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

By Christopher Wallenberg
20 Jul 2012

Michael Korie and Scott Frankel
Michael Korie and Scott Frankel
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The 1950s-set new musical Far From Heaven, based on the film of the same name, is now receiving a developmental staging at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie discuss capturing the color, romance and repression of the period.


At first blush, the idea of adapting Todd Haynes' Oscar-nominated 2002 film "Far From Heaven" into a stage musical feels like an inspired idea. The poignant story, about the unraveling of a picture-perfect suburban Connecticut family in the 1950s, is suffused with roiling emotions, psychological complexity, and a subtle but pointed critique of the sexual and social repression and insidious racism that infected the underbelly of Eisenhower-era America.

But there are real challenges facing the creative team — composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, book writer Richard Greenberg and director Michael Greif — as they prepare to mount what's being called a "preview production" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires, July 19-29. The first obstacle is the fact Haynes' film was a cinematic celebration/deconstruction of the 1950s weepies of director Douglas Sirk — melodramas like "All That Heaven Allows," "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life." Will the musical adaptation of Far From Heaven, which finds the irrepressible Kelli O'Hara playing heartsick homemaker Cathy Whitaker, largely avoid the winking irony and post-modern deconstruction of Haynes' homage?

The story centers on a tortured middle class advertising executive, Frank Whitaker, as he wrestles with the secret of his homosexuality, while his perfectly-composed, put-upon wife Cathy grapples with a burgeoning attraction to her widowed African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan. As Cathy and Raymond ever-so-tentatively act on their feelings, they're ostracized by their respective communities.

The film, which starred Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson, captured the restrained, emotionally-clenched sensibility of the 1950s to rapturous effect. Haynes employed eye-popping bursts of color and hyper-stylized visuals to evoke the forbidden desires and incendiary passions percolating just below the repressed facade of the decade's social mores. Musicals, in their own way, traffic in artifice. So the Far From Heaven creative team has approached their adaptation with the idea that the music and songs would serve a similar purpose to the visual cues, stylizations, cinematography of Haynes' film. Still, musicals are also unrestrained by their very nature — yet the characters are a decidedly repressed bunch.

Kelli O'Hara
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"The movie was all about restraint and what is not spoken," Frankel says. "But musicals give you the opportunity to really understand the interior life of the characters. The songs are the equivalent of film close-ups—when the camera zooms in on Cathy and she doesn't say anything, but you see the pain, the bitter disappointment, the regret, or anger on her face. In the musical, we get to hear from her through the songs." In fact, the idea was to use the songs "to dramatize and expand" on the small but powerful moments that already existed in the film — Cathy taking a late-night call from a husband who's deserting her, Cathy and Raymond discussing a Miró print at a Hartford gallery in full view of clucking society matrons. Most importantly, the creators insist that they treat the churning emotions of the characters with sincerity and conviction, without devolving into the maudlin.

During an interview over coffee in a midtown cafe, Frankel and Korie, who were nominated for a Tony Award for Best Original Score for Grey Gardens in 2007, talk about their adaptation of "Far From Heaven," which gets its fully fleshed out world premiere next spring at Playwrights Horizons in New York City following this "preview" in Williamstown.

Williamstown has released video highlights of the production's sitzprobe, the first meeting or orchestra and actors. View it here.

What about the movie made you think it would translate well to the stage, that it would work as a musical?

Scott Frankel: As with Grey Gardens, as soon as we started this process, I started looking at the screenplay, because I wanted to see it on the page divorced from the production elements and performances. The screenplay is also a marvel of economy and construction. It's very lean. It's brilliantly structured and just as good on the page. And it's one of those where you see the train running down the tracks, and you see that it's going to hit the kid and the dog in the car.

Michael Korie: But like Grey Gardens, Scott always picks a musical with an insurmountable problem.
SF: This one was not as insurmountable.

MK: With Grey Gardens, it was: Where was the story? Where was the narrative? So we found one, and we found a way to make a documentary musical. I like these insurmountable challenges. The challenge with this one is that "Far From Heaven" seemed so much like a film, and it referenced cinema. And it was totally underscored, the whole way through, with that fantastic 1950 score by Elmer Bernstein.

SF: We went back and looked at all of those films — "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life," which is a special favorite of mine.

MK: Then you say, Why does this belong on the stage? What kind of validity can you give it? That was the challenge. That was the question that drew me in.

SF: I remember seeing the film in its theatrical release in Chelsea with a kind of smarty-pants, gay, cineaste audience who appreciated the film as a Sirkian homage — all those color-on-color touches, with the leaves matching the dress. But then about four months later, I was in Cleveland visiting my then-90-something-year-old grandmother. The film was still playing, and I took her to see it. She didn't give a shit about Douglas Sirk. She wasn't looking at it as a film studies person. She just thought it was a really good story, and I was fascinated by that. At that moment, I realized that it's working for these two incredibly different constituencies: People looking at it as a kind of post-modern commentary on the past and those films and the artifice of those films and the issues of those films. But then my grandmother was just totally drawn in by the story, of this impossible triangle between this seemingly-perfect couple and then this gardener, who's her soul-mate, but they can't be together because of the social mores of the era.

MK: When I first saw it, I also thought, oh, isn't this clever? And I knew all those Douglas Sirk films. But I didn't necessarily take the story seriously...Sirk was working with these almost inferior soap opera scripts, and he made them interesting and weird and Chekhovian, especially with the way he filmed them — by making the lampshade match the dress match the wallpaper. It's just so weird — that you look at it in different ways.


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