When I was eight years old, I did my very first play, Peter Pan. The director of that play would, in time, become my mentor and dearest friend, and the cast of that play would become the cast of my life, populated by future best friends, boyfriends, and my Maid of Honor. But this isn’t a story about Peter Pan. This is a story about Little Women.
Just today I closed a beautiful production of Little Women the Musical (incidentally, stage managed by my aforementioned Maid of Honor and fellow Lost Boy), to great reviews. Our cast was exquisite, each of them perfectly suited for their role, and passionate about this remarkable story. After praising the performance, every audience member I spoke with would tell me the story of how they came to love Little Women. Each of them – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters – had their own personal relationship with Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale. They remembered reading it aloud to their children, or listening to the book on tape on long car rides, or reading the chapter with Laurie’s proposal so many times that the pages fell out of the binding. Their stories made me think back to when I first became acquainted with Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, nearly 20 years ago at a rehearsal for Peter Pan.
As I got ready for my first rehearsal, my mom suggested that I pack a book. She said that rehearsals were long, so I figured that the book I brought should be long as well. I grabbed Little Women, the thickest book on my shelf, and went off to Never Land with the March sisters in tow.
A few weeks into rehearsal, I still hadn’t made it through the first chapter. I would start on page one, get completely lost in the vocabulary by page three, and sit there reading the same passage over and over again. Rhett, one of the teenage boys playing in Captain Hook’s band of pirates, asked me why such a very little girl was reading such a very large book. When I confessed that I didn’t understand any of it, Rhett did something truly remarkable, especially for pirate. He took the book from my lap and began to read it aloud.
He explained to me that I was reading it all wrong. “You can’t read something like this to yourself,” he said. “There’s too many characters. You have to read it like a script, like a play.” And so we did. We read each of the characters out loud to each other with different voices and faces, acting out the March family Christmas right there in the hallway. He had a prim, proper-sounding voice for Meg, and a whiny, nasally-toned voice for Amy. His Mr. Laurence was loud and booming, while his Aunt March was derivative of Julia Child. Rhett’s Laurie was handsome and bumbling, just as he was. With Rhett’s help, I slowly made it through all of Jo’s ups and downs. I also developed my first crush.
Watching the story now, through more adult eyes, I find myself more and more astonished by how our lives turn out. Jo, who swears she’ll never marry, finds herself running a school with her husband. Amy, the young artiste who wishes for grandeur and fame, marries the boy next door. Beth, an angel in disguise, leaves her family all too soon. When I think of my humble beginnings in a community playhouse, I realize that I am blessed beyond measure to have been able to make theatre my livelihood, working right alongside my family and my best friends that I met while rehearsing Barrie and reading Alcott.
I’ll never know why Rhett, a vivacious boy scout, chose to sit down with a little girl and help her to fall in love with a classic novel. Just like I’ll never know why, ten years later, Rhett would lose his life to a freak accident when his hotel balcony collapsed. What I do know is that he changed the way I saw those little women, and transformed the way that I read books. Like Beth March, he, too, was an angel in disguise.