NEW YORK — The way Richard Greenberg tells it, the idea sounds almost accidental.
Five years ago, in July 2007, the playwright caught the last Broadway performance of “Grey Gardens,” a musical whose composer, Scott Frankel, he had “known a little bit for a hundred years.” After Greenberg, a Tony Award winner for “Take Me Out,” told him he admired the show, Frankel suggested that they work together. But the project Frankel proposed didn’t appeal, so Greenberg countered with another: Why not make the movie “Far From Heaven” into a musical?
“I blurted it out,” Greenberg recalled. “I just said it, possibly before I even thought, but then liked the idea immediately. So I don’t know if that counts as an idea, or just a kind of a spasm.”
Todd Haynes’s 2002 art-house film stars Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, an upscale housewife in 1957 Connecticut who has an outwardly enviable life: a handsome executive husband, two young children, closets filled with knockout period styles. But the facade cracks when Cathy discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay, and as their marriage disintegrates, she scandalizes segregated Hartford by spending time with her gardener, a black man named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). The milieu is Eisenhower-era conformity, rigidity, and repression; the tone tends toward somber melodrama. As material for a musical goes, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to characters bursting exuberantly into song.
But a musical it has become. With a book by Greenberg, a score by Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, the lyricist for “Grey Gardens,” it has just begun a string of 13 performances at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Directed by Michael Greif, who is best known for “Rent” and was Frankel and Korie’s “Grey Gardens” director, it stars Kelli O’Hara, whose Broadway credits include “The Light in the Piazza,” and who is in the midst of a Broadway run opposite Matthew Broderick in “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
“I kind of said to Richard after the first run-through of this, ‘My God, this might be the first all-subtext musical,’” Korie said the other morning before rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, the off-Broadway theater where “Far From Heaven” is slated to have its world premiere next spring. “And he said, ‘God forbid.’ But I think it is. The language is simple, of the lyrics, but the music is showing roiling emotions underneath, and so there’s a lot unsaid, or people covering for what they can’t say, or being polite, or changing the subject.”
Frankel wrote the music for O’Hara, who has been involved in the project since the day early last year that he went to her house and played it for her. Now O’Hara, pleased to have a role designed for her voice in a musical with substantial narrative stakes, is spending her vacation from “Nice Work” performing in “Far From Heaven” at Williamstown.
‘We’re on the line: We’re not a new American opera and we’re not a musical. It’s almost, in sections, continuous songs, but it’s not opera because each is a discrete unit that blends into the next song.’
“I’m not proud of that,” said the actress, who in the lead-up to Williamstown had been rehearsing the new musical every day, doing eight shows a week on Broadway, and feeling the tug to spend more time with her 3-year-old son. “It’s one of those things where I argue with myself: Should I stop everything and be a mom right now? But then I think, for a woman in this business — well, anybody in this business, but especially a woman — I feel like you strike when the iron’s hot, and then, not by your choice, you back off from things. Things get slower.
“But right now,” she said, “when someone like Scott Frankel and Michael Korie and Richard Greenberg are writing something and it’s basically with you in mind, you put everything aside. Not family, but you put your fatigue aside. You put the stress and maybe the inconvenience of it aside, and you do it. It’s all worth it, artistically. Career-wise.”
O’Hara has never seen the movie “Far From Heaven,” so there’s no danger of her imitating Moore’s performance. But Frankel didn’t have the option of innocence when this project came up: He saw the film twice when it was in theaters, so its lush score — music that, to Greenberg, “always seems on the verge of singing” — was already in his head.
“I’m the number-one fan of that Elmer Bernstein score. It’s spectacular,” said the composer, who watched the movie again with Korie and Greenberg early in the adaptation process but was wary of being too influenced by its music. “Because I am pretty porous; most people are. So we just started looking at the screenplay as text.”
Frankel’s affection for theater music and pop music of the late ’50s is evident in his own score, he said, but so is his regard for the orchestral music that surges through the film.
“I think that part of my work is an homage to the Elmer Bernstein score in the bigness of what I’ve written — unabashedly romantic,” said Frankel, who noted that his music will be played by an ensemble of 12, far fewer than Bernstein had. “That’s what I took with me from him, that these were big emotions: big love, big excitement, big betrayal, big hurts. It’s not chamber-sized feelings.”
While Frankel leapt eagerly into the adaptation, flying to Portland, Ore., to talk with Haynes about it, Korie wasn’t convinced until they began writing songs that “Far From Heaven” could even be a musical. He was adamant, even as Greenberg encouraged him and Frankel toward through-composition, that he did not want it to be an opera.
“We’re on the line: We’re not a new American opera and we’re not a musical,” said Korie, who has written librettos for operas including “Harvey Milk” and Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” “It’s almost, in sections, continuous songs, but it’s not opera because each is a discrete unit that blends into the next song.”
Ultimately, for Korie, the lure of the project came from the three main characters.
“They all seemed so singable,” he said. “There was so much that was unsaid that I felt that it wouldn’t be a matter, at least in my work, of paraphrasing the screenplay: that I could find new levels inside that weren’t explored and cut away some of the excess of the film to make room for that.”
How to get it all across in a stage production is the task facing Greif, who praised the film — a homage to Douglas Sirk replete with references to movies of the period — as “a great triumph of a dance between style and substance.” For the musical, he said, it’s crucial to locate the balance the movie did, never toppling into camp.
“It got you dangerously close to it, so there was that titillation, but it never crossed the line, and I think that is a great challenge for us,” Greif said.
The musical’s design team is heavy with Broadway veterans. Costumes are by five-time Tony winner Catherine Zuber (“The Light in the Piazza”), projections by Peter Nigrini (“Fela!”), and the set by Allen Moyer (“Grey Gardens”). Those are all components that Greif was eager to see in action at Williamstown to find out how they affect a production honed in the spareness of rehearsal rooms. He hoped, too, to learn “what theatrical flourishes this theatrical event craves.”
“In the same way that there’s a clear cinematic veneer of that film, is there a theatrical veneer of this play?” Greif asked. “I mean, do we see the backstage simultaneous with the forestage? What are those elements?”
So, at Williamstown, much of the purpose is discovery, and the creative team expects a significant amount of change between this summer and next spring.
“It’s called a preview production, which is a term I’m not familiar with?” Greenberg said, the rising inflection at the end of his sentence not so much denoting a question as acknowledging peculiarity. “And yet it feels accurate to describe this.”
In the adaptation so far, Greenberg’s book sticks close to the film in Act 1 but opens up the story in Act 2 in ways the movie does not. Though wary of what he called “potentially paralyzing respect” for Haynes’s film, he has also been determined to preserve as much of the screenplay’s text as possible, and to be faithful to the style of its “off-kilter, kind of wonderfully stilted dialogue.” Thus he invented a function for himself in the collaboration with Frankel and Korie: “keeper of the tone.”
“They were going off and having to make up brand-new stuff,” Greenberg said, “and they would come to me [with it] and I would say, ‘No.’ They never wrote a bad song; I have to say that. But every now and then, I’d say, ‘You know what? That’s just not the tone. That’s not in keeping.’ Or ‘That’s a great song for the show, but it’s not right for these characters.’ And I was brutal because I figured, I guess this is my role: to be sort of the first line of dramaturgy. And they were so receptive.”
As for “Far From Heaven” being the first all-subtext musical, Greenberg’s attitude pretty much is “God forbid.” Then again, he said, what’s left unexpressed by these characters in 1957 America would be hard for a contemporary audience to miss.
“If you think about the original,” Greenberg said, “the thing about the subtext is the subtext is sort of glaring. It may be the first all glaringly subtextual musical. Because that’s the point: We know what’s going on a lot better than they do.”Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.