Anyone who has read Neil Gaiman’s novel Coraline would be understandably skeptical of the idea of a musical adaptation of the creepy children’s tale. It isn’t exactly Disney material. Fans of the book will be relieved to know, then, that in the hands of Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt, the story retains every bit of its fantastical, delightfully macabre tone. Merritt acquired the theatrical rights to the book soon after it was published and also scored the audio book, but he never intended to make a play for kids.
Merritt has crafted a decidedly adult musical with a challenging plot and visual presentation that’s equally imaginative in its execution.
After four years of development and workshopping, Merritt debuts Coraline June 1 at the off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theatre, in New York City. But at a special preview show last Friday night, Merritt — with the help of his main collaborators on the project, director Leigh Silverman and playwright David Greenspan, who also plays the Other Mother, the nefarious near-replica of Coraline’s mom who tries to trap the girl in the alt-world — managed to evoke the strangeness of Gaiman’s book, using a theatrical vocabulary not at all dependant on special effects.
A cast of seven play multiple roles; the set contains no moving parts; one musician provides the orchestration, playing six pianos that surround her onstage. Yet, in the spirit of the story, nothing about these components is simple or conventional.
Nine-year-old Coraline Jones is played by Jayne Houdyshell, a 55-year-old actress who very convincingly embodies a precocious girl. As Coraline, she moves between the character’s boring everyday reality and the wild, exiting parallel universe she discovers by narrating much of the action (“I’m outside now”). It’s a device that in a few instances is a bit cumbersome, but has the overall effect of enhancing the play’s storybook quality.
The set is made up almost entirely of ramshackle pianos: a pile of toy pianos, an upright piano from the 1800s, a grand piano, parts of pianos. It’s a steam-punk aesthetic that gives the stage the appearance of a dreamlike vaudeville show and complements the spare dissonance of Merritt’s score.
Merritt’s songs develop and enliven the characters (the Other Mother’s hilariously grotesque swan song, “I’m Falling,” being the potential show stopper), but it is the instrumentation more than anything else that sets the otherworldly tone of the story. Coraline’s adventures in the parallel world are accompanied by a prepared piano (a piano that has had its sound altered by lodging common objects, such as pipe cleaners and elastic bands, between the strings), giving notes a percussive, atonal timbre.
Just as Coraline makes the common children’s-literature theme of a youngster discovering another world a darker, more twisted affair, Merritt — known for subverting light pop sensibilities in his music — projects the strangeness off his source material onto the stage without sacrificing a drop of what Coraline is all about: the imagination.