The Secret Garden Synopsis
- Act I
Mary Lennox, a 10-year-old English girl who has lived in India since birth, dreams of English nursery rhymes and Hindi chants ("Opening"). She awakes to learn that her parents and nearly everyone she knew in India, including her Ayah have died of cholera. Found by survivors of the epidemic (officers who worked alongside her father), Mary is sent back to England to live with her only remaining relations ("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.)
Her mother's sister, Lily, died many years ago. Lily's widower is Archibald Craven, a hunchback who is still overcome by grief. The management of his manor house, Misselthwaite, is largely left to his brother, Dr. Neville Craven. The house is persistently haunted by ghosts (i.e. Lily, Ayah, Fakir, Rose and Albert Lennox, officers from India, etc.) and spirits of Archibald's and Mary's pasts, due to their holding on to what used to be. The housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, coldly welcomes Mary to Yorkshire on her arrival ("The House Upon the Hill"). Mary has difficulty sleeping her first night there ("I Heard Someone Crying") as she and Archibald both mourn their losses. The next morning, Mary meets Martha, a young chambermaid who encourages Mary to go play outside by telling her about the surrounding moorland and grounds ("If I Had a Fine White Horse"), in particular, a secret (hidden) garden. Meanwhile, Archibald remains submerged in his memories of Lily ("A Girl In the Valley"), while ghosts waltz to Lily's and Archibald's serenading.
Mary explores the garden, laid out in Victorian style as a topiary maze, as do Ben Weatherstaff, an old gardener, and Martha's brother Dickon ("It's a Maze"), each with a different agenda. Ben tells Mary that the secret garden has been locked since Lily's death, as it reminds Archibald of her. Dickon invokes the spring ("Winter's On the Wing") in a rustic druid-like fashion; he claims to converse with animals and teaches Mary to speak the Yorkshire dialect to an English Robin ("Show Me the Key"). The bird leads Mary to the key for the garden, but does not show Mary the door.
Archibald has a formal meeting with his niece, who asks him for ("A Bit of Earth") to plant a garden of her own; he is startled and compares her to Lily for their shared horticultural interests. As the Yorkshire gloom turns to rain and "Shakes the souls of the dead" ("Storm I"), Archibald and his brother Neville both notice that Mary also physically resembles her aunt ("Lily's Eyes"), with whom both men were in love.
As the rain continues, Mary again hears someone crying ("Storm II"), but this time she finds the source: her cousin Colin, confined to bed since his birth, when his mother Lily died. He has been in bed his entire life because Archibald feared that Colin would also become a hunch back. In reality, Colin's spine is perfectly fine but his father is convinced that he has passed on his curse. Colin confides in his cousin his dreams 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". However, just as it seems they have become friends, Neville and Mrs. Medlock burst in and dismiss her angrily, telling her she is never to see Colin again. As the storm reaches its peak, Mary runs outside and finds the door to the garden ("Final Storm").
- Act II
Mary has a reverie about ("The Girl I Mean to Be,") with "a place I can go when I am lost." In reality, the garden is like her uncle and Mary herself, neglected and half-wild.
Archibald relates a dream to Neville about seeing Lily and Mary together in the garden. But Neville's dreams are darker: recalling his unrequited love for Lily, Neville wants Archibald to leave Misselthwaite entirely to him. The two brothers' musings are interwoven with ghostly echoes of old arguments between Lily and her sister Rose (Mary's mother) about Archibald's suitability as a prospective husband and father ("Quartet"). At Neville's urging, Archibald leaves for the Continent, pausing only to read a fairy tale to Colin as the boy sleeps ("Race You To the Top of the Morning").
Mary asks Dickon for help with the garden, which appears dead; Dickon explains that it is probably just dormant and that "somewhere there's a single streak of green inside it" ("Wick"). Mary tells Colin about the discovered garden, but he is initially reluctant to go outside until encouraged by a vision of his mother ("Come to My Garden/Lift Me Up"). Mary, Dickon, and Martha clandestinely bring Colin to the garden in a wheelchair. In the garden, the exercise and fresh air begin to make Colin well ("Come Spirit, Come Charm"). The dreamers sing the praises of the renewed garden ("A Bit of Earth (Reprise)").
Back in the house, Mary faces down Neville as he threatens to send her away to boarding school. Martha tells Mary she must ("Hold On")--"when you see a man who's ragin'/And he's jealous and he fears/That you've walked through walls he's hid behind for years..." Mary writes to Archibald ("Letter Song") urging him to come home.
At first Archibald feels defeated and frustrated ("Where In the World"), but Lily's ghost convinces him to return ("How Could I Ever Know"). Entering the garden, he finds Colin completely healthy; in fact, he is beating Mary in a footrace as Archibald walks through the door. Archibald, a changed man, accepts Mary as his own, and the dreamers invite all to "stay here in the garden," as Lily and Mary's parents Albert and Rose promise to look over them for the rest of their days ("Finale").
Changes from the original novel
Burnett's novel primarily focused on Mary and her interactions with Colin, Martha, and Dickon. The musical adds more emphasis to the adult characters by presenting (and to some extent, inventing) the shared history entwining the two families. Originally, Burnett stated that the name of Archibald's wife was Lilias, and that she was the sister of Mary Lennox's father; in the musical, Colin's and Mary's mothers are sisters named Lily and Rose.
In the book, Colin's private physician is an otherwise unnamed poor cousin of Archibald Craven; Colin privately remarks to Mary that Dr. Craven is the next heir to Misselthwaite and "always looks cheerful when [Colin's health] is worse", but Burnett also states that Dr. Craven is "not an unscrupulous man, though he was a weak one, and he did not intend to let [Colin] run into actual danger." The musical tightens the doctor's conflict of interest and makes him the primary antagonist as Archibald's brother, Dr. Neville Craven, who once hopelessly loved Lily and whom Mary expressly accuses of wanting Colin to die for the sake of his inheritance.