Director John Caird has worked on some of the biggest and most complex productions in recent theater history, from the eight-hour “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” to the musical “Les Misérables.”
With “Daddy Long Legs,” he has written (with songwriter Paul Gordon) and directed something far more intimate, a two-character chamber musical about a budding young author and the secret benefactor who thinks she has the potential to succeed.
The show, which opens Friday in Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, stars Broadway actor Kevin Early as Jervis Pendleton and Australian actress Penny McNamee as the writer, Jerusha Abbott.
In a telephone interview from Stockholm, where he is directing another play, Caird said he discovered Jean Webster’s 1912 novel thanks to his wife, who is Japanese. “The book is hugely popular in Japan,” he said. “Though it’s amazingly unpopular in the English-speaking world.”
He sent the book to Gordon, an occasional collaborator, to see what he thought “and he instantly came back with a dozen songs, a sort of song cycle for Jerusha, which became the musical basis for our show,” Caird said.
In the musical, Jervis becomes a silent benefactor to provide Jerusha the opportunity to attend college and pursue writing. He is known to her only as Mr. Smith, and she thinks of him as old and bald.
“She’s an orphan, the oldest orphan in the orphanage, where she has been living her whole life,” McNamee said of Jerusha. “She receives a letter from one of the trustees saying she’s going to be sent to college with all her tuition paid to become a writer. She then shares her experiences with him in letters.”
Though Caird said he enjoys working “on a big canvas with huge sweeping emotional dramas like ‘Les Miz,’ it’s also fascinating to look at small emotional stories like this. One can go much deeper into the psychology of the characters.”
The book is essentially a series of letters from Jerusha to Jervis, who refuses to respond to them.
“The really fascinating thing about a letter is that it has two different meanings,” Caird said. “It has the meaning that is put into it by the person who is writing it, but it has a completely different or auxiliary meaning that comes from the person who’s reading it. And the trick of the production is that we make the moment of writing and moment of reading exactly the same moment so that we can see the effect of one character on another.”
The structure also means that while the two actors share the same physical space on stage, they’re usually in their own worlds and not reacting to one another.
“This is the first time I’ve done a show where I’ve had a lot of onstage time by myself,” said McNamee during a break from rehearsals in New York. “It’s a challenge when you don’t have someone else to play off. I have to create the character and emotion and pull in what I can from the audience as well.”
She was rehearsing on her own, with Earley expected to join her closer to the Sarasota opening.
The FST production marks McNamee’s debut in the show, while Earley is starring in his fifth production. His own first time was something of a whirlwind.
He had signed on to play Jervis while he was standing-by for the title role in the musical “Death Takes a Holiday” in New York. The leading man got sick right before the opening and Earley ended up taking over the role.
“It was next to impossible to rehearse ‘Daddy’ in Detroit and perform in ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ in New York. I told them I could do the show, but they’ll have to rehearse me in one day.”
It’s the kind of show that allows for such compressed rehearsals.
He survived what he called the “shortest rehearsal period I’ve ever had” and has since had the chance to delve deeper into the role.
And when the two actors start rehearsing in the same room “we’ll come together and we’ll make some new discoveries.”
Webster’s novel inspired the British musical “Love from Judy” and the 1955 Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron film “Daddy Long Legs,” but the film is vastly different, Caird said.
“The enormous difference is that it was written and conceived as a vehicle for Fred Astaire, and, of course, the original novel is all about Jerusha Abbott and her wit and cleverness. It’s the story of a woman growing up. In the movie, Leslie Caron, wonderful dancer that she was, was French and not entirely conversant with the English language at that point, so she didn’t have very much to say. It became a completely different story.
McNamee, who starred as Nessarose in the original Australian production of “Wicked,” describes the show as a “beautiful story about her growing up, learning about life and love and learning to be a woman.”
In addition to “Death Takes a Holiday,” for which he was a Drama Desk nominee, Earley has appeared in “Les Miz,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie, and “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“DADDY LONG LEGS” opens at 8 p.m. Friday and continues through April 5 in the Florida Studio Theatre Gompertz Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $18-$36. For more information: 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org