Daddy Long Legs
2015-12-11, 8:43 p.m.
Yesterday was the first livestream event of a(n Off-Broadway) musical being streamed for free online. I definitely had to get in on that, since it was a musical about a book I’ve read, and I was really curious to see how they’d handle it in a musical. So here’s my review.
The musical was Daddy Long Legs. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK AND MUSICAL FROM HERE ON IN, SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT THESE THINGS. I’m not going to spoiler space it either, so after this paragraph, here we go!
The book (which you can read online for free here) is about Jerusha Abbott, an orphan in the 1900’s who really hates the John Grier Home she lives in. However, “on the strength of that impertinent paper” that she wrote about cleaning day at the JGH that her English teacher showed at the trustee meeting discussing Jerusha’s future, one trustee has volunteered to pay her way-and full expenses paid down to an allowance---through college. The only requirement on her part is that she’s to write him a letter once a month talking about her studies and life. However, she can never find out his name (call him “Mr. Smith”) and he will never write back, “nor in the slightest particular take any notice of them” because he claims to detest letter writing even though he thinks it facilitates literary expression.
Jerusha naturally thinks this is kinda odd-and she gets more and more annoyed at wanting a response from the fellow as time goes on-but goes along with it, and kind of pretends that he’s some kind of friend or relative while writing. Since addressing a letter to “John Smith” is boring and “Dear Kind Trustee Who Sends Orphans To College” is a bit much, she comes up with a nickname for him-“Daddy Long Legs,” after the lone time she saw him and his tall shadow leaving the building.
Anyway, so Jerusha writes about her life and studies and her friends, including her best friend Sallie McBride and her brother Jimmie, and her other roommate, Julia Pendleton of the super snobby Pendletons. Through Julia she meets Julia’s young, hot uncle Jervis, and they pretty much do the 1900’s equivalent of off and on dating. And she hears from DLL once in a while-occasionally he sends flowers, and when she begs him that she can’t go back to the John Grier Home over summer break, he arranges for her to stay at the formerly-Pendleton-owned Lock Willow Farm. So he’s beneficent, but mostly silent. But things come to a head when Jervis proposes to Jerusha and she says no because he’s from a snooty family and he doesn’t know she’s a poor orphan. She writes to DLL for advice and he finally agrees to meet her…
Anyway, I couldn’t help but wonder how the hell this was going to work as a musical. It’s a one-sided epistolary novel, so how would you do it?
The answer to this is:
(b) There’s not a whole lot of surprise as to who Jerusha is writing to because it’s a two-actor play and as this review points out, hint: he’s the guy onstage. Yes, Jervis Pendleton is shown onstage, frequently reading her letters aloud. We get to see his point of view on things, which you don’t get in the book and I ended up appreciating quite a bit.
(c) Essentially, it’s a cross between Love Letters and dare I say it, Superman/The Flash/any other superhero story where the guy has a secret identity he’s concealing from his wannabe girlfriend and has to juggle that shit.
The actress playing Jerusha does a good job of imitating the few characters not onstage in the first scene, in which she finds out about her scholarship and interacts with people not there. There’s a “nine point plan” that “Mr. Smith” has come up with for his requirements for her letters. They have the stage set so that he’s in his study in the back corner of the stage and she’s moving around the front stage, using various trunks as props and furniture.
From Jervis’s point of view, he’s amused or kinda shocked or both that she thinks he’s 83 years old and wants to know if he’s bald so she can imagine him properly. He grumbles that boys are less trouble and wouldn’t ask stuff like that-but hey, she deserves a chance to be a big time author. He’s shocked to find out that his niece Julia-who he looked at as a baby, decided he didn’t like her and never paid attention to her since-is Jerusha’s schoolmate. (So that wasn’t engineered.)
The show has a fair amount of fun with little commentary in the back as to what Jervis is doing in his study while Jerusha is reading letters. For example, after studying in school about the terrible things alcohol does to your body, she tells him she hopes he never drinks and in a man of his advanced age, it could kill him. Jervis is literally holding a drink in his hand as this is said and after she finishes, he does a bit of a cheerful smirk and goes “bottoms up!” and chugs anyway.
(Oh, and I forgot that according to the book, I’m related to Julia. Hahahahahah.)
We see that he gets inspired to re-read the books she mentions in school and that he’s getting more and more charmed by her letters. At one point she mentions keeping her entire textbook collection after college so she can have her education there, and they have him in with a study with a ton of books. And he keeps pinning her letters to the bookcase. When she writes him that she’s sick, he sends her flowers.
As this goes on, Jervis feels more and more awkward about the situation, but ends up crumpling up his own attempts at writing the truth-he’d be breaking his own rules, it’d disillusion her, etc. (Though the musical claims he loves to correspond and wants to share his thoughts-which makes you wonder why he’d set a no-writing rule.) On the rare occasions when DLL has to communicate with Jerusha, you see him at his typewriter pretending to be his own secretary and writing in the third person. As Jervis angsts about this, he then gets the idea to drive up to the college and introduce himself, even if he’s not good at family, friendship, or commitment, and hates his relations-you’re already acquainted with Julia… Anyway, he introduces himself as his given name/Julia’s uncle, and they hit it off like gangbusters. Jerusha may not care much for Pendletons, but she declares him “a real human being, not a Pendleton at all!” in her letter to Daddy about their meeting. Which of course makes Jervis feel EVEN MORE AWKWARD as to how this is going, but … yeah, he never can figure out how to break that news.
Here’s a big hint for Jerusha: while staying at Lock Willow she finds a stash of Jervis’s books he had as a kid and finds out that he used to stay there as a kid and when he grew up and inherited the farm, he passed it off to the family that lived there. When they meet in person again (Jervis being himself), they have a long gossip about the farm, and sophomore year he takes her around NYC.
Then we see Jervis getting to be a bit of a jealous jerk when Jerusha starts mentioning Sallie’s brother Jimmie. When Jerusha mentions getting invited to go to “Camp McBride” for the summer and that Jimmie will be there, suddenly Jervis get all jealous and DLL “would prefer that you remain at Lock Willow,” or so his secretary says. Jerusha complies, pissily, but eventually gets over it when Jervis comes to Lock Willow for a long visit.
For Christmas of her junior year, Jerusha gets an invite from Julia to stay with the Pendletons, but she doesn’t really like it because they’re super shallow, and the one time she sees Jervis he’s super uncomfortable. The family blabs that he’s a socialist and throws away his money on things that aren’t yachts and polo ponies, which inspires Jerusha to be a socialist too.
Julia invites Jerusha to go with her to Paris over the summer, but Jerusha turns it down because she wants to take a summer teaching job. Both Jervis and DLL start writing her angry letters saying she’s a fool for not going-Jervis in particular is pretty insulting-and Jerusha writes to DLL later saying that Jervis was being a jerk and that’s what convinced her NOT to go. Only Daddy can control me, she says, and not entirely. At this point Jerusha’s all about the independence, thanks. Reading this, Jervis realizes he’s being a jerk and decides he doesn’t like being one, and that Jerusha has to find her own way. (Good for him.)
Eventually Jerusha writes a novel about the JGH, graduates and is really ticked that DLL didn’t show up (to her knowledge-Jervis was definitely there), and gets her novel published. She says after she pays DLL back, she’ll send her royalties to the home, and then maybe she can become a trustee “and then you’ll HAVE to meet me.” Hah.
Then Jervis proposes, and Jerusha freaks out that he doesn’t know she’s an orphan, and DLL finally agrees to meet…and like I said, we finally get to see the scene that’s not in the book because there’s no way to write a letter about that. She figures out that Jervis is…”his secretary?” Hahahahah. She’s horrified that he read all the letters about himself-those were private letters and you’re not even old!-but in the end, she never had romantic intentions toward Jimmie, and Jervis’s curiosity got the better of him so he met her as himself, and she realizes she should have figured it out before, and…ta-dah. Even though they’re meeting in person, the ending uses “the first love letter” mention in her last letter, and they have a very chaste kiss and hug on the floor.
Generally speaking, I enjoyed it. If there’s any flaws to it, I’d say:
(b) I do think it’s very odd that when Jervis and Jerusha are actually in a scene together, they don’t interact a whole lot. It sticks to the letter format, and we don’t exactly see them having conversations together in a normal way. Both actors spend 90% of the play talking to the audience alone (according to the Q&A after the show, they like it that way and consider it a breather since the actors are married to each other), but during the 10% when they should be interacting and are in a scene together, they’re still almost always staring at the audience and not really relating to each other so much. If anything bugged me about the staging of this, it’d be that. Geez, have them be TOGETHER for the brief moments we see it!
Anyway, I enjoyed the show, I wish them well in selling tickets, and I hope the streaming event was a giant success so that other shows (like oh, Hamilton) will do the same thing. I’m never making it to New York, but at least this way I could see some shows.