The Washington Post

Hold on — that’s Daisy Eagan, back in ‘Secret Garden’

Theater critic

Daisy Eagan, left, as Martha, with Anya Rothman as Mary Lennox, in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Secret Garden.” Eagan won a Tony Award playing Mary in the 1991 Broadway production. (Scott Suchman)

In 2012, Daisy Eagan tweeted: “I have a job interview tomorrow for a temp job packaging human breast milk. I also have a Tony Award.”

Eagan was 11 when she won that Tony in 1991 for playing the orphaned Mary Lennox in the musical version of “The Secret Garden,” and she’s still the youngest-ever female winner. Now she’s back in a new production of the show at the Shakespeare Theatre Company playing the chambermaid Martha, a maternal figure who sings the uplifting ballad “Hold On” to little Mary.

Eagan was 13 and done with “The Secret Garden” when her mother died of cancer. Roles grew scarce and the child star grew bitter. She moved to Los Angeles, studied psychology and eventually stopped performing.

Lately, Eagan has gravitated back toward the Broadway scene. She has performed her own cabaret acts and sung a mash-up of “Hold On” (the musical’s version and the Wilson Phillips version) in her underwear with the Skivvies at Manhattan’s 54 Below supper club. She penned an essay titled “Ben Brantley Is Asking for It” in the Huffington Post after the New York Times drama critic wrote about a female character’s desirability in “Of Mice and Men,” and in October she published an open letter at Playbill.com to the young performers in the musical “School of Rock.”

“The experiences you are having right now are going to continue to reveal gifts and lessons you have no idea you’re receiving,” Eagan wrote.

She is divorced and is raising Monty Harrison Eagan-Bloom, her 3-year-old with writer Kurt Bloom. On the morning of a two-performance day before Thanksgiving, Eagan — 37, funny and quite frank — talked about the circle that has brought her back to “The Secret Garden.”

Q: What does this mean to you to be doing this now?

A: It’s really trippy. We had a Q&A at the theater, and somebody asked, “Can you briefly tell us how it feels to be back?” And I said: “No, I can’t briefly tell you that. I can long-form tell you.”

My history with the show is not just that I was in the show and won the Tony. It’s also that my mom was diagnosed with very late-stage cancer shortly after I won, and the nature of what the show’s about really helped get me through that. And the show is so iconic: People feel the score is something that has gotten them through hard times in their lives.

The show has followed me everywhere I’ve gone, and people know me for it. And I went through a long period of resentment about that, and I had to just sort of get older and feel like: “Get over yourself. You’re very lucky.” Which only comes with age.

So when it became clear that a revival might happen, I really went back and forth. I want people to know me for other things, you know? But at the same time I owe a great debt to this show. And it’s a beautiful show. If I’m lucky enough to be part of it again, then good for me.

Q: You left performing for a while. How did you decide to get back in?


A: Friends were starting to ask me to sing in their cabaret nights, and at first I said no, and then I said, eh — whatever. I’ll just go sing a number. And I remembered how much I loved making people laugh. I love doing comedy, and then singing a jazz standard. And I went, “Oh, right: I like this part.”

Q: You were a college administrator. How was that?

A:We had a giant fax-copy machine-scanner, and I figured out how to program it so you could hit one button and it would send whatever document you wanted. They thought I was brilliant. I was like, “It says one-touch.” They’re like, “Listen: There’s an actual position opening up. You should apply.” I had an office with my name on the door. And very occasionally people would come by and say, “Are you Daisy Eagan-Daisy Eagan?” Mostly people didn’t know, and it was nice.

My bosses were crazy people. Psychology administrators, usually they’re PhDs, and they’re bananas.

Q: Playing Martha and singing to Mary, there must be an element of you looking at you.

A: Absolutely. Because my personal life was in such turmoil, I feel like I get to go back and heal my inner child. I feel like this experience in a lot of ways is my opportunity to go back and say: “It’s okay. You’re going to be all right.”

Q: Mandy Patinkin, who on Broadway played the hunchback uncle who takes Mary in, took you to Disneyland before “Secret Garden”?

A: We were both in L.A. and he thought we should get to know each other.

Q: Did you know who he was?

A: I think I knew that he was Inigo Montoya. Mandy is a very serious, very method actor, and we came across a woman who was a hunchback. And he proceeded to follow her through the park, aping her movements. I was mortified!

Q: You wrote a couple of strong-minded essays recently. Are you a natural advocate?

A: My mother was a writer and an advocate, so yeah, I think both of those things come naturally to me. Some people could certainly accuse me of being controversial, easily; I’m very political, I curse and I don’t mince words. But I feel it’s important for little girls especially to know that there are lines that need to be clear and not crossed, and that you are allowed to advocate for yourself, and not be treated in a way that you don’t want to be treated. And if I lost out on a job because they were worried that I would be too controversial, I don’t know if that’s a job I’d want.

Q: You’ve also written about your depression, and how tough it is to be public about that.

A: You worry that people will say, “I don’t want to hire her.” And I think it’s an important thing to get out there so it’s normalized and people don’t feel like they have to be ashamed. Being vocal about it will hopefully help somebody who is ashamed to go out and get some help. Because it’s all about getting the help you need.

Q: Are you still receiving gifts or lessons from your time as a child star?

A: Absolutely. I think mostly it’s the sense of gratitude that you gain as you get older. My playroom was a Broadway stage. Nobody gets to say that.

Q: How clear are you about what you want to do next?

A: I’m very clear that I want to work. If someone could flip a switch and I could have my dream job, I would be in a writers’ room for a TV show.

Q: Are you writing a lot?

A: Not as much as I should. [Eagan laughs.] As Dorothy Parker said, I don’t like writing. I like having written.

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