Thirty years ago — when British composer Howard Goodall’s “The Hired Man” first reached London’s West End — Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, “Les Miserables” was still three years away from Broadway and the current students at Briarcliff High School weren’t yet twinkles in their father’s eyes.
Ian Driver, who is now directing theater at Briarcliff High School and has created a theatrical tradition at the school, was 19, living in his native England. He saw the musical and recalls being moved by it. When he began to think about musicals for 2014, he cast his mind back to the long-ago production and sought the rights to produce “The Hired Man” in America.
It was a request that had not ever been granted, that anyone can recall. When the lights come up in the Briarcliff auditorium on Friday, they will reveal the first ever production of “The Hired Man” by an American high school.
The story has sweep and heart. Ask the Briarcliff students what it’s about and they’ll still be sharing details, breathlessly, 15 minutes later. They are on fire with the discovery, musical-theater zealots of a sort.
The musical is one of several on Lower Hudson Valley stages this week, including: “Fiddler on the Roof” in Irvington and Byram Hills; “Meet Me in St. Louis” in Yorktown; “Seussical” in White Plains; “Aida” in Nyack; “Bye Bye Birdie” at Kennedy Catholic in Somers; and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s World War II musical — the name of which cannot be released, due to contractual restrictions — in Pleasantville.
Based on Melvyn Bragg’s novel, with a book by Bragg and music and lyrics by Goodall, “The Hired Man” follows the lives of farmers, miners and World War I British soldiers and their families. There are plots and subplots. It opens in 1898 in Cross Bridge, Cumbria, one of the northernmost of English counties. Walk any farther north, and you’re in Scotland.
We see a “hiring ring,” with day laborers hoping to find employment and employers hoping to pay the lowest wage possible. Into that mix comes newlywed John Tallentire (junior Joey Flihan), looking for field work to support his bride, Emily (senior Caroline Johnson). John is hired by local farmer Pennington whose son, Jackson (junior Russell Francis), soon falls in love with Emily, creating a love triangle and complications. Act II is set in 1914 at the start of what all are told will be a minor skirmish, but which becomes World War I. We meet the Tallentire children and the Tallentires, 16 years later. Life has taken its toll on their lives and their love.
Be forewarned: This is a three-hankie musical. Goodall’s music is gorgeous, from the haunting “Song of the Hired Man” to “The Farewell Song,” in which the village bids its soldiers adieu to the epic “War Song: So Tell Your Children” and the love song “No Choir of Angels.”
“Within one scene, you can have moments of being ecstatic and the next moment, you’re weeping,” says Johnson, 17.
Composer Goodall wrote to the cast.
“If you had told me (in 1984) that this show, rather unusual for the time (remember, this was a full year before ‘Les Miserables’ opened in London and moved the goalposts somewhat of what a ‘musical’ might be), would one day be being performed in a high school in Westchester, New York, by young people as yet unborn I would have laughed in disbelief,” he wrote. “And yet this is where we are today, by some strange and delightful miracle.”
Flihan says staging the musical is like blazing a trail, of sorts.
“There’s no reference,” he says. “We could barely find any music, and there were only a few bad YouTube videos.”
Adds Johnson: “We used the book as guidance. At least I did for Emily. The script leaves a giant hole of who does she really love. And the book helped me find her feelings and helped me figure out her thoughts.”
It won’t just be high-schoolers on stage: Fourth-graders from Todd Elementary School play the town’s children and a retired racing greyhound named Hamhock makes an appearance, too.
Performances of “The Hired Man” are 7:30 p.m., March 7 and 8 and 3 p.m, March 9.
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Briarcliff. Enjoy.