Quad City Music Guild Forced to Make Second Painful Decision to Scrap “Secret Garden” Again
Though a story of redemption, new life, and surviving an infectious pandemic would have made an ideal return this spring, Quad City Music Guild for the second time on Tuesday announced it would again cancel a planned production of the beloved musical, “The Secret Garden.”
While the board of directors informed the original 2020 cast and crew last month that it decided to scrap live performances at Prospect Park Auditorium, Moline, it waited to publicly announce until after its January board meeting Tuesday night.
Due to ongoing Covid safety protocols and continuing limitations on audience size, the QCMG board announced it would cancel the rescheduled April 2021 show. “The Secret Garden” was two weeks away from a March 27, 2020 opening when the board first chose to cancel last March, and later shelved its entire 2020 season for the first time since it has performed in the park in 1949.
“While these decisions remain difficult, we know how important it is to keep the safety of our participants, patrons, and community at the forefront of everything we do, Music Guild posted on Facebook.
Instead, the nonprofit is replacing “The Secret Garden” with a streamed performance, “On With the Show: A QCMG Cabaret.” Filmed from
the Guild stage, the online production will feature the talents of many of “Secret Garden” cast members.
The plan is for the show to include 10 vocal selections highlighting QCMG’s history — interspersed with photos and stories from QCMG past
and present, Sondgeroth said. (Full disclosure: I was the 2020 production’s piano accompanist and assistant music director.)
In an e-mail interview Tuesday night, Sondgeroth said Music Guild is proud to be a community theater, with the emphasis on “community.”
“It’s our job right now to prioritize the safety of our whole community over what we as an organization would love to do, which is to go back
to producing awesome musicals,” she said, noting the board “has been committed from the very beginning of the pandemic to following the guidance of public health officials and government regulations.”
“We would never want to do anything that made the jobs of healthcare workers harder or put our performers, patrons, or volunteers at risk,” Sondgeroth said. “Gathering a large cast together along with a crew and a pit and all of the volunteers needed to put on a show just isn’t safe.
“These decisions aren’t easy. No one sits on the board of QCMG to cancel shows,” she wrote. “They do it because they love what QCMG brings to our community. But right now, the best thing we can do for our community is wait. And while I’m sad this is the decision we had to make, I’m really, really proud of our board for making it.”
They let cast and crew know before Christmas since everyone involved is a volunteer. “And so, we always strive to be respectful of people’s time. Even if our region moves back to Phase 4, and I really hope we do, the maximum audience capacity allowed would be 50,” Sondgeroth said. The Guild theater seats 535.
“As a board, we have to weigh the cost of the production with the ability to sell tickets to the production. And again, even more importantly, we have to consider the safety of the participants,” she said. “Our Board did not see things changing to the point that QCMG would be able to produce the show safely. So, we wanted to let the participants know. We didn’t want to keep them obligated to the show longer than we had to.”
Neither last March’s nor this recent decision was easy, Sondgeroth said.
“In March 2020, it was hard because we had never had to make a decision like this before. In December 2020, it was hard because we had
hoped that by 2021 it would be safe to move forward,” she said. “But, in both cases, we were proud to make the decisions because it is the right thing to do in the bigger picture.”
With script and lyrics by Marsha Norman, and music by Lucy Simon (sister of Carly Simon), “The Secret Garden” premiered on Broadway in 1991 and ran for 709 performances, featuring Rebecca Luker, Mandy Patinkin, Robert Westenberg and Daisy Eagan.
The story is set in the early years of the 20th century, focused on Mary Lennox, a young English girl born and raised in India, orphaned by a cholera outbreak when she is 10. She is sent away to live in the manor of a brooding uncle she has never met in Yorkshire, England, where her personality blossoms among the other residents of the manor as they bring new life to a long-neglected garden.
Music Guild could not have done an abridged version outdoors, or livestreamed this spring without an in-person audience.
“You can’t make significant changes to copyrighted material,” Sondgeroth said. “So, we couldn’t abbreviate the show in order to do it outside. Not all shows’ licensing agreements allow for online streaming. And, again, we still have the safety of the participants to consider.”
Cast and crew members react
Jeff Ashcraft, stage director of the original “Secret Garden” for QCMG, said last month that he completely respected and supported the board’s decision.
“I know some of you were hoping we still might have the opportunity to resurrect the show, others have grieved the loss of the show and
moved on, and yet others have moved out of the area and into entirely new chapters of your lives,” he wrote to cast and crew.
“Unfortunately, it appears that this iteration of ‘The Secret Garden’ will never experience the thrill of performing in front of an audience, and yet I will be forever indebted to each of you for your commitment to telling this story,” Ashcraft said. “As one of the few people who witnessed the beginnings of this story just starting to gel from the audience perspective; I remain in awe of the talent and commitment from the entire team. It is definitely an experience from my theatre career that I will never forget.”
Music director Keith Haan, a retired St. Ambrose University music professor, said:
“Everyone was so committed to the production. After auditions we put together a real dream cast and crew. Such great music. Such a dedicated group of wonderful people. I had one rehearsal with the orchestra, composed of immensely talented players. Unfortunately, the cast never got a chance to sing with them.”
Carol Moon said she was so excited to be the costume designer for this show.
“I’ve only been a volunteer at QCMG since May 2016, but it has become such an important part of my life,” she said Tuesday. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until Covid took it away. This is such a special show and I truly hope the public gets to see our vision of it someday.”
Luke Vermeire, who signed on as set designer at 22, said it was the first time he was a solo set designer.
“It was a wonderful distraction from a lot of personal stuff I was dealing with at the time. I can’t wait to design again. Ultimately, it was heartbreaking to have a show canceled two weeks before we opened,” he said Tuesday of the show. “So much blood, sweat and tears went into the production. However there is something poetic about it. Jeff always said that “it’s about the process, not the product.’”
“It’s a hard thing to hear, but it’s true,” Vermeire said. “It will go down as the mythical ‘show that never was.’ I had been saying to myself that the subject material alone was going to permanently cancel the show.
“Opening a show about a girl from India in the middle of the cholera outbreak while hundreds of people are dying of an infectious disease is timely, but hits all too close to home for many people who have lost loved ones due to Covid-19,” he said. “Theater is an escape from the outside world and ‘The Secret Garden’ no longer seems like an escape from our world, but a reminder.
“Many people involved with QCMG had wanted to see ‘Secret Garden’ put on its stage but didn’t know it was possible. I know it’s possible,”
he added. “And one day it’s time will come.”
Taylor Bley, who played Neville, said Tuesday that the show – with its themes of grief, loss, faith, hope and rebirth – was precisely fitting for our times.
“It’s disappointing that it won’t take place, especially because it’s exactly the show that everyone needs right now,” he said. “The QCMG Board made has continued to make the right decision, we’re not at a place yet where it’d be safe to hold the show the way it needs to be done. I hope they will continue to pursue doing it in the near future, because ‘The Secret Garden’ is a show that’s relevant under normal circumstances, and now it’s painfully relevant under these circumstances.
“I’ve been able to perform a few times on various cabarets both virtual and in person at times in the pandemic, but it’s not the same as having a place like Guild to go to and flex my artistic muscles every night,” Bley said.
A favorite memory of his during rehearsals last winter actually was one when he got yelled at by Ashcraft.
“We were rehearsing a particularly dark and tense scene in the second act and I had it all mapped out in my head what I was gonna do, how I
was gonna do it, and how’d say it. I thought what I had was fine,” Bley said. “Jeff wasn’t gonna have it, he refused to let me settle for just fine. That show refused to settle for ‘just fine,’ it was going to be breathtaking.”
At the first potluck meeting of the cast and crew in January 2020, in the Guild theater lobby, Ashcraft told the group, he didn’t want this production to be “just good,” but it was going to be great, unforgettable.
Shay Schehl, who played Mary, said, “I know I’m not the only one who had to cancel an event or attempt to do it online. I also think it makes me appreciate getting to perform and I know I won’t take it for granted again. I really did hope for a chance to do it again this spring, but I
also understood that it was fairly farfetched. I think we all knew that the possibility of us being able to perform a musical safely was pretty low.”
What’s next for Guild?
Last year, QCMG also postponed its summer season – “Spamalot,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Matilda” – as well as the holiday show, “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” hoping to do them all this year, starting with “Secret Garden” (originally to run April 9-11 & 16-18).
Sondgeroth said Tuesday the board will make 2021 decisions on a show-by-show basis.
“Things change too quickly to make decisions now about shows that won’t start rehearsing for five months, and hopefully big, positive changes are on the way this spring,” she said. “We will make a decision about how to handle each show as their typical rehearsal schedule
start date nears.”
“I think it’s pretty amazing, and telling about Guild and its participants, that even though the fun of shows and cast parties has been temporarily paused, the volunteerism has not,” Sondgeroth (a veteran QCMG performer) said. “Many people don’t know that no one is employed by Guild. Every task is done by a volunteer.
“While the stage has been dark, volunteers have been busy sprucing up the theatre (it looks gorgeous!), curating the costume shop, paying bills, updating the website, answering calls, drafting budgets, and meeting to respond to Covid-based concerns,” she said in the e-mail.
The January board meeting is “always a big one, even when we aren’t responding to a pandemic,” Sondgeroth said. “We have to approve the annual budget, committee chairs, and review policies. It’s also the first meeting for board members elected the previous October. Our board is so dedicated, and they are doing a great job managing the ‘regular’ board duties with all of the extra things the pandemic has thrown our way.”
The possible future of “The Secret Garden” remains unclear, she noted. The board will hold its regular play selection process for 2022 later this year.
Patrons who had a 2020 Silver or Gold Season Ticket Package transferred to 2021 will automatically receive a link to view the spring cabaret. It will be available for streaming during the original Spring 2021 show dates – April 9-11 and 16-18. Box office staff will be in touch if they do not have an email address on file.
If you do not have streaming capabilities, and did not already receive a refund for the spring show portion of your season ticket, please contact QCMG for a refund or voucher for this
portion of your ticket package.
Streaming views will also be available for anyone to purchase as the production dates get closer.
“I have to say that I have been so touched by the graciousness, patience, and support of our patrons,” Sondgeroth said. “We are really so fortunate to have such support from our community. I’m grateful.”
For more information on Guild, visit https://qcmusicguild.com/covid-19-response;
email email@example.com, or call 309-762-6610.