experience where I literally got every single first-choice pick of cast … every single one down to the chorus. Everyone is literally the first person I wanted in the role. Some of them have been attached to previous productions, and some are brand new and were big asks that I never thought would say yes and they did.”
He and Vinson have molded the roles to fit the performers.
Michelle Veintimilla, who plays Diana, has a very quirky sense of humor, and O’Brien has tweaked things after learning how the actress lands a laugh and how lines sound when she says them.
Sharon Catherine Brown, meanwhile, is very different from the actress who portrayed Marilla in previous workshops, so the team is shaping elements for her voice.
It’s sort of like tailoring a suit to best fit someone, O’Brien says.
That applies to the songs as well as the dialogue; they might adjust a number based on where the performer’s voice sits, so it might be better a half step higher or lower.
“The goal is to ultimately feel like these people just are the characters. The more you can get it to feel that it’s coming legitimately from them and plays into all of their strengths as performers, the better,” O’Brien says.
A COVID delay
“Anne of Green Gables” is in the public domain and has been adapted multiple times before, including as other musicals.
While the current Goodspeed production marks the world premiere of this “Anne of Green Gables,” it has been in development for several years. It was featured in the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival in Auburn, N.Y., in 2018, and Vinson and O’Brien had time to develop it more during the 2019 Writers Grove at Goodspeed.
And then “Anne of Green Gables” was scheduled to be staged as part of Goodspeed’s 2020 season. In fact, the team had its final day of casting on March 13, 2020. And we all know what happened then: COVID.
Between then and now, the creators were involved in the recording of an EP of the music of “Anne of Green Gables.”
Still being read
The “Anne of Green Gables” book is clearly still being read by youngsters and still has lots of fans out there. O’Brien recalls that, when they did the Finger Lakes workshop performance, there was an overwhelming response.
“People are passionate about what you got right and what you got wrong and what you chose to include and what you didn’t choose to include. We heard all of the thoughts. So it’s clearly still very much in the zeitgeist,” he says.
IF YOU GO
What: “Anne of Green Gables”
Where: The Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: Now through Sept. 4; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat.; also 6:30 on select Sundays and 2 p.m. on select Thursdays
Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org