1911, India, or Inja as the British would say. Mary Lennox, British as they come, dreams of nursery rhymes and Indian chants (Opening), and awakes to find her parents have died of cholera. She is found and returned to the England she has never known, not knowing if she is awake or still dreaming (There's a Girl). Note: Throughout the show, these and other songs are sung by a chorus of ghosts, referred to in the libretto as "dreamers," who serve as narrators and Greek chorus for the action.
Mary is met in Yorkshire by Mrs. Medlock, housekeeper to her Uncle Archibald. They take the train to The House Upon the Hill, which has "something wrong inside it;" Archibald is a hunchback who has been inconsolable since his wife Lily's death. Mary is to live with Archibald, her next closest relative.
No one can sleep Mary's first night there (I Heard Someone Crying); the old house is noisy and memories are louder still, and Mary and Archibald both think they hear their lost loved ones. Next morning, Mary meets the first friendly person she's found in Yorkshire, Martha the chambermaid. Martha entices Mary outside with tales of the gardens (If I Had a Fine White Horse), in particular, a secret hidden garden. Meanwhile, Archibald continues to wallow in his memories of A Girl In the Valley who planted a garden on his land and in his heart.
Mary finally meets Archibald; they are at best polite to each other, clearly uncomfortable. Mary returns to the garden, laid out in Victorian style as a topiary maze, as do gardener Ben and neighbor boy Dickon, each with his own agenda (It's a Maze); Mary discovers that there really is a secret garden, hidden since Lily's death because it reminds Archibald of her. Dickon, we learn, is something of a druid who comes to invoke the spring (Winter's On the Wing). He claims to converse with the animals, and teaches Mary to speak Yorkshire to a bird (Show Me the Key). The bird with Dickon's help does lead Mary to the key to the garden; but where's the door?
Mary's only request of Archibald is for A Bit of Earth to plant a garden of her own; it's the one request he can't grant, as she reminds him more and more of his Lily. As the Yorkshire gloom turns to rain (Storm I), we meet Archibald's brother and physician Neville. He and Archibald both notice that Mary has Lily's Eyes, and we learn that Neville loved Lily as well, and still carries his jealosy for the girl "who loved my brother, never me."
As the rain continues, Mary again thinks she hears someone crying (Storm II), but this time she finds him: her cousin Colin, confined to bed as a cripple since his birth, during which his mother Lily died. (NOTE: I know how depressing all this sounds, but the book and the music manage to keep a light touch. Really.) Colin dreams so he thinks of a Round-Shouldered Man who comes to him at night and reads to him from his book "of all that's good and true." The storm reaches its peak and Mary, half dreaming again, ventures out and finds the garden! (Final Storm)
Act II begins with Mary's reverie about The Girl I Mean to Be, with "a place I can go when I am lost." But can the garden be that place? Like her uncle, it is neglected and overgrown; it seems dead. Archibald relates his dream to Neville, a dream with Lily and Mary together in the garden. But Neville's dreams are darker; recalling Lily spurning him, Neville looks to the day when Archibald leaves for good and the house becomes Neville's (Quartet).
Giving in to his brother's urgings and his own fears, Archibald leaves for the Continent, pausing only to read his son one last fairy tale (Race You To the Top of the Morning). Mary remains interested in the garden, and asks Dickon for help. Dickon explains that it is probably just dormant, or WICK, and that "somewhere there's a single streak of green inside it." They even bring Colin in his wheelchair to the garden, as the ghost of his mother sings to him and with him (Come to My Garden / Lift Me Up). In the garden, the exercise and fresh air begin to make Colin well or is it Dickon's magic and an Indian invocation? (Come Spirit, Come Charm). The dreamers sing the praises of the renewed garden (A Bit of Earth (Reprise)).
But all is not well. Mary has to throw a tantrum to prevent being sent to boarding school, as Martha tells her she must Hold On: "It's this day, not you/ That's bound to go away." Mary writes a plain letter full of feeling to Archibald (Letter Song) urging him to come home. At first he can't (Where In the World), but Lily's ghost convinces him to return (How Could I Ever Know).
He finds Colin well and walking, despite all of Neville's warnings. Archibald, a changed man, accepts Mary as his own, and the dreamers invite all to "stay here in the garden" (Finale).
- Patrick O'Brien (email@example.com)