At WTF Adapting a movie for stage

Friday July 20, 2012

Special to The Eagle

WILLIAMSTOWN -- There are adaptations and then there are adaptations. This one is the latter.

"Far From Heaven," a new musical now playing at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage, is a stage translation of the 2002 film of the same name, in which director Todd Haynes carefully re-created the feel of late-1950s cinema, particularly the work of Douglas Sirk (whose "All That Heaven Will Allow" inspired Haynes’ title).

Through his use of camera techniques, dramatic score and carefully woven melodrama, Haynes produced a film that critic Roger Ebert wrote feels like "the best and bravest movie of 1957."

Now a highly decorated team of theater professionals is seeking to harness that special feel in the context of musical theater. This fully staged "preview production" runs through July 29 and is not open to national press review. Its official premiere is in April 2013 at New York’s Playwrights Horizons.

"I’m really going to be looking at whether some of those cinematic flourishes that the film has can be matched in a theatrical way," says director Michael Greif on the phone from Williamstown a few hours before the first technical rehearsal. (The show’s early rehearsals were in New York.) "That’s something that’s really going to happen in front of an audience -- the excitement about investigating some of those things (now that) we have a level of design elements in place."

The creative team has collected a lot of hardware for its work in the theater. Greif won the Obie award (and captured one of his three Tony nominations) for his direction of the original Broadway production of "Rent." One of his other Tony nods came for his direction of "Grey Gardens," for which the score writers of "Far From Heaven" -- Scott Frankel and Michael Korie--were also nominated. The book is by Richard Greenberg, who won a Tony for his 2003 play, "Take Me Out," his second work to be short-listed as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The story of "Far From Heaven" concerns a 1950s-era "housewife" (played here by Kelli O’Hara, herself a four-time Tony nominee), who sees her picture-perfect life fall apart after befriending an African-American gardener and stumbling upon a secret her husband has been harboring.

Admirers of the film say it succeeds in part by evoking 1950s film style and social mores without creating ironic distance -- the space in which an audience might otherwise laugh or discover camp.

Greif says the story, while clearly a period piece, offers insight to contemporary Amer ican society.

"There’s a fantastic give and take in the film between repression and expression. And there’s a fantastic give and take in the film of serious dramatic content and some sense of social satire.

"I think what’s great about the film," he says, "is it never moves into camp, but it finds ways of reminding us just how different the ‘50s were, and by reminding us about how different also letting us know how similar."

Greenberg previously wrote a new book for the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical "Pal Joey," but says this is his first time writing for a new musical whose New York production is assured. The prolific writer also believes it’s the first time he’s adapted a screenplay.

Described in a lengthy 2006 New York Times profile as a personality who is more comfortable talking on the phone than meeting in person, and used to working from home on his own timetable, Greenberg says there’s an adjustment to the "intensely collaborative" nature of an in-development musical -- but he appreciates the payoff.

For one thing, his name is not the only one on the title page.

"Having your identify submerged a bit is pleasing," he says. "I do find it a relief. There’s nothing rewarding about egotism. It’s a form of anxiety, really. You sort of have to put ego aside early on with this. It’s much more readily about the work, and not the other and largely irrelevant concerns (that arise) when you think everything is just a direct reflection on yourself. That part of it is quite nice."

The writing team has used the 2002 film as its basis whenever possible, taking advantage of a tightly wound structure and heightened emotions that lend themselves to music.

"The uncanny quality of the dialogue and the deliberate melodrama of the style ends up having not a comic but a deeply moving effect," Green berg says. "That was, I think, the strange quality of the film. It was a great part of its fascination. The idea is to keep that as much as possible, all the while realizing that the switch of genre is going to change it."


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