ON THE RECORD: Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's Far From Heaven

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29 Dec 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This week’s column discusses the original cast album of the Playwrights Horizons production of the Scott Frankel-Michael Korie musical Far From Heaven.

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.


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