LITTLE WOMEN: a Missed Opportunity?

Little Women


I was giving the cast album of Little Women, a show that has not made much of an impact on me in the past, another spin in the CD player recently and was, as ever, frustrated by what Mindi Dickstein and Jason Howland brought to the score of their adaptation of this much-beloved classic. I have a soft spot for the novel and have always thought that the novel had the potential to be a great musical, but this is not it.

During this listen, I wondered what the reviews of the Broadway production were like and found this evaluation of the show in Time. The overall tone of the review is positive, but the piece ends with a decidedly unambiguous slating of the score:

Richard Zoglin wrote:
Though it’s based on a beloved book for young people, Little Women: The Musical is the most adult new musical of the Broadway season and an unexpectedly satisfying meal. Skillfully adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s novel by Allan Knee…. the show is pretty, unpretentious, warmhearted but surprisingly restrained: even the death of Beth, the quiet sister felled by scarlet fever, takes place offstage…. If only the score by Jason Howland had a few decent tunes, Little Women might have been a real banquet.

Calling Little Women the most adult new musical of the season is damning the show with faint praise, considering that the only other new musicals that had opened by the time that Little Women premiered were Dracula and Brooklyn. The truly worthwhile new musicals of that season all opened after that. Of course, Zoglin didn’t have the advantage of knowing that when he wrote his review – but it does make me chuckle to think that his statement in this case really only holds true if you don’t know the context of the season in which Little Women was produced.

Oh well, the novel is in the public domain, so perhaps someone will take another shot at some point. Of that much, Louisa May Alcott’s stories about Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are most certainly worthy…

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27 Responses to LITTLE WOMEN: a Missed Opportunity?

  1. musicaltheatrefan says:

    Little Women is like Legally Blonde. Not plot-wise, but it is similar because neither are great theatre masterpieces, but they are fun, light musicals. I love Legally Blonde and Little Women, but do I think they both should have won the Tony for Best Musical? No, but they are fun and they are not as bad some people say they are.

  2. Mara Davis says:

    I have always loved the novel, and I felt the musical ultimately was a bit meaningless. It sounds harsh but I didn’t come away from the show feeling like it had a point, in fact feeling like anything. The cast I saw was stunning, it was all stunning production wise, but I just was very underwhelmed by the show.

  3. Anna Johnson says:

    When I first listened to Little Women: the Musical, I wasn’t impressed. All of the songs sounded the same. However, after listening a few more times, it has become one of my favorite newer musicals. My mom felt the same way – on first listen, it’s nothing great, but it definitely grows on you. I love how so many of the songs have four-to-five-part harmony, as this is pretty rare in the newer musicals.

    I finally got to see the musical performed at a local college, and it was magnificent. The costumes were beautiful, the set was amazing, and the actors all did a good job. The young woman who played Jo was able to belt when appropriate (and – shh – I thought she was better than Sutton Foster – please don’t kill me). I really enjoyed the performance.

    Some of the plot problems can be overlooked if one understands the story of Little Women. For example, Laurie and Amy getting married doesn’t seem “unexpected” because I knew the story. Not to mention, the setup for this can be achieved by the actress playing Amy, with shy stares, clinginess to Laurie and so on.

    I cried when Beth died, and I think having it happen offstage makes it even more powerful. “Some Things are Meant to Be” is a gorgeous song that really sets up what is going to happen. The next scene, we see Jo upset and Marmee comforting her. It makes Beth’s absence all the more apparent.

    Overall, I think Little Women: the Musical can be either amazing or a complete failure, based mostly on the actors and the director.

  4. I’ve only really discovered the show this week, and I’m in love with “Astonishing” and “Some Things Are Meant to Be” cuz I’m cool. I know what you mean by not being impressed when listening, but I think it’s only good if you see it performed.

  5. Tom Lokensgard says:

    I’m guessing it made a better opera than a musical.

  6. livemodernx3 says:
    1. I absolutely adore this show. It is in my top five, most definitely. I also can’t understand why people don’t really like it, because I had only heard one song before I was hooked. I think plenty of the songs are “hummable” and have spent many days enjoying it in my head. They are such incredible songs! The book is my most favorite – I read it about twice a month. Seriously.
    2. I love opera. It is my passion in life. My favorite thing to do is listen to it. And Sutton Foster. And let me tell you, the opera is not as good. (Although my favorite singer ever played Meg in the original cast. Her name is Joyce DiDonato. Very talented!) I like the opera, but it has a very weird set up. The musical is definitely better.

    Little Women = Perfection…. Right after Thoroughly Modern Millie, my favorite show ever.

  7. SparkleKitti says:

    I’ve seen this show 3 different times: once with the national touring cast, once as a local community production and once as a college black-box performance. I started off loving it. I’d listened to the music many many times and loved it – and I’m a huge Sutton fan, which only helps! I loved the national cast. I enjoyed the community production, especially since my good friend was in it, but I realized while watching the college production that the material itself just wasn’t fantastic – and not because it was a college show. The cast was good and the production values were fine, but it let me pay attention to the basics of story and plot.

    I think that it assumes too much on the viewer to know the story. Much like any movie that’s based on a book, it cuts a lot of the detail and just tells the basic plot, so it’s up to the actors to fill in a whole lot of holes. Some can do it successfully, I’m sure, but it simply doesn’t give enough for the actors to work with. There’s just a ton of detail that’s skipped and not for the better. The show really is “The Jo Show”, which is great for Sutton Foster but seems to defeat the point of it being Little Women. And a lot of the dialogue, if I remember it correctly, isn’t very well written. Sometimes it’s a bit corny and forced, which is quite unfortunate. It doesn’t have the same ease and flow as the book. It’s the kind of show which, with a great cast and good technical aspects, can be put on well and the audiences will love it. But dissect the most basic part – the script – and it’s just not fantastic.

    I still love this show and I’d kill to play either Jo/Beth in a production of it – but I just don’t think it’s a piece of great theatre.

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