Stephin Merritt's Other Coraline

By Nick Dawson | February 11, 2009
Coraline's creative team Coraline's creative team: Leigh Silverman, Stephin Merrit and David Greenspan

Henry Selick’s 3D animated movie of Coraline is a hit, but there is another, very different Coraline adaptation coming soon, as Nick Dawson discovers.

As Henry Selick's 3D stop-motion Coraline opens in cinemas, waiting in the wings is another, very different adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s bestseller tween novel. Currently, a stage musical version is entering its final months of rehearsal in preparation for its opening night in June at the MCC Theater in New York City. The production is a collaboration between writer and actor David Greenspan (who wrote the play and also plays the Other Mother), Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt (who wrote the music and lyrics), and director Leigh Silverman.

The Coraline musical has its roots in the relationship between Gaiman and Merritt, who first met over a decade ago. Merritt, the brilliant and prolific pop musician who is the mastermind behind the Magnetic Fields as well as a number of other cult bands, was introduced to Gaiman by mutual friend Chris Ewen, Merritt’s bandmate in the Future Bible Heroes, and from there a friendship grew. They shared a mutual admiration of each other's work, and Gaiman and Merritt began to look for opportunities to collaborate in the future.

The first such occasion was on the audio book of Coraline, for which Merritt (in the guise of another of his bands, the Gothic Archies) wrote the song “You Are Not My Mother and I Want To Go Home” as well as incidental music for each chapter of the book. Five years later, in 2007, Merritt––this time with the Future Bible Heroes––contributed “Mr. Punch” to an album of songs inspired by Gaiman's work, Where's Neil When You Need Him?

Merritt, who has become a fan of all of Gaiman's work, expresses a special fondness for Coraline, which he calls “a miniature masterpiece of imaginary children’s literature.” Dubbed the “Cole Porter of his generation” by Rolling Stone magazine for his virtuosic lyrical and melodic talents, Merritt has also recently begun to write musical theatre pieces, and so he jumped at the chance to work on a musical of Coraline.

“I am always looking for ideas for musicals,” he explains. “From an early age, I scribbled in my notebook names for imaginary heavy metal bands and ideas for musicals. So if I go to the store, I think, “Would this make a good musical?” I don’t remember specifically having the idea, but I probably had the idea before reading the book.”

In Merritt's eyes, Coraline was also particularly well suited to be turned into a musical. “Traditionally, the difficulty of adapting something into a musical is that you have to have your characters exist in a heightened reality in which it’s believable that they will burst into song and that they don’t notice the music that is constantly playing behind them, because that’s just part of their world. But in Coraline, it’s already that heightened, so that problem vanishes. Also, that problem is dramatized itself, because there are two different worlds, one of which is an artistic exaggeration of the other and so it’s already self-referential.”

Despite comparisons with Cole Porter (and the fact that his dog is named Irving, after Irving Berlin), Merritt does not come from a traditional musical theatre background and instead grew up listening to the Beatles, Brecht and Weill and the occasional rock opera. “I didn’t see a Sondheim play until I was in my thirties––[not] even West Side Story,” he says. As a result, his approach to writing Coraline was decidedly unconventional.

David Greenspan, who will play the Other Mother, seen here in a production of Some Men.

David Greenspan, who will play the Other
Mother, seen here in a production of Some

“This isn’t the medium of a Broadway show where the narrative is taken for granted,” Merritt explains, “this is much more of an off-Broadway tradition where the narrative is turned inside out in several different ways and deconstructed in front of you, and all of the instrumentation is prepared piano.”

For Leigh Silverman, a young director who is a rising star in American theater, the challenge was to translate the world of Coraline as conceived in Gaiman's imagination into something comparable in theatrical terms. During the very early planning stages of the production, Silverman remembers meeting with Greenspan and Merritt and having the play explained to her. “They were telling me about this project that nobody really knew what it was. 'It’s a children’s story but it’s not really a children’s story. It’s a musical but it’s actually like an anti-musical. And we don’t want puppets, but there’s rats and dogs and bats and creatures from another world.'”

One of the key components which helped Silverman create a visual vocabulary for the stage version of Coraline was Merritt's musical approach to the piece. “Everything about this world to me has to do with Stephin’s music, and has to do with the number of toy pianos that we use in the play, which is more than ten. And then we also have a prepared piano and a regular upright piano, so I thought, 'We need to create the right environment where all of these pianos can live together and help us tell the story. What would it be like if we prepared the space the way that the piano is prepared?'”

Veteran actress Jayne Houdyshell, here posing in a Wicked publicity shot, will play Coraline.

Veteran actress Jayne
Houdyshell, here posing
in a Wicked publicity shot,
will play Coraline.

Silverman says the process of discovering the form and style of the production has been an invigorating experience, and that the creativity and willingness to think outside the box of Greenspan, Merritt and her design team have helped overcome these conceptual conundrums. “We have made all these choices about the show,” she says, “like to cast in a very unconventional way and to make hopefully really exciting and surprising choices for it. I think it’s going to be a pretty unexpected experience.”

One of the leftfield choices was to cast Greenspan as the Other Mother. Based on that decision, more unusual casting decisions have been made, such as opting to have Jayne Houdyshell, a 55-year-old actress Silverman worked with on the Broadway hit Well, play the nine-year-old Coraline. However, for Gaiman fans worried that the play will diverge too much from the original work, Silverman has words of reassurance. Greenspan, she says, “really used that book as what he always calls the 'ur-text.' He used it as a sacred document.”

Merritt too sees the musical as being very faithful to the book, and ensured that his personal contribution to the show would stick closely Gaiman's words. “His prose not only inspired my lyrics,” Merritt says, “his prose is my lyrics. At least half of the lyrics are simply taken from the pages of the book and jiggled until they rhyme. His matter-of-fact British tone has turned into Coraline’s matter-of-fact British singing. We have all American actors putting on outrageously fake British accents, which is a long tradition in the American musical theater.”

In the next couple of months, Greenspan, Merritt and Silverman will continue to ready their show for audiences as they finish the rehearsal stage and then begin previews. And, somewhere in there, they will take time out to go and watch the film of Coraline. “We’ve always been aware of the movie and it looks so beautiful,” says Silverman. “I have to admit it’s been incredibly intimidating, but the truth is that we’re doing so wildly different that it’s apples and oranges, and I hope that the movie is an enormous success.”

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