An interview with Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor, writers of the upcoming Festival show The Sandman, about adapting the horror genre for the stage and writing “a little nightmare musical” for kids and adults alike.
NAMT: The Sandman is a true horror musical, not something that we see a lot of. Have you always wanted to write in this genre?
Richard Oberacker: Ever since I was a very young child, I had two obsessions: musical theatre and haunted houses. I think I understood that a good haunted house was actually interactive, immersive theater. And, oddly, throughout most of my youth, I became a bit of an entrepreneur, designing and building haunted attractions. I guess I always wondered if my two obsessions could be combined—but, of course, it had to be the right story. The best horror movies are always of a singular vision and have a delicate balance of fright and comedy. Both of those are authentic and therefore work only if they are organically connected to the story—they arise out of the givens of the circumstances. That means only the perfect story can give rise to the perfect recipe. If we had not happened upon Hoffmann’s work, and “Der Sandman” in particular, we would not have attempted a so-called horror musical.
NAMT: How did you discover the stories The Sandman is based on? Did you immediately know you wanted to adapt them into a musical?
Robert Taylor: Saying “we happened upon Hoffmann’s work” as Richard indicated is somewhat disingenuous, in that German romanticism in general, and the complete works of E.T.A. Hoffmann in particular, were a major area of study for me in my years at the Universities of Bonn and Princeton. Further, every child of the Western World knows Hoffmann’s Nutcracker. Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann actually contains elements of The Sandmanstory, as does Delibes’ classic ballet Coppelia. So in truth, I’ve known and been fascinated by Hoffmann’s sinister fairy tales (as well as those of Edgar Allen Poe, who counted Hoffmann among his favorite writers) for most of my life—and they seem to naturally lend themselves to musical theatricalization. I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with Hoffmann having been a brilliant musician and composer in his own right, with chamber music, symphonies, ballets and operas to his credit, as well as an unparalleled writer of fantasy. His fiction is filled with music and tales of musicians. He worshiped
Mozart—the “A” in E.T.A. Hoffmann stands for Amadeus, a name he took to honor the composer he considered to be the greatest genius of all time. And though never a playwright, his story–telling is inherently and brilliantly theatrical. So, how could we resist trying our hand at adapting some of Hoffmann’s tales for the musical stage? We’re certainly in good, though it must be admitted, rather intimidating company.
NAMT: While adapting, what did you consider the most important key to staying true or honest to Hoffman’s original work?
RO: The most important elements were two-fold. One, that the horrible or disturbing actions be presented as truthful experiences within the world of the play. Hoffmann often presents supernatural or nefarious happenings as perfectly plausible in the lives and environments of his characters. And secondarily, that Hoffmann’s sense of humor and social satire be honored. We found that when we combined both those elements, filtered through the conventions of a musical theatre piece, we landed on a style that closely resembled the sensibility of Tim Burton’s animated works.
NAMT: Tell us about the musical style of this piece, as it relates to the horror genre of the story.
RO & RT: The Sandman is set in Germany in the late 1830’s, about as horrific a setting for a musical as one can imagine, with the possible exception of Germany in the late 1930’s, so it gave us an opportunity to pay homage to the great German masters—Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann—while infusing the score with more nefarious and satirical sensibilities a la Kurt Weill, and the classic German horror film techniques of a Franz Waxman or Bernard Herrmann. I think the key to a successful horror film, and therefore a horror musical, has to do with the creation of a unified world which gives the viewer a very specific set of rules within which the plot and characters will function. Many of these rules often make no logical sense in the real world, but that is in fact the fun and the attraction of the medium. This ‘base line’ set of rules and the unified vision of the world serves as an entry point, an invitation to participate in the story. It’s a sort of seduction so that one is ready and willing to accept the dreadful and unnatural things that will surely follow. In the score of The Sandman, we do much the same thing. We create a very specific vocabulary which is at once melodic—and therefore accessible—and slight cartoony, which tells the listener the rules of this slightly odd-ball world and seduces them with a sense of play and a fairly assured ‘entertainment value.’ It’s showy. It has musical theatre in its DNA. That should please the listener, invite them to notice the German homages and enjoy in the winking acknowledgment of them, and gain their trust and participation before the real fun begins. Then of course, those themes and motifs begin to twist and distort. They begin to become aggressive and dissonant. The music becomes as unnatural as the goings on of the play. But it never loses its initial vocabulary.
NAMT: What was it like to marry the music and the text of the play together?
RO: The text and the music are really cut from the same cloth. It wasn’t a matter of having to “marry” them exactly because they are both born of the same off-kilter, darkly satirical vocabulary. The language has a certain musicality built into it. It all seemed to unify itself once we fully understood the world of The Sandman as we interpreted Hoffmann’s original.
NAMT: The Sandman, and another of your Festival shows, Ace, features a story based around children and their way of interpreting the world. Why does this narrative appeal to you, or is it just coincidence?
RO & RT: Though our musical Ace has matured, and no longer employs the theatrical conceit of a ten–year–old boy’s dream adventures to deliver the narrative as it did when it first premiered at NAMT in 2005, a child’s imagination, quick to enhance, distort, exaggerate and altogether alter reality, is something that does hold immense theatrical appeal for us—especially when telling a fairy tale of horror. Irrational childhood fear of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night, is a state to which most of us gladly regress as adults when we want to be entertained – horror films, haunted houses, cemeteries, abandoned buildings or farms on dark moonless nights.
A child’s imagination can be so much more facile than an adult’s. They have the capacity to return over and over to stories and films, willing to experience the same journey many times and even extend it through their own playing, writing and art making. When a child experiences The Sandman, there should be a slightly naughty sense of getting away with something, a sense of seeing something just slightly beyond what they suspect their parents might have thought they were going to see (or would have even approved of their seeing). And in that experience, their imaginations are the most alive. They fill in voids with what they want to see. They believe in the most outrageous possibilities. They imagine what is not there. They delight in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
NAMT: Have you enjoyed a particular response to your shows from young audiences in the past?
RO: We were fortunate enough to have a first reading of The Sandman in a beautifully restored jewel-box theater with an extraordinary cast and full technical support—sound, lights, a few projected images and even a Foley artist. It was presented as a benefit performance and attended by a large audience including many young children and teens. This was a huge gift to us because we could gauge if our gamble on creating something that would appeal to both children and adults was successful. As it happened, the performance was enormously successful, and children in particular ate it up. So based on that experience, I would say we’re more encouraged about how this show will be received by young people and look forward to continued development on the piece in ways that will only strengthen their enjoyment of it.
NAMT: As mentioned, you guys are no stranger to the Festival. What keeps you coming back?
RT:We just thought it would be good to let everyone know we still existed. And we hear the Festival is still a really great place to pick up chicks. But beyond the obvious… It’s the best, most organized, well–respected showcase for new works in the country. The industry actually shows up, pays attention and has direct access to the writers in a way that leads to real productions—and for those of us who live and work outside of New York, that is absolutely invaluable.