Proustian Music: Nelson & Gordon's Albertine Christens Horizons' New Home

News   Proustian Music: Nelson & Gordon's Albertine Christens Horizons' New Home Richard Nelson, the playwright who previously made the prose of James Joyce sing, now brings music to the work of Marcel Proust with the Feb. 18 first preview of the musical, My Life With Albertine, for Playwrights Horizons.

Nelson, who is director and co-lyricist on this refracted-through-memory theatricalization of a section of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," won the Tony Award for Best Book for James Joyce's The Dead, which also premiered at Playwrights Horizons. The composer and co-lyricist for My Life With Albertine is Ricky Ian Gordon, known for his art songs (Only Heaven is a collection of sung Langston Hughes poems) and Off-Broadway's Dream True (with collaborator Tina Landau).

The full Playwrights Horizons cast, revised since late 2002, includes Brent Carver, Emily Skinner, Chad Kimball, Kelli O'Hara, Donna Lynne Champlin, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Nicholas Belton, Caroline McMahon, Paul Anthony McGrane, Jim Poulos, Paul A. Schaeffer, Brad Spencer, Rena Strober and Laura Woyasz.

The first preview marks the first full production at the mainstage of the new, $27 million PH facility at 416 W. 42nd Street. Opening is March 13 and performances continue to March 30, though if the past is any indicator, the work will extend.

The cast went through recent shifting, with the addition of Skinner (The Dead, Side Show, Dinner at Eight) plays a cabaret singer named Mademoiselle Lea (Amy Spanger was originally announced) and Champlin (Hollywood Arms, The Dead) plays Francoise/Grandmother. Moriber, who played Lily in Nelson's The Dead for PH and on Broadway, plays Rosemonde in My Life With Albertine.

The title role is played by O'Hara, who was the troubled sister, Susan, in the 2002 Broadway musical, Sweet Smell of Success. The older Narrator/Marcel is played by Tony Award-winning Canadian actor Brent Carver (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Parade). Chad Kimball (formerly Milky White of Broadway's Into the Woods) plays Young Marcel. *

The musical focuses on "the complicated and obsessive relationship between a young man of Society (Marcel) and a fiery, middle-class girl (Albertine)," according to the announcement. "Narrating his tale from a private home theatre in 1920s Paris, an older Marcel (Carver) looks back on his experiences with the girl who was his lover, tormentor and muse."

Composer Gordon previously told Playbill On-Line Marcel has been reconceived as a composer. In the novel, the character, who is based on Proust himself, is an aspiring writer.

Gordon told Playbill On-Line he only met Nelson in November 2001.

"Just meeting him really inspired me and excited me," Gordon told Playbill On-Line. "This particular story starts in the second book of 'Remembrance of Things Past.' It's the story of Marcel and Albertine, it's an obsessive love story. The way it's basically dealt with, there's the older narrator, the older Marcel. In a wealthy person's living room, this man decides he's going to tell the story of his life with Albertine. So a tiny little set is erected in someone's living room. His friends are going to help him act it out. That conceit alone makes everything possible. You're not trying to hide the fact that it's a theatrical retelling of something."

Gordon added: "Marcel is a composer. This is the music and story he has written. In the book, Marcel is preoccupied with a sonata, but in our piece, he's writing a sonata. The conceit makes it natural for things to be sung."

Albertine is introduced in the second volume of Proust's opus, "Within a Budding Grove," as the leader of a captivating clique of young girls Marcel encounters at a seaside resort. Over the course of the book, Marcel grows increasingly obsessed with the mercurial and mysterious Albertine until he finally takes her for his lover, against the wishes and advice of friends and family.

Once they are living together in Paris, Marcel becomes more and more possessive, shifting from love to jealousy and concocting all sort of fantasies of Albertine's duplicity in his head. He is particularly maddened by suggestions that Albertine leads a secret, libertine, perhaps bi-sexual double life.

Marcel and Albertine's relationship dominate the fifth and sixth volumes of the novel, tellingly called "The Captive" and "The Fugitive."

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Nelson seemed to reinvent the musical theatre form with The Dead, using parlor songs and then switching to character-specific narrative songs.

"The Dead is something I'm very, very proud of," Nelson told Playbill On-Line in December 2002. "Again, it's a human tale and it seemed like an effort to begin as if it were a play and have it evolve into a musical, where music became more and more important and the emotions became deeper and richer and more profound. I love the musical form. It seems to have the potential to do so much, to touch an emotion that's not easily touched in a play. It's something I very much want to keep doing. But not necessarily will the plays look like The Dead. Albertine will be very different, but I hope human."

Is Albertine operatic?

"The Proust novels are very constructed," Nelson explained. "They are very self-conscious in a wonderful way because they are often about self-consciousness. He makes comments upon that. Our Albertine is a story told to us by a narrator, much like in the Proust, and he will give us his show of his life with Albertine. It's a little show in a little proscenium in someone's house."

And is the Marcel character, in the musical, processing his own coming of age and the relationship with the love of his life?

Nelson said, "Yes. Exactly: The love of his life. He's telling you his story, when he was 18 years old and the girl he met — and lost."

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Designers are Thomas Lynch (scenic), Susan Hilferty (costume), James Ingalls (lighting) and Scott Lehrer (sound). Orchestrations are by Bruce Coughlin and musical director is Charles Prince. Sean Curran choreographs.

Tickets are $60. The first performance of the run (Feb. 18) is a pay what-you-can show. For information, call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.