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

By Christopher Wallenberg
20 Jul 2012

Kelli O'Hara
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

How did you come to cast Kelli O'Hara in the show?
MK: Well, Kelli quickly became the muse to this project — just like Christine [Ebersole] became the muse to Grey Gardens.

SF: Well, we always had her in mind because like Julianne Moore she's beautiful and seemingly has this beatific exterior, but she's complicated — in a good way. She's a multi-layered person. She's not an ingenue. And in addition to being great-looking, she has this spectacular voice. And like Christine Ebersole, I quickly kind of became enamored with the instrument. I thought, well, I can write her different kinds of songs — they can be soaring, or there can be something comedic, or there can be something more growling. And she's very fearless. If it calls for her not to sound pretty, she's not afraid to do that and to go there. Plus, she's had great input. That's what's marvelous about having an actress involved early on. We've been able to write stuff for her and stuff that's been at her behest.

Like what? Can you give an example of something she suggested or asked for?
SF: Well, the end of [the show], there's a marvelous scene. Cathy's alone in her house, and she's upstairs, and it's nighttime, and she's in a nightgown, and Frank, her soon-to-be-ex-husband, calls. In the film, the camera pulls back, and you see that he's in the hotel room with a clearly-inappropriate young guy. He's not calling for rapprochement, though you think for a moment maybe that's why he's calling. But what he's really calling for is that the divorce papers are drawn up, and he needs to find a time for her to come sign them. But he can never remember her car pool days. So I had this idea, and Michael ran with it, for a song called "Tuesdays-Thursdays." And that line in the screenplay is so brilliant. She's like, "You could never remember my car pool days. And they've always been the same."



So we have this scene where, in essence, you iris down on the husband and the phone call, and she just lets out this roller coaster, which builds and builds, of rage and fury. The fact that he can't remember her [car pool days] is emblematic of how he regards her. He doesn't understand her, never understood her, never bothered to care about understanding her. Then it totally goes back to, "Hello, Cathy, are you still there? Are you still there?" Meanwhile, she's had this whole tour-de-force aria of emotions, and she very calmly says, "I'm still here." I love that moment. And Kelli asked for it, and she was absolutely right.

MK: She was right. I didn't think Richard wanted it at first. Then after we wrote it, he wanted us to write a second verse — to make it longer. [Laughs.]

SF: Without it being cliched and hackneyed, I think that Cathy experiences an incredible personal awakening throughout the course of the show. And it was wildly painful for her. But at least she's alive and feeling and not in this more plastic, seemingly perfect existence. She's warts and all now. And sometimes those are very real body blows. As I said, we don't shy away from her second act downfall. The piece is very bittersweet. She really does get knocked around badly. We learn that the husband is gay and has left her for this twinkie; we learn that she can't be with the gardener. She's ostracized by the town.

Director Michael Greif
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Is a commercial Broadway producer providing enhancement money for the productions at Williamstown this summer and at Playwrights Horizons next spring?
SF: When we had this idea for the show, we took it to Tim Sanford [the artistic director at Playwrights Horizons]. We had such a happy experience there with Grey Gardens, and he loved the idea. And we got this amazing Mellon Foundation grant. It's quite remarkable. They provide for two productions — an out-of-town leg and then a second production in New York.

MK: So it means that there's no commercial enhancements at all. None.

SF: But we have this amazing grant, which was our commission to write it and enhances both productions. But it's still a big cast and a big orchestra.

MK: It's got 19 people, which is huge for Playwrights Horizons or Williamstown…It's very big for a non-profits to do by themselves. So we're very gratified that they're doing it.

You also have on tap the musical adaptation of the 2004 Johnny Depp film "Finding Neverland," which will get a tryout at the Curve Theatre in Leicester, U.K., starting in September. The show features a book by Allan Knee, whose off-Broadway play The Man Who Was Peter Pan inspired the film.
SF:
In fact, the last performance for Far From Heaven is the 29th of July. And then the first day of rehearsals for Neverland is Aug. 6 — in London. And in the way that audiences bring a pre-existing relationship with "The Wizard of Oz" when they see Wicked, the same holds true with Finding Neverland and the iconic "Peter Pan."

What about creating a musical adaptation of "Finding Neverland" appealed to you? What did you find so fascinating about J.M. Barrie and the Davies family, who inspired the author to write "Peter Pan"?
SF:
I was attracted to the central theme of a man who is at a crossroads in his personal and professional existence. He's had his imagination awakened by meeting Sylvia and her boys. And he discovers that his salvation and path out of the Shadows and Fog — which is one of the songs! — is to take threads from his own life and weave it into a work of fiction, fantasy and magic.

Can you briefly describe your approach to writing the music (and lyrics) for the show? What does the music in the show sound like?
SF:
The score is sweeping and melodic — and I was happy to pepper it with nods to the English musical hall; madrigals; Elgar; even hints of Gilbert & Sullivan. Barrie and Sylvia both have soaring ballads. There are also a swashbuckling number for pirates which is great fun. I also took the opportunity to write some thorny, complex material for the four boys. Peter, in particular, has a tour de force, mixed meter song called "Do I Know You?" that is not the kind of ditty one is accustomed to hearing from a child. The lads are precocious English schoolboys, so I felt that gave me license to "write up" rather than write down to them. We have some terrific kids on board for the production; twelve of them, in fact. Four boys times three casts, a la Billy Elliot.

Christopher Wallenberg is a Brooklyn-based arts and entertainment reporter and regular contributor to the Boston Globe, Playbill and American Theatre magazine. He can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.