The musical takes place in 19th century America. A lonely Midwestern farmer, whose wife has died upon the birth
of their son (there is also a young daughter), cannot seem to accept the loss that the family has suffered.
Because it is still painful for him, Jacob never speaks of his wife, and forbids his daughter, Anna, to sing
her mother’s lullaby; his young son Caleb, who never knew his mother, fears that he will never be able to
learn anything about her.
Although Anna prides herself on being “the lady of the house,” Jacob, on the advice of his neighbor, advertises
for a wife in an Eastern newspaper. Sarah, an unusual woman from Maine who is anxious to leave her newly-married
brother’s house, answers Jacob’s advertisement with a letter in which she describes herself as “plain and tall,”
and “not mild mannered.” Her honesty, and her description of her home by the sea in Maine, intrigues Jacob
and his young son, Caleb (who also asks her, “Can you sing?”). Jacob’s daughter, Anna, fearing that Sarah will
try to replace her mother, wants no part of the new venture – but when her father insists, she finally agrees
to allow the “hoity-toity” woman from the East to stay for a month’s trial period.
When Sarah arrives, it becomes clear that she is very different from Jacob’s late wife, Katy.
Despite her sister-in-law Estelle’s advice (to act like a lady), Sarah expresses herself freely; she names
all of the chickens, and even wants to ride Jacob’s feisty horse, Jack (instead of the more docile Bess);
although Jacob forbids her to do so. Adjusting to farm life is difficult at first (and Anna’s resistance makes
it even more so), but Sarah takes on the tough farm chores with enthusiasm. Caleb is won over right away, and
each day grows closer to Sarah’s “peculiar” ways; they always have fun when she’s around (for instance, when
she cuts his hair, instead of sweeping up the clippings, she tosses them on the ground for the birds so that
they can look for them later in their nests. Although they are both shy in the awkward situation of getting to
know each other, Jacob seems about to express his fondness for Sarah when she angers him by admitting that she
rode his headstrong horse despite his wishes.
Sarah finally convinces Anna that she is not trying to replace her
mother, and gains her trust when she teaches her to swim in the cow pond. Now both rooting for Sarah to stay, Anna
and Caleb are determined to get their father to relent in his anger. The two children collaborate to help her to
make a good impression on their visiting neighbors, Matthew and Maggie, and of course, their father. Anna cautions
Sarah to act less “peculiar,” helps her to dress in a more feminine way, and even fixes her hair. Sarah finds a
potential friend in Maggie who wants Sarah to succeed. Finally, Sarah challenges Jacob to accept her on her own
terms. She cannot replace the wife and mother that died – as she tells Jacob that would not be fair to either his
wife’s memory or to herself. Like the children, Jacob learns to love Sarah in spite of – or perhaps even because
of – her individuality. Jacob makes peace with his wife’s memory by finally allowing himself to sing her favorite
lullaby while holding his children close.
In turn, Sarah learns that she can miss her beloved Maine, but that she has gained so much more than she has
lost – a new family. (excerpted from the TheatreworksUSA
Study Guide for Sarah, Plain and Tall)