Stage: Gone With the Woodwinds

The Civil War lasted four years, but that's a skirmish compared with the 10 years Margaret Martin spent struggling to create a musical version of "Gone With the Wind." The whole thing began as a whim, actually, in 1998, after Martin completed her Ph.D. in public health. "I needed to do something fun," she says, "and I asked myself, What is the most fun thing you can think of?"

Writing songs, apparently, which she spent two years doing to present to the trust that runs the estate of "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell. They liked Martin's stuff enough to have her contact their agents at William Morris, who concluded that her efforts were sincere but unlikely to succeed. Was Scarlett O'Hara deterred after Rhett Butler didn't give a damn? Of course not, and neither was Martin. She spent two more years writing the show and wooing the trust, which finally relented. Not long afterward, Martin read a newspaper story about Sir Trevor Nunn, the British director whose credits include "Cats," "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Misérables." Nunn mentioned his special interest in the Civil War, so Martin sent him her script and a demo. Two weeks later, she got a letter back from him: "I do congratulate you on your single-handed and single-minded achievement, which on the basis of the material I have seen and heard so far is of a high order." He signed on to direct. That was five years ago.

Which brings us to this month, when "Gone With the Wind" opens—in London's West End. It's perhaps an odd location for this quintessentially American story, but "Gone With the Wind" isn't your average musical. London was more convenient for Nunn, but the distance from the United States has other advantages. Executive producer Aldo Scrofani says that by opening there, the show may face less hostility from critics who argue that the story of how the Civil War destroyed the world of the plantations is racist. "It is anything but," Scrofani says. "What it's really about is people who survive together through this massive change."

Martin made another unusual choice: she decided to follow the novel—which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936 but is hardly groundbreaking literature—much more closely than the classic Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh movie. Martin argues that the book is considerably more nuanced in terms of character and theme. As she wrote about Scarlett's struggles at Tara, her family's plantation, Martin kept thinking about her own mother, who traveled to Mississippi in 1965 to register young black children for the newly minted Head Start program. "In my work on 'Gone With the Wind'," she says, "I have images of these two women, one black and one white, working shoulder to shoulder to deal with a mess that was not of their creation."

Martin says she's not worried that her opening-night audience will be an ocean away from Georgia. "This is the story of a stressed-out single mom who assumes responsibility for a whole family," she says. It's a story Martin believes is universal and one she can tell well because she, too, was once a single mother struggling to raise young children. And cross-national pollination is a rich part of the "Gone With the Wind" tradition. After an exhaustive search, Hollywood producer David O. Selznick selected Leigh, a largely unknown British actress, to play his Scarlett. Now a young American, Jill Paice, will reinterpret the role in London. "What I want more than anything is for people to watch this and say, 'I recognize these people. I recognize myself'," says Scrofani. No matter what happens when the curtain rises, Martin is satisfied that—like Scarlett—she finally found the way to Tara.