An interview with Kent Nicholson, Director of Musical Theatre and Literary Associate at Playwrights Horizons, about their upcoming production of Far From Heaven, with a book by Richard Greenberg, Music by Scott Frankel and Lyrics by Fest alumnus Michael Korie (Blanco– ’89). The show is a recipient of one of NAMT’s National Fund for New Musicals Production Grants.
Cathy Whitaker seems to be the picture-perfect wife and mother in 1957 suburban Connecticut. But roiling beneath the surface, secret longings and forbidden desires cause her world to unravel, with incendiary consequences. With a lush score that is both jazz-inflected and hauntingly lyrical, Far From Heaven is a powerful story of romance, betrayal and intolerance, as a woman grapples with her identity in a society on the verge of upheaval.
Image: Kelli O’Hara in Far From Heaven at Williamstown Theatre Festival
Far From Heaven is a Playwrights Horizons’ commission. What came first: the project or the writers?
The writers came first. It was their idea. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie had talked with Richard Greenberg about working on something together during the run of Grey Gardenson Broadway. In their subsequent discussions, Far From Heaven came up as a project they all admired that they thought could have a new life as a musical. They came to us with the idea and we thought it was a good one.
Why choose to musicalize Far From Heaven and why were Scott, Michael and Richard the right team for the job?
The film is an exploration of the nostalgia we have for “simpler” times. Those times have a dark side, a side that forces people to live in denial of their own prejudices and desires. The film places its main characters on the edge of the ’50s bleeding into the social consciousness of the ’60s. Shot in a melodramatic style, as an homage to Douglas Sirk, it contains all the elements of a great musical: inner emotional lives, strong plotting, a simple character arc. The lushness of the film’s visuals have translated into a lushness in Scott Frankel’s score. In transforming the story from one medium to another, we feel that we have the ability to continue to explore the themes, that the film begins to explore and dig a little deeper into the characters’ emotional lives.
This is your theatre’s second time at bat with Korie and Frankel. What draws Playwrights Horizons to their work and why are they a good match with your audience and mission?
Our focus at Playwrights is always on the writers, and our mission includes composers and lyricists as writers. We focus on writer driven work, which tends to mean that the projects we produce are the ideas and province of the writers’ obsessions with the world. Scott and Michael have brought us many of their projects. Obviously, some of any producing decision is an aesthetic one, meaning we simply like their work. But beyond that we find that artist-driven work tends to move the form forward and explore the boundaries of what the form can be. Grey Gardenscreated a narrative out of documentary source material, and Far From Heaven is almost operatic in its approach to the material. They’re still musicals, but they play with the form in artistically challenging ways.
The show was recently at Williamstown Theatre Festival before coming to Playwrights Horizons. How has the show changed and grown over this process?
The piece went through some significant tweaking during the reading and production process. While the plot is generally a given and hasn’t changed much, how many scenes we keep from the movie, how we elide them together and where we choose to place our focus has shifted a lot, as has the amount of underscoring and music. Some characters have been made significantly smaller than they are in the film. And we learned a great deal from the Williamstown audiences. The opportunity to see the piece in a fully realized production prior to coming into NY, while we still have a chance to make significant changes, not just in the text, but also design and approach, is invaluable.
What will change as the show heads to the Playwrights Horizons stage?
You’ll have to come and see!
Why should people come see Far From Heaven on West 42nd Street?
Our space is unique in that is equipped pretty well for musicals and yet it is small and intimate. This is a grand show in many ways and the opportunity to see something of this size in a house as intimate as ours is rare. It’ll be a special experience.
For more info about Far From Heaven, please visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.