A Merrittocracy

Written by Leonard Jacobs on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Being strange, stupendously superstitious creatures, theater makers rarely offer predictions about new work. Distinctly averse to terror, they take pains not to irk those fickle goblins, critics. As they value their lives, they know it won’t behoove them to speculate how those essential varmints, the audience, will react.

So allow me to prognosticate. Coraline, the Off-Broadway musical based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s-book-turned-graphic-novel-turned-stop-action-film-turned-video-game, is surefire money in the bank for its producers, the not-for-profit MCC Theater and the commercially minded True Love Productions.

Coraline, playing to packed previews since May 6, opens June 1 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, riding a wave of positive press. Ticket demand has been so strong that even before the aforementioned goblins write their reviews, the closing has been extended to July 5.
Beyond the fantastical, frightening tale of a brave girl who locates a parallel universe on the other side of a door in her bleak, love-starved home, Coraline is also a well-hedged marketing bet. First among equals in its audience base are the hordes of horror hellions who have tracked Coraline’s every permutation.

Then there’s Coraline’s script, adapted with Gaiman’s blessing by David Greenspan, an Obie-winning actor-playwright who is a cult hero himself among downtown dramacrats. There’s also Leigh Silverman—the director who rocketed to fame helming Well, the Lisa Kron play that catapulted to Broadway from Off-Broadway in 2006, landing a Tony nomination for Coraline’s fourth asset: Jayne Houdyshell, the buoyant, jocund, 50-ish actress who is playing the titular 9-year-old.

But the fifth and most crucial element of the Coraline equation is its songs, composed by iconoclast composer-lyricist Stephin Merritt. With his untrained and haunting burr of a voice (even when he speaks), he’s best known for fronting the bands Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes. He is also an oddly repellent fellow. Several years ago, Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker tried branding him a racist, citing Merritt’s criticism of hip-hop; articles written earlier this decade that seemed indifferent to African-American artists and, finally, a conference at which Merritt called “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (from the inarguably racist Disney film Song of the South) a “great song.”

Though Merritt is dry as a Noel Coward putdown and diminutive (he is five-foot-three), there’s little diminuendo about him. “I’m regularly upset by what people write about me,” he tells me, “especially when it’s intended as a compliment. I got so frustrated being called a ‘short, gay, indie rocker’ I gave up reading what people write.” Dead silence, then a rumble. “And what’s an ‘indie rocker’? And short—compared to whom? How is gay anyone’s business who isn’t going to be intimate with me? Why is that something you want to read in the first sentence? What people write in characterizing me isn’t what I am representing to the world.” He won’t be reading this article.

Luring Merritt to talk at all is a task worthy of brave Coraline, who must battle her Other Mother—played by Greenspan, who is known for assuming gender-bending roles—to finish the tale. Instructed to call Merritt at a certain time, he says he is busy. A gentle, benign, but firm “click” follows. Instructed to call at another time, Merritt, more Splenda now than splenetic, asks for five more minutes before the interview could begin. Pithy, staccato two- and three-word answers aren’t foreign to him.

Just as you either dig the Gothic archness of Merritt’s persona or you don’t, so it goes with his songs. Facile critics tag them as gloomy, but that is indeed facile. Instead, the trade they ply is luscious and brittle irony; again and again in his lyrics he returns to warm, almost romantic motifs—moon, eyes, rain. Though often rendered by ukulele, Merritt’s melodies are the genetic kin of folk music, drizzled with the salty tears of postmodern harmonies. (Instruments in Coraline are all keyboards, including one “tempered” to distort sound.)

For Coraline, Merritt’s main mission was to musicalize the girl’s grim, Gorey-esque world. Yet unlike Greenspan—whose describes his adaptation as “conflating and compressing” Gaiman’s novella—Merritt’s songs aren’t crushed with narrative guilt. “I see a tension between forces, fulfilling the immediate narrative and talking about the world in a way so it’s worthwhile for the audience,” he says in what for him passes as an expansive mood. “I wouldn’t want to do a hyperrealist play in which a character sings, ‘Gee, I have to go to the bathroom/ What a very nice bathroom/ Thank heaven I went to the bathroom.’ I prefer my songs outside narrative. Too much slavish attention to propelling narrative leaves too little space for the audience. How many Rodgers and Hammerstein love duets actually propel narrative? Like, one percent?”

Greenspan’s personality avoids such sarcastic riffs. “Stephin is a wonderfully cheerful person to work with, actually,” he says, offering possibly the best adverbial positioning in the entire history of English grammar. “He’s also hardworking, diligent and productive, and the first to laugh at things in rehearsal.” Opposites, it seems, attract: While Merritt may adore shivering bare-assed in windswept emotional corners, Greenspan’s preferred amusement park is not a mope factory. “Still,” he says, “we approached this material because it’s macabre and I think we both enjoy some of the spooky. Coraline’s supernatural element is quite enjoyable. Plus, the novel is witty to start with. It wasn’t like we were doing some piece on genocide.”

Through July 5, Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. (betw. Bedford & Bleecker Sts.), 212-239-6200; times vary, $25-$75