Far From Heaven [PS Classics] Call it a double heartbreaker of a musical. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's brave new Far From Heaven opened on June 2, 2013, at Playwrights Horizons, following a July 2012 developmental production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale repeated their roles from the tryout, with a book by Richard Greenberg and direction by Michael Greif.
Far From Heaven is the tale of a 1957 housewife in upper-class, suburban Hartford, CT, who innocently runs into—and is crushed by—two societal taboos of those carefree, Eisenhowersish days. The struggles of Cathy Whitaker (O'Hara), as a nightmarish cloud descends on a picture-perfect "Autumn in Connecticut," are indeed heartbreaking. Which way can she turn? Which way out for husband Frank (Pasquale) or friend Raymond (Isaiah Johnson)? There is no way conceivable, not in that time and place.
More to the point—or more to the concern of those of us on the lookout for musical theatre which strives to do more than retread old ideas or simply tune up the jukebox—is the heartbreak of watching a show so fresh, strong and striving struggle through a short, unrewarding and unappreciated life.
Consider a different, equally intriguing new musical which audiences clearly couldn't get involved in. People walked out by the scores during previews; not just hearsay, but according to a friend of mine who was the manager. Audiences didn't dislike it; they seemed to hate it. The critics, too, gave it rough handling, and it struggled through a forced run. I thought the thing was astonishing, though unwieldy; obviously, audiences were literally allergic to that show at that time. "Someday," I mused and wrote, "people will see this same show and get it. Never a commercial hit, maybe; but this is a show that—despite the initial reception—is a major achievement."
No, I'm not talking about Far From Heaven, though I might as well be. The show in question was Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion, which has indeed gone on to demonstrate its enormous worth. But a large segment of the audience in 1994—even Sondheim fans—disliked it, and vocally so. I sat there the first time so enwrapped by the score that I didn't bother to analyze the reaction, but on two further visits to what was then the Plymouth Theatre, I sat trying to figure out why this towering work was clearly not working for so many patrons. The treasures of Far From Heaven rest in the score, as can be heard on the new CD from PS Classics. This is an emotional musical—the whole thrust of the piece is how emotions can be overpowering, and uncontrollable—and the Messrs. Frankel and Korie have written with a cascade of feeling. People have compared the score to The Most Happy Fella, although people seem to compare any rich theatre score to Frank Loesser's masterwork. Far From Heaven seems most conceptually related to Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti; the same place, the same time and some of the same passions (although Frankel recreates the texture of the 1950s from 60 years later). The music also catches us up in something of the manner of Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza. The emotional peaks—two of them, at least—are also heightened by unmistakable touches of Mahler. Unusual, yes, but effective, and I don't think Mr. Mahler would mind.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
The CD, which is packed with 32 tracks, suggests what might be the root of the show's problematic reception. Fourteen of the selections—some of which are reprises—are less than two minutes long. Many of these, mind you, are musically satisfying; but I had the impression while sitting at Playwrights Horizons that the show was moving along in spurts, like a stick-shift car moving sluggishly uphill. That might have been caused by the fragments. Brief sections of conversation set to intriguing music work in an opera, needless to say. In a musical, though, they can be frustrating. Not frustrating to me, mind you, but frustrating to enough of the audience that after the first 30 minutes they figuratively tune out.
We have had patchy musicals before, of course, but in those cases we usually get lots of fragments with no songs to speak of. Or at least, no luscious, powerful, fully accomplished songs. That is decidedly not the case here. Frankel's music and Korie's lyrics soar again and again and again; Far From Heaven offers a feast of glorious musical theatre writing. The songs for Cathy and Raymond—the gardener from the wrong side of the tracks—easily stand out: "Sun and Shade," "Miró," "A Picture in Your Mind" are stunning, as is the smoky "The Only One." The songs for the repressed leading man—"If It Hadn't Been," "Secrets," "I Never Knew"—perfectly capture his inner torture. The score is wrapped by "Autumn in Connecticut," which is at once nostalgic and ominous. Thus the leading lady learns her lesson: "A picture postcard with an early spring New England theme—though now it's not as close to heaven as it used to seem."
The score is especially well performed, as it was in Greif's production at Playwrights. O'Hara, Pasquale and Johnson—each of them--do perfectly with their roles. Of the others, Nancy Anderson (as the leading lady's loyal friend) and Julianna Rigoglioso and Jake Lucas (as the children) stand out. The score is well supported by a stunning set of orchestrations from Bruce Coughlin, who did a similarly fine job on last winter's Giant. Lawrence Yurman conducts a 12-piece orchestra.
It is impossible to suggest, after only one theatre-viewing of the show, that things might work better without all those song fragments. It is also hard to know whether some of the small-town ensemble material, redolent of musical comedy, works against the overall piece. (One thing I can say is that the material for the neighbor Eleanor has enormous impact.) One way or the other, though, one has to hope that some courageous regional theatre invites the authors to continue their work. That route worked for the much-maligned Merrily We Roll Along, and there is unquestionably treasure within Far From Heaven.
This leaves us where we started. Consider the songwriters, who came to prominence with the 2006 Grey Gardens—also from Playwrights, also with director Greif. (While I found the earlier score promising, this new one is distinctly more accomplished.) Listen to the Far From Heaven CD. Then ponder that people can write a score this good and this exciting, yet end up with a show that is generally dismissed. Heartbreaking, I say. (Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the “Opening Night on Broadway” books and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)