“Jane Eyre meets Beauty and the Beast meets My Fair Lady meets You’ve Got Mail.”
That’s what I imagine the pitch might be for the enjoyably predictable – yet also oddly idiosyncratic – meet-cute plot of the musical Daddy Long Legs.
From Jane Eyre it takes an orphaned and exploited protagonist who uses education and determination to make her way up the social and economic ladder in a patriarchal world; from Beauty and the Beast it takes a heroine who loves books and stories, and whose intelligence and wit bewitch, and eventually reform, a wealthy but socially inept man; from My Fair Lady it takes the theme of a benefactor who takes an interest in educating and transforming an impoverished girl and then falls in love with her; and from You’ve Got Mail it takes the plot contrivance of an epistolary romance in which a woman thinks she is corresponding with a man she has never met, but is actually writing letters to a man she already knows.
Of course, the musical doesn’t really take these plot elements directly from any of those predecessors, since its actual source is the 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, an early twentieth-century novelist you’ve probably never heard of (well – I hadn’t) who was also a suffragist and social activist. Nevertheless, the romcom-mashup plot trajectory’s destination is evident from almost the moment the musical begins – and yet there are plenty of unexpected surprises along the way.
Let’s start with the rather awkward premise of the love story: Jerusha (Danielle Bowen) has been gifted a college education by an anonymous and mysterious benefactor she nicknames “Daddy Long Legs” (because the only glimpse she has of him, a lanky shadow, reminds her of a spider). His gift comes with a few strings attached, among them that she is to write to him regularly of her progress, but never to expect a response, or to know his true identity. Her letters are so lively, charming, and intimate that he begins to take an interest in her, and – because he happens to be her college roommate’s uncle – he contrives to meet her in person without her knowing who he is. Over the next four years of college she continues to write to “Daddy,” as she calls him, about the details of her life, including her ongoing impressions of the rather attractive Uncle Jervis (Allan Snyder), never realizing that she is in fact corresponding directly with Jervis, who, in turn, uses his power as “Daddy Long Legs” to keep her from spending time with potential romantic rivals.
That’s a pretty creepy setup, and it’s to the musical’s credit that it doesn’t pretend that there’s anything okay about Jervis’s subterfuge. In fact, his distress and guilt over his prolonged failure to reveal his secret is one of the main conflicts of the play: several times he begins to write to Jerusha to explain what’s going on, only to find some flimsy rationalization for his cowardly inability to fess up. Meanwhile, Jerusha is completely oblivious to the fact that she’s even in a romantic comedy at all. In a welcome and refreshing twist on the genre, her focus is on her education and future professional career: she’s spending her time reading voraciously, writing a novel, and becoming politically aware and active, all the while believing that her correspondence is with a man old enough to be her grandfather – which, it’s true, only adds to the weirdness of the play’s inevitable resolution, but at the very least, her achievement of career success (she gets a lucrative publishing contract) goes some way to mitigate the humiliation that she feels – and that we feel, on her behalf – on learning that she has essentially been duped.
It also helps that director Ted Pappas and actor Allan Snyder make clear, through the staging and character interpretation, that Jervis is not a mean and deceptive man, but rather a fearful and socially awkward one; the play makes him grovel quite a bit for Jerusha’s forgiveness and also gives her ample opportunity to lay out for him, and for us, all of the ways he has betrayed her trust. The humiliation goes both ways, in other words, and when the inevitable resolution occurs, we have at the very least seen all of the damage laid bare.
You may have noticed that I’ve only mentioned two characters, which is another unusual thing about this musical: there are no others. Snyder and Bowen – both of whom are on stage and singing nearly non-stop for almost two and a half hours – are excellent, as is the production overall. Snyder’s voice is a pleasant tenor that handsomely suits the character of Jervis, and he brings a fine comic sensibility to the role. Bowen has an gloriously easy, silvery voice that effortlessly floats above the three-piece orchestra, and she is utterly winning as the plucky, intelligent Jerusha. Michael Schweikardt’s two-level set ingeniously secrets props and costumes in benches and cupboards so that Pappas can keep the action moving seamlessly forward even as the action shifts from an orphanage to a college to a farm to a several other locales. 1912 was a lovely era for clothes (think Alice Paul and the suffragettes) and costume designer Gabriel Berry replicates the era beautifully, with some particularly fun hats for Jerusha.
The fact that there are only two characters means that the book and lyrics can spend a lot more time exploring their thoughts and feelings and giving them more psychological and emotional complexity than you’d normally expect from a musical comedy. That, along with Jerusha’s pointed refusal to let her ambitions be limited by her gender, may be what most lifts the work above the romcom conventions it so pleasurably weaves together, and what allows it, in the end, to pay something of an homage to novelist Jean Webster’s first-wave feminism.