Magazine article American Theatre

Stephin Merritt Makes 'Coraline' Sing

Magazine article American Theatre

Stephin Merritt Makes 'Coraline' Sing

Article excerpt

NEW YORK CITY: When Coraline, based on the macabre kids' novel by Neil Gaiman, plays May 7-June 20 at Off Broadway's MCC Theater, it will mark several firsts: the first time MCC has produced a musical; the first time director Leigh Silverman has worked with the creative team of David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt--and the first time, one assumes, that a fiftysomething actress (Jayne Houdyshell) has portrayed a nine-year-old girl who wants a pair of fluorescent green gloves so much that she sings an entire song about them.

But Coraline is also very much in keeping with composer Merritt's track record of mixing his ideas about theatre and pop songs and producing delightfully unusual examples of both. The frontman of the Magnetic Fields (as well as several spin-off bands), Merritt has solid indie-rock cred. Yet critics have bestowed upon him anachronistic comparisons to Cole Porter for clever, left-field lyrics such as "Sometimes the good life wears thin/I wish I had an evil twin," His musical-theatre catalog over the past decade, which includes three collaborations with opera director Chen Shi-Zheng that toured to such arty U.S. venues as REDCAT and the Lincoln Center Festival, has been shaped by such influences as the tonality of the Chinese language and the neuroses of Hans Christian Andersen.

Coraline, about a restless girl who becomes trapped in an ominous parallel universe when she travels through a secret door in her house, is ostensibly a step in the direction of pop culture. Certainly the book's fame has grown since its 2002 publication; a graphic novel version was published last year, and a high-profile animated film by Henry Selick premiered a few months ago, trailed by the inevitable video-game spinoff. Merritt says he and Greenspan have tapped into such tried-and-true musical-theatre strategies as inserting couplets of spoken verse--"an old Rodgers and Hart trick"--but, luckily, all the quirks haven't been ironed out. …

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