For fans of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, there are certain things that never fail to pique our interest: headstrong, bookish heroines. Moody heroes with hidden depths. Ballgowns and ink quills and confessions of love. Who can resist?
I love musical theatre just as much as a good classic novel, and I’m always on the hunt for a new, underrated musical to listen to. While scrolling through BroadwayHD, a streaming service which is now offering a free 7-day trial for all of us stuck at home, I came across Daddy Long Legs. I had heard of, but never read, the 1912 novel the musical is based on. On a whim, I decided to watch it, and I fell head-over-heels in love. This is the historical romance we all need in our lives right now.
The Daddy Long Legs musical, which premiered off-Broadway in 2015, takes place in the 1910s and tells the story of Jerusha Abbott, an orphan who has lived her entire life in the gloomy John Grier home. One night, on her way to the headmistress’s office, she glimpses the silhouette of a tall, thin man as he leaves. The headmistress tells Jerusha that this man has read one of her essays and decided to fund her college education under the pseudonym “John Smith”. In exchange for his charity, there are a few rules: she will never meet him. She will never know his real name. She must write him a letter every month, but never expect one in return. All Jerusha knows about her mysterious benefactor is that he’s tall and spindly, so she affectionately nicknames him “Daddy Long Legs”, imagining him as an eccentric old man.
As the audience soon finds out (so it’s not really a spoiler), Daddy Long Legs is actually a young, handsome gentleman named Jervis Pendleton. Independent, unconventional, and a bit of a socialist, Jervis is the black sheep among his snotty family. At first, he doesn’t expect to invest much more in Jerusha than his money — but soon, he’s eagerly looking forward to her quirky, clever letters. Feelings blossom and hijinks ensue.
This musical works so well because it’s very simple, but still fresh and unique. Jerusha and Jervis are the only characters who ever appear onstage, but the audience is kept engaged the whole time by the chemistry between the actors and the tight, intelligent lyrics and dialogue. Many musicals are known for their spectacular sets and flashy choreography, which can be a ton of fun, but this show is easy to get lost in because of its wholesome, grounded tone. Its adaptation of the source material is also very interesting — the original novel was told in letters, a format that doesn’t seem easy to adapt to the stage. But Daddy Long Legs mostly maintains this technique, so the audience can see how Jerusha’s writing is the heart of the story.
The characters are also part of what makes this musical so great! We can all relate to Jerusha, a girl with a love of literature who longs to see the world and make something of herself. She’s witty, candid, and a little naïve, which makes her character arc throughout the show all the more satisfying. Although “Daddy Long Legs” supports her financially, Jerusha is no passive damsel. She grows a lot over the course of the story, as does Jervis Pendleton. Jervis is an imperfect hero who makes plenty of mistakes. His shyness when it comes to Jerusha leads to some misguided choices, but as much as you shake your head at him, you can’t help but identify with him, too. This isn’t a story about two gorgeous, irresistible people with smoldering eyes and sexily tragic pasts. They’re both insecure and awkward and a little bit strange, but that just makes them more realistic and their journey more rewarding.
Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the actors who bring these characters to life. In the BroadwayHD version, the two co-stars are actually married! Megan McGinnis, who played Jerusha, had been involved with the show for six years already when her husband, Adam Halpin, auditioned to play Jervis. He landed the role and the rest was history. Although I’m sure Megan did a great job with her previous Jervises, there’s something special about watching two actors who share a real-life love story together.
As heartwarming as it is hilarious, Daddy Long Legs was just what I needed in this time of self-isolation. Check this one out for a sweet, charming love story that will check all your historical romance boxes.