Menu

Interview

Tim Sanford and Scott Frankel, Richard Greenberg, and Michael Korie

Tim:  When I went to the closing night of Grey Gardens on Broadway, I ran into you, Rich, near the lobby.  You seemed kind of excited, for you, albeit slightly abashed to have waited until the last night.  When Scott told me years later that he was working with you, it tickled me to think that maybe I’d witnessed the seed of this collaboration planted.

RG:  I really liked Grey Gardens, and it wasn’t long after that Scott suggested we work together.

How did you choose 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.

What were the features of the movie you felt would translate to a successful musical?

RG:  It started, really, with just the love of the movie and the emotional yeastiness of the material, the feeling that the film stopped just short of song.

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.  So I not only had a very personal response to the film, I was also keenly aware of what a marvelously constructed screenplay Todd had written:  taut and coiled and enormously satisfying.  When you have that kind of pre-existing architecture in place, it makes the process of adaptation much smoother.

Did you think about how it might resonate today?

MK:  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!’

Rich, your breakthrough play, Eastern Standard, was a seminal work from the AIDS era. Far from Heaven deals with homosexuality perhaps as directly as anything else you’ve written since, but it’s set in1957. Has your perspective about being gay in America changed for you as a writer? 

RG:  You know, I think the past is interesting because it is the past and because it’s infinitely strange. I think that what happens is that we try to be as faithful to the way things were and as time goes by it becomes more and more alien and therefore more fascinating. I think one of the things about the film that is so striking is that he uses techniques that we associate with camp, which is a kind of hyper-noticing, and an awareness of what a certain time period thinks is eternal that proves to be not so. And he uses it for effects that are not what we typically think of as camp effect, which is saying you don’t laugh as much as you cry. And I think it’s the perfect vehicle—that sort of incredible tenderness for bringing us back to the past, to seeing how far we’ve come, or how far we haven’t. And that’s what’s the fascination for me, the strangeness not so much the similarity or the likeness. And I think we have. I’m getting older and I think maybe this is something everyone thinks as they’re getting older, that you know the young kids are just sort of hooligans. Or they are not nearly as attentive and it seems to me that I don’t know when I look at people I love in their 20s that they are not aware of things that happened before they were born to the extent that I was, which is probably not to the extent that my parents were. And so it’s a kind of act of retrieval that I think is important.

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.

MK:  In writing the lyrics, the biggest challenge was finding the right tone for the characters and the period.  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.  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:  After we acquired the rights, I was itching to start writing, even though Rich and Michael weren’t immediately available.  So I started sketching things, based on hunches, first impulses, and just went with my visceral takes on a lot of them. And I think it took shape naturally out of this process.  The movie is so stylized.  Yes, the narrative is strong and very well-plotted, but it is also such a mood/style piece.  And it seemed to fit for the score to evolve that was as a kind of moody tone poem.

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.  Rodgers and Hammerstein had never told this story.  We had to make peace with the idea that the musical would work in a fundamentally different way. 

SF:   It’s interesting.  Todd’s film is in some ways about the very gestalt of film and film-making.  In adapting Far From Heaven for the stage, I didn’t feel the necessity for this level of self-reference.  I have a lot of confidence in the traditional narrative arc of the piece, the strength of its architecture and the compelling quality to the characters.  In the film, I believe some of the hyper-conscious winks toward Sirk and 1950’s tropes were a calculated attempt to disarm a contemporary audience more accustomed to irony.  It worked, of course—but I suppose one could also argue that such manipulations also keep the audience at a certain arm’s length, emotionally. For the stage, I wanted to draw them in more directly.  

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. 

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, like Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella.  It has both popular song moments (“Standing on the Corner”), as well as rapturous, lyrical songs that approach arias (“My Heart is So Full of You”).  The mixture of popular, Broadway and semi-classical aesthetics seemed right for Far from Heaven as well.  To a lesser degree, I was also conscious of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, for the way it uses jazzy passages to punctuate the story of an unhappy marriage.  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.

I hear a little Brubeck and West Side Story as well.

SF:  It’s true.

When you first introduced me to the show, I immediately thought of Kelli O’Hara as Cathy Whitaker.  She still considers My Life with Albertine one of her favorite projects and we’ve remained friendly ever since,  so I had some hopes she might consider it, even though she could easily work exclusively on Broadway if she chose.  Then you told me you wrote it for her.

SF:   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. 

Casting always brings out different aspects of a story.  Would you talk a little about the differing nuances to the story that have resulted from casting Steven and Isaiah as Frank and Raymond?

RG:  Dennis Quaid brought to the movie both his natural boisterousness and his history of playing good ol’ boys of unquestioned heterosexuality. Steven is naturally gentler, more complex, and as an audience we don’t approach him with a lot of presuppositions; we’re learning who he is from the word go.

I think Isaiah’s youth gives Raymond and Cathy a sense of fittedness, a kind of erotic equality that, if anything, increases the frustration we feel at the barriers between them.

Rich, how involved were you in the process of selecting which moments should be musicalized?

RG:  I seldom remember how things start, but my sense is:  very.  Maybe I’m misremembering, but I think we were all in agreement about this most of the time, although how the songs would work, what their character would be, was often up for discussion.  And lots of stuff came and went as we figured out Act Two.

Would you give some examples of how certain moments became songs?  

SF:   Cathy and Raymond first meet when she suspects he may be an intruder on her property. For the second meeting, he surprises her outside after she hosts a luncheon for her girlfriends and retrieves a scarf that had blown away.  In this meeting, I was attracted to the notion of a musical moment where there was a palpable awkwardness; these are two people who don’t have a predetermined way to talk with each other.  There are all sorts of inequities in their situation:  employer/employee; black/white; male/female. So we came up with “Sun and Shade,” which is part recitative and largely informational (Raymond has a daughter, Raymond is a widower, etc.)—but also has a lyrical quality when he sings about various plants and their habits. It draws her into his world, not just because of what he is talking about, but also in the way he expresses himself. 

When we next see Raymond and Cathy, their interpersonal rapport has escalated, as evinced in the song “Miro.”  In the art gallery sequence, each is able to discuss their feelings about their sensory impressions of modern art—and in doing so, reach a more potent level connection.

It’s such a remarkable moment in the piece, the way the surface conversation expands with the music and soars into something rhapsodic that seems to envelop the whole stage.  But they’re only talking about art.

MK:  It’s really a love song in the tradition of those Rodgers and Hammerstein love songs like “If I Loved You,” or “People Will Say We’re in Love,” where the characters deny being in love.  But here it’s a love song where the word “love” is never mentioned, nor anything about feelings.  Instead, Cathy and Raymond talk about what they see in an abstract picture by Miro, and the audience realizes that they can speak to each other openly in a way they can’t to anyone else, and that they are falling in love without ever realizing it themselves. 

And for Frank, a single line or two from the psychiatrist’s office about his sexual attraction to men grows into an inner soliloquy, where he gets to express his fears about being labeled “sick” by society—and the audience finds out that his determination to “beat this thing” is as much about his fear of being found out as it is of admitting the truth to himself. Giving him a song there reveals his conflict, one he is finally unable to “beat” when he falls in love with another man.  In the screenplay, he told his wife by saying, “I never knew…” and that became a song where he finally accepts himself, and in so doing devastates his wife.  All of those songs probed the emotional conflicts of the characters, their inner lives. And other songs we chose to musicalize as stylistic moments, such as a scene at the family breakfast table and again at the dinner table—it’s not really the stuff of song in a usual sense, but in this show, it helps to capture the feeling of the era, and give certain moments the feeling of a snapshot of the late 1950s.

One of the other most prominent characteristics of the musical is the degree to which interstitial scenes are musicalized, not exactly as full reprises but echoing earlier songs.  Given that so many of these moments supplant opportunities for dialogue, I’m curious, Rich, about your perspective about how this choice works.

RG:  The show is through-composed.  I originally wondered if it might not be an opera.  It isn’t, but there’s recitative.  And underscoring.  I probably encouraged this.

SF:  It was also a natural progression of making the musical language more formalized.  Characters have leitmotifs—musical gestures and sequences are repeated or re-purposed.  This gives an organizational unity to the musical elements.  It helps guide the ear of audience members; through underscore and musical motifs, we get clues to plot, character and tone.  It also gives the piece a heightened quality overall that sharpens the stakes.  If there were more spoken “book” scenes, a lot of these elements would be forfeited.  And you would have a less complete musical tapestry or canvas.

The other thing that I don’t often say is that the entire score is based essentially off two sets of intervals:  a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth.  Those are the opening notes you hear in the prologue (Dum-dum; Dum-dum); and that motive is the source from which a lot of the other music stems.

Can you talk about how your view of the ending has evolved over time? 

RG:  We originally thought we couldn’t go—except in the flimsiest way—to the train station. 

SF:  The film ends with Cathy Whitaker going to the Hartford train station, but we all thought that was just too filmic a conceit to work on stage.  So we decided that their “goodbye” moment, a scene culminating in the song “A Picture In Your Mind,” would happen earlier, when she goes to see Raymond after learning that has daughter had been injured.

Then Cathy sings the next song, “Tuesdays, Thursdays,” while on the phone with her husband.  Since she and Raymond have already said their farewell, it fueled “Tuesdays, Thursdays” in a specific way.  Later, when she realizes it is April 1, the day of Raymond’s departure, she “conjured” Raymond in her mind, and they had a brief reprise of “A Picture in Your Mind” that segued into a brief reprise of “Autumn in Connecticut.”

RG:  We all sensed the ending was missing something when Michael G. pointed out that with this production we are able to go quite effectively to the train station and he suggested that we move the Raymond/Cathy song there.  I think it’s much more satisfying now.

SF:  I think it also helps what comes before.  Now when she goes to see Raymond to commiserate about his injured daughter, they do not sing.  Raymond indicates that they cannot have a future together, that she should not come visit them in Baltimore, et cetera.  So Cathy leaves in a more wounded state, which leaves her all the more vulnerable for Frank’s telephone call.  And it also delays the musical gratification of the ill-fated soul-mates.  So now Cathy does go to the train station, and there, they have their bittersweet, full-throated goodbye in song.

You also wrote a new song that follows this scene.

SF:  We learned in previews that some audiences found our previous ending, especially going from the train station to the reprise of “Autumn in Connecticut,” too abrupt.  It was never our intention to wrap up this story too neatly—for that is not in the ethos of these characters. Still, many people felt that they wanted to spend a bit more time with Cathy as she assessed her feelings, her situation, her lost love, her emotional temperature and what her prospects were for the future.  So after a matinee one weekend, I went upstairs and wrote a musical sketch with the hook/title “Heaven Knows.”  

MK:  It allows Cathy that moment, as she walks home from the train station, to sort things out in her mind, a step in-between her feelings of love and loss, and “Now what do I do?”  The new song is that step.  Then, as she arrives home and sees her yard and the spring trees in blossom, the show concludes with a reprise of the opening song of the show,  “Autumn in Connecticut,” where she sees her formerly picture-perfect life as exactly what it was—an illusion she will no longer carry into the future.  In fact, that final moment was based on an unused voice-over from the movie screenplay.  In the movie, as Cathy is seen driving home from the train station, the screenplay has her voice stating that the kind of romance she used to believe in, the romance of the movies, can’t exist in the world she lives in, if it ever really existed at all.  That voice-over was cut from the final film and Cathy’s point-of-view was left ambiguous. 

So the new song takes the place of that cut voice-over.  In a way, because as you said a musical is stylization, you can get away with her doing an “I feel” song—in fact the form almost demands it—whereas the movie couldn’t bear it. 

MK:  Yes—the song is the musical equivalent to the camera pulling away to a long-shot as the car drives off, the blossoms flutter, and the credits start to roll.  The musical needed to end with the feeling and sweep and emotion of that long-shot transformed into a song with words.  That’s what we do in the new song we added at the end, followed immediately by the reprise of the opening song, now altered by Cathy’s newly informed, more realistic point-of-view.  She basically says, in song, that it’s still very pretty here, but it’s not the paradise or heaven I used to think it was.  That was just a dream.  The last lyrics also evoke the title of the musical, though instead of saying “Far From Heaven” she sings “Not as close to Heaven” which gives an emotional jolt to the moment and brings it home to the audience, as if to say, “Cathy Whitaker has gone through this entire journey in her life, this crisis... all to reach one simple basic realization:  ‘I was living a dream, and now, the blinders are off.’” Situationally, the sixties still haven’t come, her future is still very much up in the air, but it’s less bleak than we originally conceived it—less authorial, and therefore probably more true to the character’s actual feelings.