STAGE TO SCREENS: Songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie Conjure the Passion of "Far From Heaven"

By Christopher Wallenberg
20 Jul 2012

Julianne Moore in the film
Focus Features

Haynes' film reconstituted the conventions and narrative tropes of those melodramas to simultaneously deconstruct, subvert and celebrate the genre. Will the musical incorporate the winking irony and deconstruction of Sirk's films or largely avoid the cinematic correlations?
SF: You know, everyone was wondering, "How are you going to deal with the tonal things?" But musicals by their very nature have this artifice, where people are breaking into song. In some ways, it's almost a non-issue. That movie was all about restraint and about what's not spoken. But musicals give you the opportunity to understand the interior life of the characters. I think the songs are the equivalent of close-ups — when they zoom in on Cathy and she doesn't say anything, but you see the pain, the bitter disappointment, the regret and anger on her face. In the musical we hear from her through the songs. So I actually think that in some ways the film was real natural material for an adaptation.

When I saw the film in the movie theatre, the audience was giggling and laughing at all the 1950s Sirkian social conventions and interactions, which seem so foreign and awkward to us today. So there were people in the theatre who appreciated those Sirkian conventions on one level and those who were just uncomfortable with how ridiculous it all seemed.
SF: The language stuff and the winks and nods to the 1950s, I think Haynes did a lot of that intentionally to disarm a contemporary audience. It was a way for him to say to the audience, "You know, you can relax into this. I'm not taking this completely unironic-ly either." Then once he gets them in, they're fully engaged just because the story is so compelling.

MK: But Richard [Greenberg] was very adamant about not getting campy or cute with the adaptation, getting ahead of the audience or catering to the audience. All of that adds a level of remove. So our approach was to take the story seriously and make it realistic. Then use music to dramatize and expand moments that were already there in the film. Like there's that moment where Cathy and Raymond meet at the gallery show, and they start looking at a Miró print. It becomes this rapturous thing. And then you see that everybody in the gallery is staring at them. Music really expanded that moment and made it fantastic. And it just comes out of nowhere. That's what I love.

Also, if I had ever entertained any ideas of doing pastiche-period songs, Richard Greenberg was not into that at all. He took the stories completely seriously. So we went on the assumption that the music would take the place of the stylization and cinematography of the film. When we started writing songs, almost immediately that seemed to prove true. And when we did the first reading, the story just worked, and the music maybe even intensified it. …It's a mostly-music musical — in a Rodgers and Hammerstein vein, where you take the characters seriously. You don't write genre cream-puff songs. You write from character.

SF: I was thinking of [the 1956 Frank Loesser musical] The Most Happy Fella. That was maybe in the back of my head a little bit. A story that has comic elements and has some social commentary, but also has these full-throated expressions of passion and emotion.

Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens.
photo by Joan Marcus

You guys have this tendency to tackle really challenging adaptations — these beloved films with a fervent cult following — whether it's "Grey Gardens" or "Far From Heaven." Where did the idea originate to adapt the film?
SF: Richard Greenberg is best friends with Patti Clarkson [who played Cathy's best friend Eleanor in Haynes' film]. I've known him a long time, and we've always talked about working on something together. We started brainstorming, and he said, "What about 'Far From Heaven'?" And I said, "That's it." Then I went and saw Christine Vachon at Killer Films and did my best pitch. Then she said, "You should really talk to Todd." So then I went to Portland and talked to Todd, and he was very receptive to the notion of it. So we'll see what happens if he comes to see it, if he's still so receptive to the notion of it then. But I think the adaptation is very faithful to the essence of his work...Sometimes, you know, you need to really stray from the source material in order to be true to the ethos of that original material. There's some musicals that I won't name, but they're like almost exactly the same, except they shoved in some songs! Like I'd rather see it streaming on Netflix than pay $125 for it. So [Haynes] understood that it needed to be reinvented, and he can't wait to see what we've done with it.

So it's a mostly sung-through musical? There isn't much dialogue?
MK: With Grey Gardens, people said, "Oh, what's the big deal? They take the documentary and stick in songs." And they were very careless in making that accusation, because if they compared the two scripts [for Grey Gardens the documentary vs. the musical], they would see that the script for Act Two is almost all Doug [Wright] — written in the style of those two women. And it was the songs that vandalized the actual text and regurgitated them, but in unusual ways. This one is also different. With Grey Gardens, my inroad into the whole thing was "Jerry Likes My Corn." With this one, too, I took a long time to find my way in — much to the frustration of my collaborators. But the thing that finally got me going was the idea of writing a song about Connecticut. And there's this whole genre of terrible "Connecticut" songs. Like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby singing about Connecticut — "I Like Connecticut" or whatever.

SF: It's a funny word — Connecticut.

MK: It is funny. But if audiences take the people in Connecticut and the people in this show are taking it seriously, then that kind of establishes a tonal thing. We can look it. But they're taking it seriously. So we're not making fun of them. But there is a certain kind of distancing going on. So the Connecticut song — "Autumn in Connecticut" — I thought worked like gangbusters, and then the rest of the score was a delight to write.

SF: Fortunately, the Connecticut Song was the first song. So it was good that you got that at the beginning, because otherwise it could have been a roadblock.