Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, literature's four favorite sisters, visited North Carolina this fall in a preview production of Little Women: The Musical. Theater Previews at Duke, the professional producing arm of the theater department, played host for the new play, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in January. Rehearsals at Duke began September 7, and the play ran at Reynolds Theater October 13-31.
Theater Previews at Duke is a distinctive laboratory for the professional development and production of new plays and musicals. Although most Broadway plays undergo an out-of-town trial, Theater Previews at Duke is the only preview program with such close ties to a university. These ties allowed the producers of Little Women to enjoy all of the assets of the Duke community, including its most prized possessions: Duke students.
Student interns work alongside professional Broadway actors, directors, technicians, and producers. The students are involved in every aspect of the show and have the opportunity to form close bonds with the actors and crew on a personal, as well as professional level.
The first Broadway preview in Reynolds Theater was in the spring of 1986, when Emanuel Azenberg brought Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night to the stage. Azenberg, the producer of over sixty Broadway shows, has taught at Duke for the past eighteen years. Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey were the stars of the production, setting a lofty precedent for professional drama at Duke. Since then, actors such as Jason Robards, Tom Selleck, and Sam Waterston have done theatrical stints at Duke, and audiences have seen everything from William Luce's Lucifer's Child, starring Julie Harris, to Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Little Women: The Musical is the brainchild of producer Dani Davis '88, who has been working on the play for six years and is in charge of the show's creative development. "I have basically shaped the show as it has moved forward," she says.
Davis worked on the first ever Previews production as a sophomore and says she was "overjoyed" to be able to bring her show down South. "It's a heavenly gift to break away from New York and come back to Duke"--not just because it's her alma mater, she adds, but also because it offered a safe environment in which the show could take risks, before facing the bright lights of Broadway. Add the intelligent and hard-working students, and you have, in Davis' words, an academic environment that is "very conducive to intense immersion and focus on the work."
The preview period is integral to the chemistry and success of the show, Davis says, pointing to the emotional growth of the musical during its time in Durham. The creative team was able to shave time off the show, refine songs, and develop the nuances of each scene. Actors were able to explore the subtleties of their characters, while the crew was honing hone the logistics of its off-stage duties.
Freshman Julia Robertson worked on the production as a stage-managing intern. "It was great for Duke to have the opportunity to welcome and reap the benefits of such a wonderful production," she says. "It is a Broadway show, and to have that down here is really an incredible opportunity for anyone who got to see it or be a part of it."
"These are certainly capable young people," says Davis. "I recall telling my team that they could really entrust these kids with a whole heck of a lot. I was met with certain skepticism: 'They're only college students,' and I said, 'No, they're Duke students, that's different.' "
Little Women opens in New York on January 23, and stars Sutton Foster, who won a Tony Award in 2002 for Thoroughly Modern Millie, as Jo, and Maureen McGovern as Marmee.
January 31, 2005