Profound Possibilities for Humankind (Tom Wojtunik on Directing The Secret Garden)

Cast of APAC's The Secret Garden take direction from Tom Wojtunik
Tom Wojtunik directs the cast of The Secret Garden at APAC. Photo credit: Lori McFadden

The Secret Garden opens May 3rd at APAC. And rehearsals are well underway.

The director, Tom Wojtunik, took some time tell us about what this story means to him and what it’s been like collaborating with such a talented group on this production.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS STORY THAT MADE YOU WANT TO DIRECT IT?

I’ve always loved the score—it is incomparably romantic and haunting, and to be honest, I can’t think of another musical quite like it. I grew up listening to the original cast album, but (much to my chagrin) never had a chance to see it on stage. Now I’m relieved I didn’t. I love the version of the story I see in my head, and I’m glad to not be influenced by the original production.

The Secret Garden begins incredibly dark and moves towards light—that kind of progression is always satisfying to rehearse, and musicals do it better than any other art form. The characters in the story are weighed down by grief, and I love watching the ripple effect of one little girl’s change in attitude affecting an entire house. The author of the original novel, Frances Hodgson Burnett, was a firm believer in the power of thought, and actually predicted that science would one day catch up with her beliefs. A hundred years after the novel was originally published, she isn’t wrong—advances in quantum physics bring us closer and closer to understanding the connection between the physical and the mental, in a way that can actually be measured. If the power of thought is as strong as Burnett believed, the possibilities for humankind are pretty profound.

And yes, I think all of that is actually in The Secret Garden.

WHAT DO YOU THINK PEOPLE WILL LOVE ABOUT APAC’S PRODUCTION IN PARTICULAR?

If you’re already a fan of the novel or the musical, I know you will love our production—the cast is tremendous and the design elements are breathtaking. If you have no idea what the story is, but the idea of it turns you off (i.e. “isn’t that a novel for little girls with British accents?”), I can tell you that it’s actually a dark psychological study about how we process grief. There’s also a surprising amount of humor in Marsha Norman’s Tony Award-winning book.

WHAT’S IT BEEN LIKE TO BE WORKING WITH THE CREATIVE TEAM AGAIN?

It’s a lot of repeat customers! At this point, Christine O’Grady (musical staging) and Jeffrey Campos (musical direction) are more like other parts of my brain. Our individual skill sets compliment each other ridiculously well. We also have a stupid amount of fun and laugh a lot, which is my favorite part of working with them.The design team reunites some terrific APAC alumni (Michael P. Kramer on set, Dan Jobbins on lights and Ashley Cavadas on props), and it definitely makes the process easier that they already know the challenges of our space and budget. They also know and trust that the quality of what comes out of the rehearsal room will be really good, and worthy of their best efforts on the design elements. And I can trust that they’ll be ready for us in tech. It’s kind of crazy that in the theater some of the most complicated stuff (i.e. technical elements) doesn’t get added until a week before the first audience arrives—it puts a lot of onus on the people responsible for making those elements happen, so it’s nice to work with artists you can rely on.

We’re also working with two designers new to APAC: Colin Whitely is providing the sound design and Ryan J. Moller is designing costumes. I’m super jazzed to have them both on this show, and excited for audiences to see and hear their work.

WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE WORKING ON THIS MUSICAL?

There’s a lot of theatricality to the piece, which is director catnip. Half of the cast is dead the whole play, so figuring out how to use those ghosts to tell the story in a way that lifts it, and doesn’t confuse the audience, is a big challenge. The show starts with an very montage-y prologue, which really sets the tone for the whole piece, and getting that right has been a major focus of ours. And of course, the story rests on the shoulders of two children—luckily we have two incredibly talented young actors in the roles of Mary and Colin: Hannah Lewis and Sam Poon, both of whom are going to win the audience’s hearts.

WHAT’S BEEN YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT WORKING ON THIS PRODUCTION AT APAC?

The cast. They are lords and ladies of musical theater, and it’s an honor to be in a rehearsal room with them. Five hundred actors auditioned for the twenty-two roles in the show (an APAC record!); needless to say, we had a lot of options to choose from. We’ve assembled a group of compassionate, dedicated artists with a genuine affection for and belief in the story. I was a puddle at the end of our read/sing-thru, and would have felt proud charging audiences $18 just to hear that. Plus, they are delightful to be in the rehearsal room with, which can often be harder to find than it should be. Also, one of my favorite things about directing is immersing myself in different worlds. I’ve loved researching this show and the Edwardian time period. APAC’s new Literary Manager, Jennifer Lane, is also serving as our dramaturg, and she’s been invaluable to the process. From early meetings with me, where we discussed all the possibilities for how the ghosts could function (Are they narrators? Are they psychological manifestations of the living characters? Are they spirits with free will?), to daily minutiae questions in the rehearsal reports (What did clothes hangers look like in 1906? Did they have stethoscopes?), she’s been a god-send.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?

APAC’s production is the first fully-staged New York revival of the musical since it’s Broadway premiere in 1991, and people love this show … so don’t wait to get your tickets!

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