An Interview with the Creators of Far From Heaven
How did the three of you decide to work together on this musical?
Richard Greenberg: Scott called me. I’d really liked Grey Gardens and he suggested we work together.
Scott Frankel: I’ve known Rich for a gazillion years, and we talked about wanting to work together on a project. Far From Heaven was Rich’s idea; and when he first proposed it, I knew immediately that it was the right one!
Why Far From Heaven?
RG: We went to the diner to talk about ideas. It popped out. Weirdly, I’d been trying to think of something to work on with another composer for months and this had never occurred to me. It turned out Scott loved the movie as much as I did.
Michael Korie: In New York, it’s always the right time for a musical about repressed homosexuality, spousal abuse, and racial politics. Now is particularly the right time because in a stealthy way it’s about today. My goal is to create musicals about the America we live in but without making it obvious. The audience at first believes it’s seeing a period piece. Then the realization creeps up, ‘Oh, this all still happens!’
What was your first experience with the source material? Watching the film for the first time, did you immediately have an impulse to translate it for the stage?
MK: I first saw the film in a movie theater when it came out. It never occurred to me that it was a potential musical. But when Richard suggested making a musical of it, it made sense to me because so much of the film’s emotional impact was heightened by the almost continuous film score. The film used it as a stylistic device – and since musicals are all stylization, it was a short leap to putting lyrics into the characters’ voices.
SF: When the film first came out, I saw it in Chelsea with an audience that seemed to be comprised of savvy cinéastes well-schooled in the Douglas Sirk canon. They were completely simpatico with Todd Haynes’ vision – and how he was bending and deconstructing the source material. Some months later, I was visiting my grandmother in Cleveland – and I took her to see the movie. She was completely gripped by the plot, the melodrama and the storytelling – and was much less conscious of the filmic references and devices.
RG: My impulse was to see the movie again.
Was it difficult to get the rights to the property?
SF: First, I approached Christine Vachon, the producer of the movie and also the head of Killer Films. I made my case that Far From Heaven could work as a stage musical – and then she put me in touch with Todd. I am a tremendous fan of his work, going all the way back to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. So I went out to Portland, Oregon, where he lives – and after some lively conversation, a delicious seafood dinner and a few rounds of cocktails, we had a meeting of the minds and he gave his blessing.
You’ve all made adaptations before. What were the unique demands presented by Far From Heaven?
RG: I guess it was approximating the style, which is almost ineffable. It more-or-less used camp techniques – that kind of hyper-noticing – for non-camp ends.
SF: Todd’s screenplay is marvelously constructed: taut and coiled; enormously satisfying. When you have that kind of pre-existing architecture in place, it makes the process of adaptation much smoother. Unlike, say, with Grey Gardens, which doesn’t have a traditionally ordered narrative – so we had to discover a very particular two-act organizing structure for the musical.
MK: Finding the right tone was the biggest challenge in writing the lyrics. Grey Gardens had larger-than-life characters, always ‘on stage’ in their minds, and so they sang bravura show-stopping turns. Cathy and Raymond and Frank speak directly, without artifice, without show-biz. And they are naïve, not yet aware of the nature of the problems they face. Their conflicts with the world around them dawn on them gradually, and can’t be explicated neatly in what theater songwriters refer to as an “I Am” or an “I Want” song. Whoever they are and whatever they want isn’t clear to them at first, and is about to change. Each of their mini-scores within the overall score moves continuously towards self-understanding, and has its own musical characteristics – a leitmotif. In some ways, it’s a musical constructed like a through-composed opera even though there is spoken dialogue and the music is in popular song form.
What comes first? Music? Lyrics? Text?
RG: The movie. Really, the movie. Choosing what to musicalize and what to save from the screenplay and then bridging when necessary. I would have been happy not to write a single original line because I find the screenplay’s tone so unerring. In some ways, I’m only freely diverging now.
MK: Most of the time, Scott and I bounce ideas back and forth, come up with a title, some music, some lyrics, some more music, some different lyrics, and pretty soon there’s a song. I needed a medical procedure that took me out of commission for nearly a year. ‘The show must go on,’ so Scott wrote almost the entire score, music first, and imagined what the words might be in his head. It turned out to be the best way to write the score to this show. All except for one song, all of the songs in the score are ‘music first.’
SF: I had particular ideas for song moments, song ideas – hunches, first impulses – and just went with my visceral takes on a lot of them.
The visual language of the film makes reference to an earlier cinematic style, drawing inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk. How do you echo a cinematic choice in another medium?
RG: You don’t. There’s no way of coming into relation with, say, an earlier model of musical comedy in the way that the film did with Sirk. We can’t suddenly base it on South Pacific or something. We’ve had to make peace with that.
MK: We wanted the music and lyrics to evoke that 1950s-Technicolor-picture postcard vision of America with Sirk-ian psychological shadows, foreboding, premonitions, sun and shade. Music took over the role of cinematography. Also, unlike in a movie, in the theater there are no close-ups. Music and lyrics provide an actor with the equivalent of a close-up on the screen, a defining gesture that stops time and glimpses momentarily into the soul.
SF: It’s interesting. Todd’s film is in some ways about the very gestalt of film and film-making: artifice; remove; references to other films and other genres of films. I didn’t feel that the musical needed to have some of those elements. I mean, the very notion of people breaking into song is fundamentally a stylistic conceit; a heightening of particular moments. So in some ways, the actual medium of musical theater works well as a substitute for some of the cinematic conventions in the film.
How long did it take to complete a draft you felt represented your vision of the piece?
RG: We’re still working!
SF: As I recall, we had a first draft in about fifteen months.
MK: The nature of a musical is that it isn’t finished until the audience weighs in, so it takes as long to write as it takes to produce it. We’ll be working and revising right until the curtain goes up on opening night, and probably afterwards. One day I would love to type ‘The End’ on the last page, and actually be finished, and not have to defend my choices in rehearsal to actors who insist ‘My character would never say this line.’ They’re almost always right.
How do you make someone else’s characters your own?
RG: You don’t. The point is to merge. You’re as much dramaturg as playwright. You don’t want to be visible.
How did you arrive at a “sound” for Far From Heaven? Is it authentically period music? What are your influences?
SF: Well, the first thing I did was to stop listening to the glorious Elmer Bernstein score! It’s magnificent – and I didn’t want to be overly influenced by it, or cowed by it. That said, Bernstein’s film score has a real sweep to it... atmospheric, lush, unafraid of the big gesture. I wanted to keep that quality – the largeness of the emotional topography of the characters. Beyond that, I have a tremendous affection for music of the 1950s, so the score has some specific homages to the era. At the end of the day, I wrote what I thought was best for the characters – what embodied their tremendous passion and pain, highs and lows, hopefulness and despair.
Did you always envision Kelli O’Hara playing the role of Cathy Whitaker?
SF: Always. And it was her voice I had in my head as I was writing the score. She seemed a perfect fit with the role… beautiful, emotionally transparent. And her voice is one of the glorious instruments of our time. Although highly trained and capable of flawless vocal production, she also has the ability to produce a very naturalistic, un-operatic sound, even in a high register. I was also seduced and inspired by the thought of giving her an enormous variety of musical styles: highly legit passages, soaring lyrical duets, jagged dissonant sections, and even a country/pop-inflected waltz called “The Only One” that closes the first act.
What’s the most challenging part of writing lyrics for an already well-known and well-defined character? Is it limiting, or does it give you a richer palette to work with?
MK: Once a well-known character starts to sing, he or she has to be re-defined through music. Prior knowledge of that character doesn’t matter if they don’t have the right words to sing, and sometimes a familiar phrase or speech can be reiterated in song. It can enrich the challenge of writing for them – like Henry Higgins asking ‘Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?’ On Grey Gardens, I had the joy of Little Edie’s phrase-book to draw from, such as when she demonstrated “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.” In Far From Heaven, Frank’s stuttered words ‘I never knew’ grow into an emotional outpouring specific to this musical. Cathy’s “Autumn in Connecticut” is never spoken in the film – it’s just a feeling I imagined she’d have, coming home from the market and pausing in the driveway of her home to notice something inspiring in the air. If I hadn’t already known her, I wonder if I’d have dared to be that simple.