Long Story Short
How ‘Little Women’ Made Its Way to Broadway—Misfires, Firings, and All
1. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott publishes the novel Little Women, featuring tomboy heroine Jo March. Its mix of nascent feminism and tragic sentiment leads to best-seller status and, much later, many a stage and film adaptation, with the role of Jo going to everyone from a steely Katharine Hepburn to—in a 1978 TV version—Meredith Baxter Birney.
2. Winona Ryder plays Jo as a girly, wilting flower in the 1994 movie version, reviving the idea of a Broadway musical. Playwright Allan Knee tours a straight play in 1993 and '94, and is soon commissioned by TheatreworksUSA to concoct a musical—the company's shotm as Knee says, at "breaking into the commercial scene." The first reading is held in 1998, whereupon Theatreworks drops the project.
3. But the show wins a Richard Rodgers Award, and is picked up by three producers, among them first-timers Dani Davis and Jason Howland (Frank Wildhorn’s musical supervisor). They option the show, hire director Nick Corley, and head into a full workshop at the Westbeth.
4. Three weeks later, composer Kim Oler and lyricist Alison Hubbard are fired. They get a settlement and take their score; Knee keeps his book. Why? Howland claims Oler and Hubbard came up short, forcing Howland to ghost-write three songs. Counters Hubbard, “We worked feverishly. We gave our lives over to this.” Oler sees darker forces at work. “The show was hijacked. We were fired by a producer”—Howland—“who wanted to be the composer.” Davis denies it, saying “Jason has lots of other opportunities.”
5. Jason Howland does indeed sign on as composer, stepping down as a producer to avoid a conflict of interest (but eventually marrying Davis, his co-producer, re-creating said conflict). After a Duke workshop, director Corley is fired. “He wanted to do more of an Our Town kind of a show,” says Knee. Says Corley: “The producers wanted something more like Wicked, I guess.” Howland says Corley was loyal to the rejected score, which Howland calls “passive. There was no emotional journey within those songs.”
6. Secret Garden director Susan H. Schulman replaces Corley. The show manages to land Sutton Foster, the fresh-faced Tony winner then in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and has to wait for her to finish up her contract. Hubbard threatens to write up her ordeal ("The Little Women Diaries") for the Dramatists' Guild newsletter, but reconsiders on the advice of her lawyer.
7. After ten years, three directors, two musical teams, and five Jos, Little Women is ready for Broadway, after last-minute rewrites (including a new song last Monday). Oler’s agent calls the new score “troubling” and “imitative.” Howland calls these “dangerous accusations.” Stay tuned.