On the Beat

On the Beat

The dazzling songwriting team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie takes on a new musical — Far from Heaven, at Playwrights Horizons.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat HDL 513
Marriage on the rocks: Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore
© Focus Features/Photofest 2013

GREY GARDENS , which enjoyed a much-too-short Broadway run of 307 performances in 2006–07, was one of the most surprising musicals to come along in years. SCOTT FRANKEL's music worked on two levels: in Act I, it teased musty old popular-song genres, and in Act II, it portrayed, with a lean musical language at once eerie and intoxicating, the squalid isolation of the elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter "Little Edie." With numbers such as "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" and "The Cake I Had," MICHAEL KORIE seemed the most accomplished and inventive lyricist of the past twenty years. After a high-profile show of this caliber, the question "What's next?" is usually thrown at a songwriting team before the first week's receipts have been added up. This month, Frankel and Korie's "What's next?" opens at New York's famed off-Broadway incubator, Playwrights Horizons. Their new musical is based on TODD HAYNES's 2002 film Far from Heaven, about the disintegrating marriage of model late-'50s suburban housewife Cathy Whitaker (JULIANNE MOORE) and her closeted gay husband, Frank (DENNIS QUAID). Seeing Haynes's film is a slightly disorienting experience: it's a quietly unnerving, slow-motion tribute to the bizarrely hypnotic soap-operas that director DOUGLAS SIRK turned out for Universal in the 1950s (with a major nod to MAX OPHULS's Reckless Moment). The best of Sirk's originals were quietly unnerving, slow-motion studies themselves; on the surface, their subject matter was no less corny than the soap-opera films of previous decades — smooth, polished studies of 1950s conformity, Hollywood-style, with plush sets and FRANK SKINNER's music swelling in the background. But Sirk slyly punctuated his movies with perverse touches that simultaneously hit us in the gut and make us laugh in disbelief: in Written on the Wind, ROBERT STACK's emergence from a doctor's office, where he has just been told he cannot father children; in Imitation of Life, SANDRA DEE screaming "Mama, stop acting!" to her narcissistic movie-star mother LANA TURNER; in There's Always Tomorrow, FRED MACMURRAY's desperate attempts to explain to JOAN BENNETT why their marriage is suffocating him, while she rattles off the list of mundane household duties she has to perform the following day. Sirk's films are riddled with gleeful winks to those in the audience he hoped were smart enough to get what he was after. 

The musical version originated as an idea from playwright RICHARD GREENBERG, with whom Frankel and Korie had been eager to work. The biggest question is, how does the creative team tell the story of Far from Heaven through the same "double lens" that Haynes uses in his film? "We talked a lot about that," says Frankel. "Haynes, for contemporary audiences, frontloads his film with a lot of things sort of being in quotations. The kids speak in this 'Aw, gee, Mom' — this kind of Mayberry language. He does that to disarm or put at ease the contemporary audience. I didn't feel like we needed to do too much of that. In a musical or opera, the notion of people singing passionately already requires a certain degree of disbelief and remove, so the Sirk stuff, the filmic stuff, isn't so present in the musical." 

Frankel does admit to tipping his hat to the magnificent dramatic score that ELMER BERNSTEIN wrote for Haynes's film. "I'm a huge fan of Bernstein," says Frankel, "and that score in particular is so roiling and big. What I took away from it is some of the bigness of the emotions, where people are not allowed to say what they think. Also, the story is set in 1957, the year that West Side Story came out, so that was in the back of my head, subconsciously. There is a kind of Latin number that takes place in a Miami hotel room — a fond, affectionate look at 'Besame Mucho' and some of the songs of that era. There's a nod to Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five' in it. It's lush and chromatic and anguished when it needs to be."

For Korie, the Sirk films are "like opera without music, or Kabuki. The pace is slowed in a Robert Wilsonesque way, and everything is telegraphed." Korie says the show's director, MICHAEL GREIF, and designer, ALLEN MOYER, "are looking for those equivalents in the staging — some Stygian shadows and a sense of someone watching. I think that my natural tendency was to want to blow it all up, and it was the toughest thing not to do that, to keep it small and intimate and simple.

"My first concern was to write a 'new American work,' and not make it too operatic or chamber opera-y. But in fact that's how it's turning out, and that seems to be appropriate. Every time I try to stick in show-bizzy songs, it violates the mood of the piece. I would say it's like a 'new American work,' but all the songs are in popular-song form, and it's kind of constructed with leitmotifs."

Frankel and Korie wrote the role of Cathy for KELLI O'HARA, the star of numerous Broadway hits, including Light in the Piazza and revivals of The Pajama Game and South Pacific. "Kelli has so many different voices in there," says Frankel. "She's a belter. She's a comedienne. But I knew that if you have a Maserati, you should give it some time on the track. I wanted to make sure that Kelli had a real workout that showed her incredible range, and part of that range is a very operatic sound." 

When Far from Heaven was workshopped at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, the key role of town gossip Mona Lauder was played by the brilliant comic actress ALISON FRASER. Sadly, Fraser will not be in the New York cast, as the part is being rethought. "In Williamstown, the audience was anxious to find the story and wasn't anxious for us to pull out our musical-theater bag of tricks," says Korie. "People want story, story, story. I sent my mother to the ladies room, because they may laugh and stand up and cheer, but the truth is always in the ladies room. The verdict was 'Loved Act I, Act II needs work.' As it turned out, it wasn't too different from our own verdict."

Far from Heaven runs May 8 through June 20 at Playwrights Horizons's Mainstage Theater. spacer 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2