Youngest Tony-winning actress passes torch in ‘Secret Garden’

September 25, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Secret Garden' at Shakespeare Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — At age 11, she became the youngest actress ever to win a Tony, receiving a congratulatory kiss on the head from Audrey Hepburn in 1991.

Now, 25 years later, Daisy Eagan returns to “The Secret Garden” all month at Shakespeare Theatre, moving to a supporting role and passing the torch to Anya Rothman, 11, of Charlottesville, Virginia.

“It’s really, really cool because Daisy is really awesome and she won a Tony for the role that I’m playing now,” Rothman told WTOP. “I was kind of nervous before I met [her], because I didn’t know what [she] would be like. When I met Daisy, she was really nice and she wasn’t being big about it.”

“You were a little worried I was gonna be a diva?” Eagan asked, as Rothman smiled, “Not really.”

Based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett adapted by Marsha Norman, the story follows turn-of-the-century English orphan Mary Lennox, whose parents die during a cholera outbreak in colonial India. She’s sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at his estate in Yorkshire, England, where she hears mysterious cries in the night and learns rumors of a once beautiful secret garden.

“The house has fallen into a bit of disrepair in the 10 years since [Arch’s wife Lily] has died,” Eagan said. “Archie is a recluse and has not gotten over her. [He] needs to go to a singles meet and move on!”

It’s here at Craven’s estate that Mary falls under the care of chambermaid Martha, Eagan’s new role.

“Martha is a sturdy country gal from Yorkshire,” Eagan said. “[She] has lots of brothers and sisters, so she knows all about kids and sees this dour, sour-looking little girl [Mary] and thinks ‘I’m gonna try to fix this.’ So she nudges her outside toward the secret garden that she may or may not know about.”

Thus, the dimly-lit estate contrasts with the later colorful reveal of the titular secret garden.

“It’s kind of Escher-esque, these stairways that don’t really go anywhere, and it’s dark and sort of Gothic in that way,” Eagan said. “[The secret garden] is really gorgeous. A lot of times when it’s revealed, the audience bursts into spontaneous applause because it’s just really bright and beautiful.”

Equally beautiful are the show tunes by Marsha Norman (lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music).

“The score of this show is one of the best scores of all time; I’d say in the Top 10,” Eagan said. “Over the years, many people have come up to me and said the original cast recording got them through a really difficult summer, or they came out of the closet, or they lost somebody close to them, or they went off to college; whatever it was, people have used this score to get them through hard times.”

Eagan’s favorite songs remain “Winter’s On the Wing” and “Hold On.” What about Rothman?

“I really like ‘Wick,’ because it’s very upbeat,” Rothman said. “And ‘Lily’s Eyes’ is also really good, because it’s a full song. It’s a ballad, but it’s a driving ballad, and I like the orchestra in it.”

Fans of the Broadway show will notice some of the original show tunes have been cut for economical reasons, including “Round-Shouldered Man,” “The Quartet” and “Race to the Top of the Morning.”

“It’s a new version and they’ve cut quite a bit,” Eagan said. “I think Marsha and Lucy just wanted to streamline the story. Modern audiences have a shorter attention span … so they took a scalpel to it.”

The style of director David Armstrong also differs from original Broadway director Susan Schulman.

“David likes to set up a picture and trusts the actor to fill out the picture with the story,” Eagan said. “[Schulman] gave me the best piece of acting advice I’ve ever gotten in my life: ‘The sentence ends with the period,’ meaning you don’t trail off. … She also was very specific [and] very exacting. I got stacks and stacks of notes, some of which I still have, which can be really frustrating, but I realized it really did bring out this performance. I think without her, I wouldn’t have won this Tony Award.”

Eagan’s Tony win was one of three for the 1991 musical, including Best Book and Best Scenic Design.

“Tony night was really crazy,” Eagan recalled. “My mother had been really keen on preparing me for not winning because kids don’t usually win. … We wrote some names down, thank God, because I would’ve gone blank. I brought my stuffed rabbit with me, my sister sat with me and my parents got seats in the balcony. Audrey Hepburn kissed my head; I walked off backstage and met Lily Tomlin.”

To this day, Eagan remains the youngest female Tony winner at 11-and-a-half years old. The overall record belongs to Frankie Michaels, who was a few months younger when he won for his role across Angela Lansbury in “Mame” (1966). Now, it’s Rothman’s turn to follow in these acclaimed footsteps.

“Anya was really on it from the get go,” Eagan said. “I think she really jumped into the part headfirst and asked really smart questions and has great instincts and lots of energy and she’s adorable to watch. … It’s delightful to get to watch Anya develop this character on her own and create Mary for herself. There were times in rehearsal when David would say, ‘Mary, cross to center,’ and I’d be halfway across to center and be like, ‘Right! I’m not Mary anymore. You’ve got it, Anya. Go for it!'”

Thus, “The Secret Garden” has come full circle, replacing its stars but keeping its timeless themes.

“The story is about healing and rebirth,” Eagan said. “Mary heals herself and she heals the people around her. It’s about coming back to life after being dormant for a while. … It helps us to remember there is hope in the world, that even when things are dark and bleak, there is hope. Life and happiness are always lurking just right under the surface and you just need to scrape away some of the bark.”

“‘Cause it’s wick!” Rothman said. “Wick means alive, even if it looks dead.”

Click here for ticket information. Listen to the full conversation with Daisy Eagan and Anya Rothman below:

September 25, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Daisy Eagan & Anya Rothman (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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