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Sunday, October 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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As "Little Women" endures on page and stage, author comes out of shadows

Seattle Times theater critic

"There can be few other books in American literary history which have had so enormous an impact on the imagination of half the reading population, and have been so neglected by the other half," wrote feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter.

The book: Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." And while the male half of the population may label it an early example of "chick lit," theater producers are counting on this 19th-century novel's legion of female fans to patronize two Seattle shows of the same title.

A touring 2005 Broadway musical based on Alcott's 19th-century tale of the March sisters opens Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre.

And in December, Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre musters its own nonsinging version of "Little Women," adapted from the earliest edition of the novel.

Also the basis for a recent opera by composer Mark Adamo and at least 16 films (from Japan, Germany and China, as well as the U.S.), "Little Women" is a story for the ages.

The enduring appeal of the book continues, perhaps even more so in an age when adolescent innocence is imperiled. But we are also learning Alcott herself was more complex than the quaint spinner of girlhood tales one might imagine.

Reading "Little Women"

Coming up

"Little Women," the musical. Plays Tuesday through Sunday at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $20-65 (www.theparamount.com or 206-292-ARTS).

"Little Women, Part 1" Dec. 1-23. Book-It Repertory Theatre at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$30 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org). Book-It will also host a free panel discussion about "Little Women," with Louisa May Alcott biographer Kit Bakke and others. 7 p.m., Nov. 17 at the Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle.

Many girls discover "Little Women," as I did, at age 10 or so. A few pages, and they're riveted by this chronicle of four Concord, Mass., sisters: feisty Jo, shy Beth, pretty and frivolous Amy, sensible Meg.

Alcott hooks you with lively accounts of the jolly but genteel-poor, Civil War-era March household. Their games and holidays, their Victorian clothing, their crushes on boys — all sparkle in vivid prose. And the bonds and strains among the sisters still ring true.

Most current "Little Women" readers know the Marches were patterned on Alcott's own family. Meg, Beth and Amy resemble her sisters. And Jo, an aspiring writer, is an obvious stand-in for the author.

What the book doesn't detail is the fascinating literary and political milieu the unconventional Alcotts were part of.

Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott, was a poor breadwinner but a noted educator and social reformer. As a member of the Transcendentalist movement, he rejected formal religion, sought spirituality in nature, home-schooled his children and befriended such writers as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

All the Alcotts were devout abolitionists and Union loyalists. And in 1862, Louisa volunteered as a nurse in a Union Army hospital, where she contracted typhoid (which permanently weakened her health).

Novel on demand

But writing, not nursing, was Louisa's true vocation. In 1854, at age 22, her first book, "Flower Fables," came out. A prolific output followed, including her astute war memoir "Hospital Sketches," poignant children's Christmas stories and some rather racy Victorian mystery tales and potboiler romances serialized in popular magazines. Bearing such titles as "A Long Fatal Love Chase" and "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," the latter were published under a male pseuodynmn, A.M. Barnard.

In 1867, mainly to earn some much-needed cash, Alcott also agreed to pen a "girls' story" for a Boston publisher.

"I plod away," she complained in her journal, "though I don't really enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it."

She was proven wrong. After "Little Women" appeared in 1868, its publisher was so pleased with the novel (which ended at the close of the Civil War), he pressed Alcott to write a "part two," tracking the sisters into adulthood and marriage.

She did so, in a separate 1869 volume, making a few compromises along the way. ("Jo should have remained a literary spinster," Alcott wrote a friend, "but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry ... that I didn't dare to refuse. ... ")

An 1880 edition of "Little Women" melded both halves of the story. And since selling out the first 30,000-copy press run, it has circulated in 46 editions and has never been out of print.

Adapting the book

Three big Hollywood movies based on "Little Women" also fared well. But Book-It Rep is taking a slightly unusual approach, in its new staging of the beloved story.

Adapter Joy Marzec and director Allison Narver are going back to Alcott's 1869 "Little Women" text, to focus on the March sisters as adolescents.

Says Marzec, "I also think 'book one' has a tougher spirit, which was softened a bit in the 1880 version. It seems like Louisa May Alcott did have kind of an edge to her. She knew girls aren't just sugar and spice, but can be rough and wild sometimes."

In contrast, the musical "Little Women" scripted by Allan Knee with a score by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein, sticks with the larger, more familiar story.

Directed by Susan Schulman with Maureen McGovern as the March girls' mother, Marmee, the chamber-size tuner opened on Broadway last January to mixed reviews and lasted only until July.

Though key New York critics termed the show "sprightly and forgettable," and "old-fashioned," that didn't stop plans for a national tour, launched two months ago in San Diego. And in Seattle, "Little Women" fits right into a G-rated Broadway at the Paramount season packed with "girl-power" shows ("Wicked," "Annie").

It's intriguing to imagine what Alcott would make of all this. An independent thinker who never married, she too had a keen commercial instinct. (To meet public demand, she penned two "Little Women" sequels: "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys.")

But what of Alcott's darker literary bent, her daring adult thrillers and romances? Long out of print, these lesser-known works are now available. As are new critical biographies of the author from a historical-feminist perspective.

Together they present us with a larger portrait of a multi-faceted, amibitous American writer, who was both the mother of the ever-beloved "Little Women" — and a lot more.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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