“The Secret Life of Bees” – first a 2001 best-selling novel, then a 2008 all-star movie, now a musical written by theatrical all stars Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Ruined), Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam) and directed by Sam Gold (Fun Home) – is a feel-good story about a young white girl runaway in the dark Deep South of the early 1960s who is in effect adopted, and saved, by a matriarchal family of African-American beekeepers.
Let’s admit that this is not the best work of the amazing group of theater artists who put it together. Their past work is so glorious, how could it be? “The Secret Life of Bees” has its flaws. It doesn’t solve the implausible contrivances of novelist Sue Monk Kidd’s story nor the manipulative up-with-people sentimentality; indeed, the musical actually takes away some of the darker plot points of the novel and movie (such as a character’s suicide) to make it even more hokey and honeyed. (This will be my last intentional honey pun.) It also doesn’t solve the outdated racial dynamics, although Nottage does try in the margins. Yet the young white girl Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) is still depicted as the savior of her black housekeeper Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh), who was beaten up and arrested because she announced she was going to vote. Why doesn’t Rosaleen have more agency? For that matter, why does she virtually disappear once the two of them run away and find refuge in the home of the Boatwright sistersAugust (LaChanze), June (Eisa Davis), and May (Anastacia McCleskey)?
But then consider the third song of Act II. Lily has been helping tend the bees with Zach (Brett Gray), a boy of her age who’s a neighbor of the Boatwright’s. She’s scared of the bees, but Zach tells her to reember what August Boatwright teaches. To avoid being stung, “You have to send them love in order to get it back.”
“How?” she asks. “I’m scared.”
“Think. What do you love? “
And that launches into the song “What Do You Love,” whose lyrics (by Birkenhead) that aren’t far removed from My Favorite Things.
i love the dew on my ankles
The Moon through the trees
And I love…”
And she hesitates.
“I’m listening,” Zach says
Lily sings: “The way you talk to bees.”
The duet goes on that way until a swoon-worthy climax, with the two teenagers never quite saying (singing) what they actually feel.
That hesitation, that awkward punt: As in “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik has created a song about adolescent emotion that feels so spot-on that you could cry.
Not all 19 songs composed by Sheik with lyrics by Birkenhead are as completely moving and lovely. But most are. And the singing couldn’t be more glorious.
Somehow, the songs affected my attitude towards the musical in much the way that the honey-smeared wooden sculpture of the black Virgin Mary affects the women in “The Secret Life of Bees” who worship her. It made all that was sour feel unimportant next to all that was sweet.
The Secret Life of Bees
Book by Lynn Nottage; Music by Duncan Sheik; Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead; Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Romelda Teron Benjamin, Joe Cassidy, Vita E. Cleveland, Eisa Davis, Matt DeAngelis, Manoel Felciano, Brett Gray, Jai’Len Josey, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley and Elizabeth Teeter