"Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here" Sue Monk Kidd writes in her novel The Secret Life of Bees. This summer, a group of Pulitzer, Tony, Grammy, and Drama Desk winners and nominees will ensure this story is remembered in word and song. "The Secret Life of Bees," will be workshopped at Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater from July 27 through 29. The original musical, which will be staged for the first time, was written by Lynn Nottage, composed by Duncan Sheik with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and directed by Sam Gold. (Previous musical theater workshop pieces include Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" and Taylor Mac's "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.")
Set, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in South Carolina, the story centers around a young white girl named Lily Owens who is trying to unravel the mystery of her mother's death. When her black housekeeper and surrogate mother Rosaleen is arrested while attempting to vote, Lily sees this as the chance for her and Rosaleen to escape. In their attempt to flee the past, they find themselves on a bee farm owned by the Boatwright sisters, who welcome them into their magical, eccentric, and surprisingly familiar world.
In his third project at Powerhouse Theater, Tony Award winner Sam Gold ("Fun Home") was the last to join the creative team. "Three of my favorite people working in musical theater were embarking on adapting this very special book," Gold says. "It's a group of collaborators who I have been around and wanted to work with but hadn't quite found the right thing for." In addition to the meaningful story and relatable characters, Gold says he wanted to be a part of the cultural dialogue by exploring the book's political backdrop. "I really wanted to be involved in a conversation about race relations and civil rights," he says. "I think that it's important that theater gets into the heart of the cultural conversation."
Unlike plays, which typically include just the director and playwright, musicals involve many collaborators working at their own pace. "My job has a lot to do with bringing everyone together," Gold says. "I love the team and I love that everyone is coming from really different perspectives. As a director, it's my job to find common ground with everyone and find the vocabulary that we're all going to work on together."
Gold, who rarely works in the world of musical theater, says musicals demand more from more people. "Developing a musical is a very muscular, long, and challenging process," he says. "It takes a lot of time, energy, cooks in the kitchen, songs that get tossed in the garbage along the way. It's a brutal process, making a new musical, and you have to love the people you're doing it with, you have to have a lot of fun doing it, and you really have to believe the material is important to people."
The workshop will mark the first time all members of the creative team will be in one place with what they've been collaborating on remotely. "We'll be hearing [the musical] for the first time, making really big changes, and presenting something at the end that will be brand new material heard for the very first time," Gold says. Gold believes having response from the community will be useful to the team as they continue refining the work. As far as post-Powerhouse plans for "The Secret Life of Bees," there is nothing set in stone. "It's a really good opportunity to figure out what the correct home will be for it and what the next step should be," Gold says.
Powerhouse Theater stages "The Secret Life of Bees" in the Martel Theater at Vassar College from July 27 through 29. The Powerhouse season continues through July 30. (845) 437-5599; Powerhouse.vassar.edu.