The Skylight’s “Daddy Long Legs”
The very tall and unreasonably handsome Rob Hancock is the Skylight Music Theatre’s Daddy Long Legs, in a new musical of the same name.
The show opens Friday at the Skylight, where Hancock was a resident artist back in the 2001-’02 season. He’s played his current role since Daddy Long Legs was in workshop readings in 2008, right on through premiere roll-out in regional theaters around the country. (The Skylight is part of a consortium of theaters that supported the creation of Daddy Long Legs.) So Hancock knows the show intimately and had plenty to say about it at an interview Monday.
But first, some context.
John Caird (director, book) and Paul Gordon (music, lyrics) based their show on a 1912 novella by Jean Webster (1876-1916), a great-niece of Mark Twain. Webster’s little book, I have learned, was part of a “college-girl” genre of the time, aimed at smart adolescent girls dreaming of smart futures. Webster (real name Alice Jane Chandler Webster) would be classified as a young-adult writer today.
The little book stars Jerusha Abbott. We meet her as the eldest child in a orphanage. She’s almost 18 and about to be turned out. An orphanage trustee, charmed by an essay Jerusha wrote, sends her to college and sets her up with an allowance. The stipulations: They must never meet; he must remain anonymous to her; and she must write him a monthly letter summing up her activities. Webster takes a page or two to set the stage, and Jerusha’s letters fill the remainder of the book.
Now, you’d think such a book would offer absolutely nothing to a grown man of a certain age. It certainly exerted no appeal to me. But I dutifully downloaded the 65 PDF pages at the Gutenberg Project (you can download it directly from this page at the Skylight site), with the intention of skimming through it to prepare for the Rob Hancock interview. The next thing I knew, I had read 35 pages. I fully intend to read them all. Webster constructed an utterly charming girl with an utterly convincing epistolary voice. Webster herself grew up in a witty, suffragette household, and you can see sweet/tart Jerusha being first in line to vote when women can, in 1920. She casts a probing eye on her surroundings and lances what deserves lancing with her rapier wit. I’d make this little orphan my daughter instantly.
Hancock smiled and nodded when I told him that.
“The men always get dragged to this show,” he said. “And they’re the ones in tears at the end. It unfolds so naturally, honestly, purposefully. My character has the same experience you have while you’re reading it. He gets sucked in, just as readers do, because she is so charming, spirited and smart. It’s fun to discover this person, in letter after letter.”
That, of course, was the big problem with staging the piece: Daddy Long Legs — that’s Jerusha’s nickname for Jervis Pendleton — exists primarily as Jerusha’s construct. How to make him real on the stage?
“That was the challenge from the beginning,” Hancock said. “John and Paul had to take their cues from what she writes about the man. Then they had to decide what he’s like and why he does what he does. They decided at the outset that he has no expectation or desire for interactions. He’s seen promise in this girl and he wants to foster her talent as a writer. He’s sponsored other orphans this way, but they’ve all been boys to this point. He comes from great wealth, but he can’t stand his family. He’s the black sheep, the socialist.”
While Jervis cares for humanity in general, he’s not so keen on people in particular. He’s a chilly, distant sort.
“She signs her letters ‘love,’ and he doesn’t understand that,” Hancock said. “Love? Why is she sending me love?”
Hancock, as the constant leading man in an evolving project, has had an unusually large role in shaping the development of his character.
“We’ve been able to explore this thoroughly since the initial production, at the Rubicon Theater (in Los Angeles) in 2009,” he said. “The Skylight will get a very different show. Now, it has two full characters, as opposed to 1.5 then. It’s still her story, but Jervis is fully there, now.”
Hancock has had the luxury of working with the same Jerusha, Megan McGinnis, throughout the process. I met her briefly; she’s an adorable young woman made to play this part. She, too, has contributed to the ongoing creative process with John Caird and Paul Gordon.
“John despises the McTheater approach, where everyone does everything exactly the same every time,” Hancock said. “The piece hasn’t been published and hasn’t played New York yet. He and Paul are constantly tinkering to make the play better and to keep it fresh. By now, they’ve tailored it to Megan and me. They’ve given everyone a voice in this project. They’ll ask us if we like the words, if they feel right. There’s always a dialogue. It’s an unbelievable gift.”
The play turns on Jerusha’s misapprehension of her benefactor. She assumes that he’s grey, bald and old. He’s none of those, so romance can ensue when identity is revealed.
Umm… why doesn’t he just tell the girl who he is earlier in the game?
“He was sent to live on a farm when he was 11, after Jervis’ mother died. Maybe his mother was the one Pendleton he related to. He can’t stand the rest of the family. Maybe that’s why he helps orphans; in a way, he’s an orphan, too. He’s isolated, just like Jerusha. That’s what’s so great about this story — they find each other.”
Show and Ticket Info: The show runs Friday, March 9 through April 1, with most performances at 7:30 p.m. or Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $22.50 to $65.50, and can be ordered at the Skylight box office or (414) 291-7800.
Display photo on the A&C page by Jeanne Tanner.
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