Coraline the Musical: A Theatrical Revue/Review
Now this show hasn’t officially opened so this review is probably woefully incorrect as much will be tweaked and toggled and changed and wobbled. That said, whee!
Sunday, May 17th rolls around and I find myself seated in the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Lest you mistake this to be some whopping great 42nd Street mega theater, we’re talking somewhere between 100-200 seats, max. It is located in Greenwich Village, not far from New York City’s most beautiful branch, the Jefferson Market Library. It seems appropriate to be watching an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman affair not far from a library where you can still see the outlines of the cells in its basement.
As you may have heard, Neil Gaiman’s first children’s novel, Coraline, has recently been adapted to the stage due to the efforts of one David Greenspan, who wrote the book. As he writes in his "Note from the Playwright": "…while I have done some compressing and conflating, I have preserved the plot structure, and I have pilfered from the book at every turn. Significantly, I have fashioned the script in a way that permits Stephin Merritt to translate Neil’s story onto the stage through song."
That was enough for me. I am naturally a Gaiman fan (which is the librarian equivalent of saying, "I am naturally capable of digesting particles of food") and I was curious. I’d seen the musical version of The Wolves in the Walls (again, thanks to Monica), the other adaptation of a Gaiman work, and it was fun. But like any picture book to stage creation it required a bit of padding. A couple extra solos and long wolf-related dance/chase sequences. I was anticipating no such need with this particular book. I wasn’t anticipating much of anything at all, however, since I tend to avoid reading reviews or background info on books/plays before I’ve read/seen them. I like going into these things cold.
You know who else likes to go into things of this nature cold? Parents. Because walking into the theater I couldn’t help but notice the range of ages of the kids who were present. And so I found myself playing the old, "When will the first child cry?" game. Admittedly, this game was risky to play because I’m sure that a large bulk of the kidlets had already read the book slash seen the movie. For the most part, they knew what they were in for. I suspected, however, that there might be that one stray child that came in without a clue about the story or what it entailed. Later, it would turn out, I would be correct.
But back to the beginning with ye, missy. I plopped into my seat and took in the set. It was sort of hard to take in at first. As my eyes adjusted I began to make out one… two… three… wait a darn second. How many pianos can you fit onto a stage? Flippety flippety back through my program and the set designer is . . . oo! They’ve made a version of Waiting for Godot with Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane? No, wait, focus, Bird . . . flippety flippety and the set designer is one Christine Jones. The same Christine Jones who did the sets for Spring Awakening (cool) and Debbie Does Dallas at the Jane Street Theatre (insert childish snicker here). Well pianos are cool. There were whole bunches of them everywhere, clearly because Mr. Merritt sees a connecting link between pianos and domesticity (I wish I could say I made that up, but he’s said it in about fourteen interviews so far). And the set, as you looked at it, was split into different little worlds. The flat of the missus Forcible and Spink on the far left. The door (or what I took to be the door at first) in the center and back of the stage, and a piano that would prove to be Mr. Bobo’s flat on its top on the right.
A word about Mr. Stephin Merritt. There is a certain strain of person who takes to Mr. Merritt’s music a little too merrily. The kind of person who fills her iPod with various Magnetic Fields albums, Gothic Archies songs, and the like. Strange as it may sound, a Stephin Merritt song All My Little Words once played during an episode of The Shield. My husband liked the song and introduced me to the music of Merritt. It was pretty much all downhill from there. I have located a video of the man performing one of the songs he composed for Lemony Snicket, back in the day. However, I feel a bit cruel putting it here, as it is possibly one of the most painful interactions I’ve ever had to witness. Someone please find the person who thought to combine the words "Stephin Merritt" with the words "morning show" and give them a sharp thwap between the shoulder blades for me, won’t you?
That’s the composer. And as a fan of his Distortion album, where atonal songs go all haywire, I was prepared for something a little different. I don’t think I was prepared for most of the cast members to begin the show by playing music on toy pianos, though. Lots of toy pianos. And for one, brief, horrifying moment I found myself thinking, "Oh crap. He composed full orchestration solely for toy pianos". Not the case, as it happens. A couple instruments were hidden backstage while the bulk of the tunes were played by pianist Phyllis Chen. Phyllis Chen, whose biography I excerpt here:
Phyllis Chen (Pianist) is a toy pianist, pianist, composer and performance artist … After discovering the toy piano, Phyllis has created original multimedia compositions using toy pianos, electronics and video and performing other works by prominent 20th and 21st century composers. She has toured on the toy piano throughout the United States, Taiwan, Japan, and Holland. As an avid toy pianist, Phyllis founded the UnCaged Toy Piano Competition, a composition competition encouraging composers to create unique new works for the toy piano."
So, to sum up, I was watching the world’s foremost toy pianist. Wanna hear some? Three samples of the show’s music can be found here. But wait! There’s more.
Let’s take some questions from the audience. You sir, in the three piece suit and pocket square.
Question: Is this a show for children?
Answer: Excellent question. No.
Oh, there were kids there all right. And the theater itself says the following: "Although Coraline is a bit scary, we believe is a show that children will enjoy. There is no overt violent, sexual, or obscene content. We recommend it for children 8 years of age or older. Please note: Children under 5 are not permitted in the theater." So that’s all right then. But for kids? Not a bit of it. Kids can watch it, sure, but remember too this quote from Mr. Merritt in a recent Village Voice article:
MCC, which is producing the piece, recommends it for children aged eight and up, but Merritt hopes the crowd will skew older: “I had a fantasy of doing Coraline entirely naked, so there would be no children in the audience.” At present, the actors are clothed, and Merritt has excised the American curse words he originally added (a nod to kiddie sensibilities). Yet removing them so annoyed him that “I put British swear words in where they’re totally gratuitous: ‘Bugger all.’ ‘Sod off.’ ” And Merritt, who acquired the theatrical rights some years ago, chose some distinctly adult collaborators. He hired cult playwright David Greenspan to write the book and Leigh Silverman, whose résumé includes nary a children’s show, to direct. Together, they selected the 55-year-old Jayne Houdyshell to play little Coraline. Greenspan, no stranger to drag roles, is slotted in as Coraline’s Other Mother, a demon entity in an apron.
I had read the naked line prior to seeing the show but had forgotten the whole 55-year-old Coraline part. So when Jayne Houndyshell stepped dead center it took roughly 20-25 seconds for me to finally say to myself, "Ooooooooh. She’s Coraline". Ms. Houdyshell got herself a 2006 Tony nomination for her role in Well, a play directed by Coraline director Leigh Silverman. Let me point out right here and now that Ms. Houdyshell, who gets extra points for having the delicious name of "Houdyshell", got the part down pat. You can see a bit of her acting (and the show) in this news video. For that first minute you’re on edge, and you think to yourself, "Am I going to buy this?" The 60-second mark time’s up and not only have you bought it, you’re taking in new details that might not have come to your attention. Details like:
- The cat, played by a man in a black suit with fluorescent stripes who says the word "Meow" in a hot guttural purr. His yawns are choice. And he even steps nonchalantly onto piano keys like a cat (on cue during his solo, no less).
- The Other Mother, played by the playwright David Greenspan. It’s a good role, particularly when he starts to lose control. Some have questioned how effective he is, particularly since there is no real reason to have the character played by a man. But he does the happy mommy bit well, though I would have appreciated some long red fingernails in there. As for his song Falling it is, to my mind, the best in the show. It requires a kind of singing that seems to be a cross between a castrati’s mewl and a basenji’s yodel. And in the midst of it cast members remove his button eyes, hair, and apron leaving a middle-aged man singing about his incipient death. Some see it as self-indulgent. I see it as a character that is extraordinary becoming the one thing it promised Coraline it wasn’t: ordinary.
- A robot chicken.
- Musical accompaniment provided by rubbing balloons and (my least favorite sound in the whole wide world) rubbing styrofoam against itself.
- Men in undershirts. Many handsome young men in undershirts.
- Lovely British accents that must have been fake. I only say this because I saw that the show employed the use of a vocal coach. Hence the plethora of British tones and phrasings.
- A finale in which every cast member aside from Coraline, even the amusingly impassive pianist, puts on a hat with mouse ears for the final, touching song.
Another question from the audience. You, the lady with the alligator purse.
Answer: Few and far between. They seem to have everything working in a fairly shipshape state. Of course even more so than The Wolves in the Walls, the show this really reminded me the most of was that wonderful musical Shock-Headed Peter which came to New York a couple years ago. It played in London long before that and the creators apparently are behind the upcoming Addams Family musical. Like Coraline it was one of those shows where you figured that kids were welcome to watch it, but it wasn’t created specifically for them. And I found myself flashing back to that show during one of Coraline’s numbers. There is a moment in the book when Coraline describes a memory of exploring with her father and they were attacked by wasps. The play, strangely enough, turns the song into an upbeat little number. Now go to this Amazon page and listen to the song "Flying Robert". For a story that strange and brave and interesting I wanted a ballad like this. It’s a ridiculous criticism, since I’m referencing another musical entirely, but if ever there was a moment for something slow, sad, peculiar, and wonderful all at once it was THAT little song. Instead it was far too jaunty. Not the right tone or mood for the piece at all.
Aside from that the only other song that seemed a wee bit off was the song performed by the Other Miss Spink and Other Miss Forcible. In that case, though I can’t identify where the problem lay. It just didn’t gel quite right.
That said, I should probably mention that this production gave me a new appreciation for the original book. I have not as of yet seen the Coraline movie. It looks nice. I just haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet. And since the musical took its cues from the book and not the film, I noticed and saw little elements I’d not paid attention to the first time around. The Alice in Wonderland connections I remembered, but Gaiman’s twist on them can be intriguing. A smart aleck cat that never tells you what you want? In Alice it’s a trickster without good or bad connotations. Here it becomes a friend. And rather than Alice/Coraline falling down a hole in the ground, down that path falls the villain (or a part of the villain anyway). I still prefer The Graveyard Book, but I shall have to give old Coraline another reading when I get a chance.
Another question. You, the small sticky child with gum in your hair.
Question: Did any kids cry during the show?
Answer: Yes, but not where I would have thought. If I had seen this show with Myself At Age Five (or, simply, MAAF), MAAF would have bawled thick blue tears when Coraline is alone in her bed crying and scared and without her parents. And let me tell you, that scene is a lot more effective when played by a large fifty-something year old woman than it would ever be played by a 20-year-old, or even a real child. Originally I thought they had cast Ms. Houdyshell because it would be less scary for the kids to see an adult going through all these trials and tribulations. Instead it was quite the opposite. And when Coraline is thrown behind the mirror and is in the dark surrounded by three little ghosts, that was the moment the child in my row said to the world "I cants takes it, no more!" Figuratively speaking. The family got through the end of the scene, then high-tailed it outta there, lickety split.
In contrast, a boy across the aisle from me was quite entranced by the entire performance. And when Coraline wondered where she would find her parents in the house he started muttering over and over, "Look in the snowglobe. The snowglobe! Look in the snowglobe!" She must have eventually have taken his advice.
Last question. You, the natty gentlewoman with the monocle and moustache.
Question: Were there any celebrity sightings? This was Greenwich Village, after all.
Answer: Up for debate. As Monica and I left she saw a man signing autographs from his seat in the audience. Her guess was that it was Stephin Merritt. I’m not familiar enough with the fellow’s looks to say, but I’m a nosy lass. So when the theater emptied sufficiently I marched right back in and did that vague look that’s supposed to convey the feeling that one is searching for one’s lost umbrella / grandfather / purse. A quick glance about yielded no clues. If he was there he was well disguised. Clever lad. And you can read a recent interview with him about the show here, if you care to. Or a positive review here.
All told, I had a magnificent time and if you are lucky enough to score tickets you should see it right quick. If you would like a second opinion on the matter Monica is offering her thoughts here. Actually, Monica basically agrees with me. Far more interesting is this conversation she located about the problems a couple folks had with the show. Where I loved both the final song and the villain’s "Falling" (which was, to my mind, the best damn solo in the piece) these folks found it overwrought and a poor integration of text and songwriting. Definitely worth reading.
The show hasn’t opened yet, and if you’ve a yen you might want to click here during the hours of 9-11 p.m. on Monday, June 1st to listen-in live to the playlist of the Opening Night Party for Coraline. What’s it gonna hurt?
And here are some interviews with the people involved.
Some pictures ripped untimely from the pages of Vanity Fair. They’ll live.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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