Sunday
Jan242016

From Playwrights Horizons to Porchlight Music Theatre

PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS is a writer's theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists, and to the production of their new work. Notable productions include six Pulitzer Prize winners including Clybourne Park (2012 Tony Award, Best Play); I Am My Own Wife (2004 Tony Award, Best Play); The Heidi Chronicles (1989 Tony Award, Best Play); Driving Miss Daisy; Sunday in the Park with George; and Floyd Collins; and it's here that the new musical Far From Heaven was commissioned, developed, and produced in its critically acclaimed world premiere.

The highly anticipated Chicago Premiere at Porchlight Music Theatre will offer a new vision for this triumph by the creators of Grey Gardens and Take Me Out, but it all began with an authors' idea. Kent Nicholson, Director of Musical Theater at Playwrights Horizons wrote this essay on the creation of the original production, and the time honored tradition of adapting established sources into pieces of music theatre. 


THE AMERICAN VOICE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ADAPTATION

There seems to be a modern complaint about musicals today that you can’t throw a stone down Broadway without hitting a marquee for a show adapted from a recent hit film. As often as not, these productions are seen as a quick fix for the instant marketing and branding of commercial enterprises rather than original shows. However, adaptation in musicals is nothing new, and people have been turning to other sources for a very long time. What’s often overlooked is that the process of adaptation, at its best, finds ways to expand the form of the musical and deepen the manner in which these stories explore our essential humanity.

In 1931, Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow The Lilacs was a modest drama that played a mere sixty-four performances on Broadway despite a cast that featured Lee Strasberg and screen star Franchot Tone.  Mr. Riggs’ play, which told the story of brewing tensions between cowboys and farmers in the Oklahoma territories at the turn of the 20th century, caught the eye of a young writer named Oscar Hammerstein.  With composer Richard Rodgers, the two created a show which evolved into one of the first book musicals: Oklahoma!  In it, songs and choreography were seamlessly integrated into the telling of a well-made story. The musical was a smash success, running for a total of 2,243 performances – a new record. This record lasted until 1956, when My Fair Lady, adapted from the popular George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, topped it with a shattering 2,717 performances.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, of course, would continue to adapt musicals from other sources:  plays (Carousel), short stories (South Pacific), and even memoirs (The Sound of Music). From the very beginning of the modern musical, creating stories from source material or adapting them from one mode of storytelling to another has been a ubiquitous means of creation. Over the intervening years, the sources from which these stories spring have become numerous, from 1968’s Burt Bacharach and Hal David musical Promises Promises (based on the 1960 film, The Apartment) to 1976’s A Chorus Line, created out of interviews with Broadway gypsies, no source is off limits.

Of course, musicals at Playwrights Horizons are no exception. From those drawn from movies, such as Saved or The Spitfire Grill, to musicals whose inspiration comes from a mix of sources such as Once On This Island (adapted from a short story with elements from Shakespeare and fairy tales thrown in) the nature of how and where musicals come from demands that writers search far and wide for their inspiration. Rare is the musical, such as Sunday in the Park with George or Falsettos, where the story is wholly original and the inspiration comes from a non-narrative source.

Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie’s work has encompassed film adaptation before, most notably in Playwrights Horizons’ 2006 production of the new musical Grey Gardens.  Among the first musicals to be adapted from a documentary film, Grey Gardens took an unflinching look at our American infatuation with riches-to-rags stories by dissecting the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter with Kennedy connections, and their fall from high society. By turning the documentary into a book musical, Frankel and Korie (along with Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright, who wrote the book) were able to turn a spotlight on the Beales’ glory days and reveal the central characters’ inner lives, which, in turn, enabled audiences to do more than just witness their famous pathologies. 

With Far From Heaven, Frankel and Korie – this time in collaboration with Richard Greenberg, who wrote the book – are able to explore our cultural obsession with nostalgia for a “simpler” time.  Of course, we realize in hindsight that those times had a dark side, a side that forced people to live in denial of their own prejudices and desires. The film upon which it is based places its main characters on the edge of a repressed 1950s that bleeds into a socially conscious 1960s. Shot in a melodramatic style as an homage to cinema auteur Douglas Sirk, it naturally contains all the elements of a great musical: a strong plot and simple character arcs that belie inner emotional struggles.

The lushness of the film’s visual language has been translated into another means of communication:  the lushness of Scott Frankel’s score. In transforming the story from one medium to another, the authors have the ability to continue to explore and reexamine the themes the film touches on, while digging deeper into the richness of the characters’ complex emotional lives.

Frankel’s score has a complexity that holds a mirror up to the inner turmoil of the characters. Alternating between a jazz vocabulary for Frank Whitaker, the conflicted husband, and the melodramatic tropes of an Elmer Bernstein-inflected film soundtrack for Frank’s wife Cathy, the music firmly establishes its period and provides the emotional guideposts for the audience to navigate the secret repression and prejudices of Far From Heaven’s main characters. 

Greenberg, Frankel and Korie, in their adaptation of the source material, have been able to examine and expand upon the ideas that exist in the original film, ideas the medium of non-musical cinema couldn’t fully explore.

This ultimately feels like the reason for adaptation in the first place:  existing side by side with its inspiration, two pieces speak to and complement each other, but still exist as wholly original works on their own.  A successful musical adaptation will always bring something new to its audiences and to the table, aspects which only music, dance, character, and dialogue – the essential elements of a musical – can bring.  It takes a tricky balance to make a story sing in its own unique voice, but, when it does, it can be downright magical.  

Kent Nicholson, Director of Musical Theater, Playwights Horizons 
February, 2012

Wednesday
Jan202016

Inspiration Leading to Artistic Accomplishment for Film Director Todd Haynes

Legendary film director Douglas Sirk made a number of "lush melodramas" in the 1950's. The most notable were "All That Heaven Allows," "Written on the Wind," and "Imitation of Life."

Each of these has in common a vivid and glossy surface, a "soapy" plot, handsome leading men (Usually Rock Hudson or John Gavin) and sympathetic leading ladies (Jane Wyman, Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner). However, just below the shimmering, sometimes lurid, obvious elements of Douglas Sirk's films lurked something else. Each film also suggested that the lives of the characters were deeply lacking, that living strictly on the surface of life was not enough, and that true happiness was only found when you follow your heart.

In 2002, director Todd Haynes, whose current offering "Carol" starring Cate Blanchett is receiving critical accolades, released his film "Far From Heaven" and created quite a stir. He had crafted a meticulous homage to the work of Douglas Sirk, and a film that has an almost familial relationship to "All That Heaven Allows."

The film "Far From Heaven" looks, feels and sounds (in dialogue and musical score) incredibly "Sirkian." Set in 1957, the story revolves around the Whitakers: Frank (Dennis Quaid), a corporate executive tormented and confused about his sexuality, and Cathy (Julianne Moore), his perfect wife, who is becoming more conflicted as events develop. The two predictably possess that 1950's ideal set of children, one boy and one girl.

There's a local gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), with whom Cathy becomes close - regardless of the fact that he is a black man and that any friendship between them is strictly taboo. "Far From Heaven" was considered by many to be the best picture of the year, and in creating a very real while artificial world, Todd Haynes managed to lay bare the human soul in a way that had never been done before. It is a moving and important motion picture, populated with some of the most nuanced acting ever seen. Cathy and Frank Whitiker may be far from heaven, but for many, the film comes about as close to heaven as is possible.

Starting February 5th, Porchlight Music Theatre debuts the Chicago premiere of the stunningly beautiful new musical vision of "Far From Heaven" by the lauded composers of "Grey Gardens" and the upcoming new musical "War Paint," soon to be seen at The Goodman Theatre. Secure your tickets now for "Far From Heaven" at porchlightmusictheatre.com 

Friday
Jan152016

It all begins with Douglas Sirk...

 

Our next production, the Chicago Premiere of the new Musical FAR FROM HEAVEN, is inspired by the work of one of the great film makers of the 20th Century, DOUGLAS SIRK.

Best known for his Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, Douglas Sirk first achieved success in Hollywood, after several years of aborted projects, directing his first American feature, "Hitler's Madman" (1943). His early work in Hollywood remains largely undistinguished, although Sirk devotees insist that, like his later, more important films, it contains ironic critiques of American culture. "Lured" (1947) and "Sleep, My Love" (1948) stand out in this period as atypical but competent thrillers.

Sirk's great period was during his association with Universal-International studios, beginning in 1951 and continuing until his retirement from filmmaking in 1959, and particularly with producers Albert Zugsmith and Ross Hunter. The series of melodramas he made for Universal struck a responsive chord with audiences; among the best-remembered are "Magnificent Obsession" (1954), "All That Heaven Allows" (1956), "Written on the Wind" (1956), "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" (1958) and "Imitation of Life" (1959). During its release, "Imitation of Life" became Universal's most commercially successful picture. Yet it also proved to be Sirk's last film: either because of ill health, a distaste for American culture or both, Sirk retired from filmmaking and returned to Europe, living in Switzerland and Germany until his death.

Largely considered merely a director of competent melodramas by critics in North America, Sirk's career was redefined by British criticism in the early 1970s. He became the subject of essays in theoretical film journals such as "Screen" and was given a retrospective at the 1972 Edinburgh Film Festival, along with an accompanying critical anthology. Such Sirk remarks as, "The angles are a director's thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy" endeared him to a new generation of film critics viewing Sirk as a socially conscious artist who criticized Eisenhower America from within mainstream filmmaking.

Sirk's style hinges on a highly developed sense of irony, employing subtle parody, cliche and stylization. At one time Sirk was seen as a filmmaker who simply employed conventional Hollywood rhetoric, but his style is now regarded as a form of Brechtian distancing that drew the viewer's attention to the methods and purposes of Hollywood illusionism. The world of Sirk's melodramas is extremely lavish and artificial, the colors of walls, cars, costumes and flowers harmonizing into a constructed aesthetic unity, providing a comment on the oppressive world of the American bourgeoisie. The false lake, a studio interior in "Written on the Wind", for example, is presented as "obviously" false, an editorial comment on the self-deceptive, romanticized imagination that Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone) brings to the past. Sirk is renowned for his thematic use of mirrors, shadows and glass, as in the opening shot of "Imitation of Life": behind the credits, chunks of glass, supposedly diamonds, slowly fill the frame from top to bottom, an ironic comment, like the film's very title, about the nature of its own appeal. Later, more obviously political filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder have been influenced by Sirk's American melodramas, which have been offered as models of ideological critique that may also pass as simple entertainment.

FAR FROM HEAVEN begins performances February 5th. Get your tickets at porchlightmusictheatre.org

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Sep102015

Harry Houdini

The famed magician Harry Houdini makes a brief, but striking appearance in Side Show. The song he sings, “All In the Mind,” shows us how he taught Daisy and Violet to shut out the unwanted noise of others and, when necessary, each other.

Harry Houdini was born in 1874 under the name Eric Weisz in Austria-Hungary. However, he changed his name to Harry Houdini in homage to French magician Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin. Houdini began his magic career in 1891, performing in dime museums and sideshows. Though he began with card tricks, Houdini quickly moved into escape acts.  His break didn’t come until 1899, when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Under Beck’s instruction, Houdini branded himself as an escapologist and began performing on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.

His ascension was rapid – by 1900, he was touring Europe. In London, he famously baffled Scotland Yard with his handcuff escape, which resulted in Houdini’s six-month engagement at the Alahambra Theatre. Houdini became known as "The Handcuff King" and, under this moniker, he toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. It became a gimmick that, in each new city, Houdini would challenge local police to shackle and imprison him in their local jails. In Russia, for example, Houdini escaped from a Siberian transport van.

In 1913, Houdini grew even more daring, introducing his notorious Chinese Water Torture Cell.  This act involved a glass-and-steel cabinet, water-filled and locked. Houdini suspended himself in the cabinet upside-down, miraculously escaping before an audience. It was this unheard-of daring that made him famous – it was also likely this level of risk-taking that killed him. Houdini passed away from peritonitis, derived from a ruptured appendix he sustained while performing an escape act.

In reality, as in Side Show, Houdini did meet Daisy and Violet Hilton. The sisters credited Houdini with teaching them to find individual privacy; the story goes that Houdini put the pair under hypnosis, teaching them how to “get rid of each other,” in their words. The twins’ discuss Houdini fondly both in interviews and in their autobiography.

Tuesday
Sep082015

Schlitzie

Often billed as a “missing link” or “pinhead,” Schlitzie was born in 1901 – though exactly where is disputed. Most sources claim he was born Simon Metz in the Bronx, New York, though others suggest he was initially from Santa Fe, New Mexico or the Yucatan. The base facts of Schlitzie’s early life then are,  unsurprisingly, murky. Some stories also tell of Schlitzie having a sister – Atheila.

However, we do know that Schlitzie, born with microcephaly, had moderate to severe mental retardation, as well as an uncommonly small skull and stature – he was about four feet tall. As a performer, Schlitzie was billed under titles like "The Last of the Aztecs", "The Monkey Girl", and "What Is It?". Often dressed in a muumuu, Schlitzie was presented as female or androgynous, to accentuate his unusual features. He was estimated to have the mental capabilities of a three to four year old; additionally, because he had to wear a diaper, it was easier to care for him in a muumuu. For his caretakers and fellow performers, Schlitzie was often a favorite, known for his sweetness and child-like exuberance.

This warmth also made Schlitzie a fan favorite in his film work. He was most famously featured in Tod Browning’s Freaks, where he was billed as a “pinhead.” He was also in the 1928 film The Sideshow and the 1941 film Meet Boston Blackie.

Throughout his performing career, he was passed from unofficial guardian to unofficial guardian – this is at least part of the reason as to why we have such scattered information about his life. In 1936, Schlitzie found a legal guardian in George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer at the Tom Mix Circus. However, when Surtees died in the 1960s, Schlitzie was institutionalized and pulled from circuses.

By all accounts, he was very unhappy in an institutional setting and, when circus sword swallower Bill Unks recognized him, Schlitzie returned to sideshows vis-à-vis circus showman Sam Alexander and Unks. In his last years, Schlitzie was cared for by Alexander and the members of his circus; it was said that Schlitzie’s favorite pastime was feeding pigeons and ducks with his guardians.

In 1971, Schlitzie passed away at the ripe age of 70 in Los Angeles, where he’d been living with fellow performers. He is buried at a cemetery in Rowland Heights, California. His cultural influence has been extensive – it has even been said that Schlitzie is the inspiration for the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead. News sources likewise claim that a documentary entitled Schlitzie: One of Us is scheduled for release in 2016.