In 2013, I was still at acting school working towards my music theatre degree. One task for the 2000s music unit was to write a comparison between two similar musicals to present in class. Now, sadly I never got to present mine because of time constraints. What better way to rectify this than to edit the essay and post it here?
In 2005 the short-lived musical Little Women opened on Broadway, starring Sutton Foster as Jo March, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Based on the classic 1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women had a huge responsibility bringing one of the most beloved stories of all time to the stage? Did it succeed? Not really. And why does it bear so many striking similarities to the beloved 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music?
Little Women opens as Jo, an ‘impassioned girl of 19,’ receives her twenty-second letter of rejection from a prominent publisher. They tell her that her story is ‘tasteless’, ‘vulgar’ and she is advised to go home and have children, as “All women are made to do,”
This could quite possibly be the most half-hearted attempt to shoehorn in the misogyny of the era that I have ever seen. It’s a single line that’s never brought up again or even necessary to begin with. What did sexism have to do with Little Women in the first place? The answer is very little. In fact, I’m spending more time bitching about it on this blog than the show does. Moving on.
Jo reads her Operatic Tragedy to her mentor Professor Bhaer. Truthfully, her story is tasteless and vulgar. The Professor diplomatically suggests she could do better but like any good protagonist (there may be a hint of sarcasm here) Jo is too in love with her own work to take his advice on board.
And this is where the problems with characterisation starts. You see Jo’s most prominent traits. She’s passionate, opinionated and rather argumentative. And that’s pretty much where the character development stops for Little Women. The audience is only ever show the most basic character traits. Meg is romantic. Jo is passionate. Beth is sweet. Amy is pretentious. Marmee is….the mother. None of the characters are given enough expansion to seem human. They’re just stereotypes, if you could even call it that. Don’t believe me? Take Laurie’s introduction as Exhibit A.
The scene flashes back to two years earlier as Jo prepares her sisters, Meg, Beth and Amy, to perform an operatic tragedy that she has written. Now, I may be thinking too hard about it, but it seems even then, Jo had an unhealthy, almost sinister obsession with blood-and-guts in her stories. If I was a publisher receiving manuscripts like this, I wouldn’t publish them either. I’d be seeking a restraining order.
Anyway, feeling sad that their father is away at war, Jo brazenly decides to steal a Christmas tree from next door…because she claims to be full of energy and needs a task to do. We’re off to a great start here. Your main character steals a Christmas tree for literally no reason whatsoever. Is this a charming character trait or should we be emotionally disturbed?
When the rightful owner of the tree comes to give Jo the verbal bashing she deserves, Jo meets Laurie, her first of two love interests. The following dialogue, I kid you not, is far and away the most jarring introduction to a character ever written in the history of musical theatre.
“He loves his trees. I’m Theodore Lawrence the Third. But everyone calls me Laurie. I’ve come to live here. In Concord. I play the piccolo. I can sleep standing up. And I won a medal at school for holding my breath for nearly three minutes before passing out. I think it was terrifically daring of you chopping down grandfather’s tree. Well, goodbye.”
Call me a serial nitpicker, but this is just straight up badly written.
The whole book is like this. There’s literally never a genuine line of dialogue that doesn’t feel forced, contrived, or simply tell-don’t-show. All the critics generally agreed that the musical was like a speed-read of the novel, having the most obvious emotions and events but without anything that make is feel true or natural. There’s nothing for the audience to connect with. No character apart from Jo is given significant stage time to become anything. I don’t know how actors can work with a script like that. Even a great actress like Sutton Foster would struggle to make this work.
I’m sorry, but I’m struggling to analyse this musical here because there’s little to analyse except how bland it is!!!!
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s continue.
The Sound of Music obviously by Rogers and Hammerstein has obviously had far more success both on stage and screen, but it bears striking similarities to the story of Little Women. To describe the story from The Sound of Music is almost silly. We all know it. We’ve all seen it and we all love it. Both The Sound of Music and Little Women have a passionate young female lead searching for her place in the world. Both are energetic and outspoken protagonists who fall in love with an unlikely suitor. Both focus on a family, both are adapted from books and are both well-loved stories. Both Jo and Maria are beloved characters in the Western world, but why does Maria feel more human to the audience? And her romance, for that matter?
Maria is a young woman who wants to be a nun, but her free spirit is deemed unsuitable to the role. She is sent to be the governess to the seven Von Trapp children.Their widowed father has forbidden all happiness and music from their lives, but Maria’s enthusiasm and good heart soon wins him over, transforming their lives under the shadow of Nazi Germany. Maria learns that things do not always turn out the way you expect and is asble to accept that her life changes from the direction she believed it was going to take. She does not fight her mistakes. She accepts them, she learns from them and she does all she can to help people change for the better. Jo fights everything to get her way. She refuses to change or see that maybe, just maybe, she’s wrong.
The other characters in the Sound of Music are also far more developed, whether they are leads or supporting cast. Captain Von Trapp, by contrast with Professor Bhaer, is much more sympathetic and relateable. The Captain is given a legitimate backstory about losing his wife and how his grief has caused him to become cold and distant from his children. But through Maria’s influence he is able to change his ways and become a loving father as meaning is brought back into his life.
Professor Bhaer is given no backstory or any distinct objectives thoughout Little Women and he is not very interesting as a result. This doesn’t necessarily make him a bad character, he’s likeable enough but he’s not explored particularly deeply.
Even the side characters in the Sound of Music are more interesting. There are seven children in the family and yet we all remember them because they’re all given distince, memorable personalities. Liesl of course forms the secondary romance with Rolfe, which also does not end in the typical fashion of happily ever after. Rolfe joins the Nazis, and Liesl has to accept that she can’t be with him, which is a far more realistic outcome than Laurie marrying Amy after being rejected by Jo. Even Elsa Schraeder, who very nearly steals the Captain’s heart, is given some very good scenes to work with. She could very easily have been considered an antagonist, but she has an understable motivation for wanting Maria out of the way. But in the end she realises that she was wrong and leaves of her own accord. How often do you see something like that in a love story? EVER?
As for Little Women, in terms of my most hated writing mistake of all, the dreaded tell-don’t-show, this is a script to behold.
In Act 2, after Beth dies, Marmee says to Jo “Nobody did more for Beth than you did!” Great, what exactly did she do for Beth? All we saw or heard of Jo doing was taking Beth to the beach and at the risk of sounding heartless, Beth seems pretty energetic for someone who’s apparently on their deathbed. The same goes for when Professor Bhaer is apparently falling in love with Jo. He is not seen a great deal and his one solo number is him wondering whether he has feelings for her. There is no real feeling of time passing or the characters developing in new ways. And does Jo develop feelings for the Professor herself? It’s insinuated in their final duet, but not explored in the least.
Look, it’s an adaptation of a very famous and dense book. But there’s adapting a novel to the stage and there’s stripping out anything that gave it substance, which is exactly what the creative minds behind Little Women have done. The stage directions are kind of generic, the dialogue is all over the place and it thinks it’s saying a lot more than it actually is.
Oh, and you can forget about character subtlety or underlying themes. At one point Amy burns Jo’s writing out of sheer spite, because she really doesn’t have a motivation or anything like that. You don’t need to wonder what might happen to their relationship as a result, because it’s obvious that Amy burning Jo’s work is going to cause sparks to fly, pun fully and unashamedly intended.
The little substance that desperately tries to appear just gets whacked over your head. Enthusiasm is important! Family is everything! Jo is a total nightmare at times, but it’s ok because she’s PASSIONATE!
The Sound of Music however devotes time for all the subplots to be fully realised. The main story is of course Maria’s journey towards changing the family for the better and finding romance in the end The moments where Little Women somewhat shines are the scenes where the family interacts, much like in the Sound of Music. It seems the strength of Little Women comes more from the cast, and particularly the actress playing Jo whereas the The Sound of Music is so charming and well written it can stand on its own as a wonderful piece of theatre without relying on talented actors to gloss over the flaws in the script.
Another aspect of The Sound of Music which cannot be ignored is the near-perfect score. My Favourite Things, Do-Re-Mi, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria and the title number are just some of the songs that are now standards. There’s no denying that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a score that was far more memorable and enduring. Little Women’s score screams that it was rushed out. The melodies get the job done, although they aren’t all that phenomenal, just sort of bland and generic and the lyrics were very accurately described by the Broadway critics as “uneven”. Granted, I have heard far worse (Love Never Dies springs to mind), but any line which goes I work and I eat/life is muffins and jam is going to make me snicker. Little Women’s score is pleasant enough but the music has not and will not become ingrained in the world’s mind as The Sound of Music has. Another reason for this is that every song in The Sound of Music fits the narrative and drives the emotion and story. Little Women does not. Take for example the scene where Jo and Meg are going to the ball. The resulting musical number is how to respond if they’re asked to dance.
Yeah, um, what’s the point of that? Does it develop the characters? Does it have any bearing on the story at all? You could sum that up in a few sentences! It doesn’t call for a musical number!
In my opinion, The Sound of Music is the stronger theatrical production overall for several reasons. A stronger protagonist, a more developed cast, a more believable romance and more memorable music.
Little Women‘s failing was in the writing, both script and score, and there was honestly no excuse for this being the case. This isn’t a dumb jukebox musical like Mamma Mia or Moulin Rouge where you shoehorn in every tired cliché known to man. This is a beloved classic story that has meant a lot to five generations of women.
Little Women frustrates me because I KNOW there’s a good musical in there somewhere. It had so much potential with more guided adaptation and dramaturgy. The music could have been something very special if there was more time and effort put into it. It could have been so much more.
Maybe one day Little Women can be given the theatrical treatment it deserves. But if you’re looking for a classic story of family, love and courage done right, I’ll point to The Sound of Music every single time.