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Essay

Tim Sanford on Far From Heaven

The guidelines of our literary department state that we do not accept dramatic adaptations from other sources, except for musicals.  As a writer’s theater, we often find the authorial voice becomes commingled or overshadowed by the originating writer in straight adaptations.  But the form of the musical theater is essentially synthetic (made, not observed) and depends on the collaborative synergy of its creators to come into being.  The best musicals find their originality and their voice through transformation.  It usually behooves the creators to steer clear of widely known or beloved novels or films where an audience might have firmly held preconceptions about the source.  Musicals based on somewhat more obscure sources usually provide the creators more artistic leeway.

Far From Heaven hardly qualifies as an obscure film, having won several NY Film Critics Awards and Academy and Golden Globe Awards nominations in 2003.  But it is also a film with a very particular aesthetic, one whose translation into musical theater form does not seem readily apparent.  Edward Lachman’s distinctive cinematography features super-saturated color, reminiscent of ’50s style Cinemascope, along with furtive, dramatic shadows, à la Douglas Sirk.  The dialogue is tightly wound, rippling up to the edges of melodramatic exposure, but never breaking through.  Only Elmer Bernstein’s lush, sweeping score limns the oceanic emotions lurking within.  But as Scott, Michael and Richard discuss in the short interview contained within these pages, one of the most impressive features of the film is its transformational self-consciousness.  Todd Haynes lovingly recreates the ethos of the period, but also imbues it with modernity through its frank treatment of its content.  The creators of Far From Heaven strive for a fidelity to its source, but also transform it.  Scott Frankel’s expansive, stylish score provides the breadth and coloration supplied in the film by the cinematography.  And Michael Korie’s lyrics crack open the subtext that aches with its unspokenness in the film.  Richard Greenberg somewhat modestly ascribes his role as a caretaker of tone, and much of his dialogue is lifted verbatim from Haynes’s screenplay, but as the initiator of the project, the importance of this aesthetic oversight cannot be minimized.

I remember running into Richard at the closing night of Grey Gardens on Broadway.  He seemed ever so slightly abashed to have been caught waiting until the last minute, but he also seemed uncharacteristically excited to see it.  It seems to me the seeds for Far From Heaven might have been planted that night.  The two pieces are sharply different.  Cathy Whitaker seems about as unlike a character as Edie Beale as possible.  And the conformism that dominates Far From Heaven seemed an unattainable mirage even in the imagined first act of Grey Gardens.  But both musicals take a wide-angled view of American culture, keenly aware of the seismic shifts that have been and continue to rattle our foundations of class, race, gender, and psychological identity. 

Far From Heaven is one of the most ambitious artistic undertakings we have ever produced.  I am grateful to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its monumental support of it, to Kelli O’Hara for her long-standing commitment to it, and to Michael Greif for his sure-handed stewardship of it from its earliest stages.