Far from Heaven is one of those musicals that elicits a very telling, mixed reaction. There are those who love it simply because it does its job with dignity, clarity, sensitivity and high craft. Obviously, none of that is negligible. There are those who think it’s slow and kind of dull. Which it isn’t at all, but it does eschew the trope of the larger-than-life-character in pursuit of a Big Goal that informs most classic musicals and is a conscious or unconscious expectation of some audience members whose sense of engagement is significantly reduced in its absence. Then there are those who say, more or less, “Gosh, I really-really liked it, but somehow it just didn’t cross the finish line for me. Something felt off.”
That’s the most interesting reaction to me, because within it lies a concrete truth you can get at if you weigh the elements of intent and execution. (It hass been sensitively staged by director Michael Grieff and has a terrific cast, not incidentally, but you can read their praises deservedly sung elsewhere. Right now I want to concentrate on the material itself.)
I’ll describe the story lightly, because I don’t want those unfamiliar with the 2002 film it’s based on (written and directed by Todd Haynes) to get a bunch of spoilers. The surprises aren’t big reversals but they’re worth the theatricality of discovery.
It’s 1957 and upscale Hartford, Connecticut housewife Cathy Whitaker (Kelli O’Hara) is living what she believes to be an idyllic existence as wife and mother to two grade-school age kids, one of each flavor (Jake Lucas and Julianna Rigoglioso). But we know as soon as we’re introduced to him that something’s up with her husband Frank (Steven Pasquale) who’s a little too edgy to make domestic bliss wholly convincing. And there’s her growing friendship with her gardener, Raymond (Isaiah Johnson), conspicuous in this time and place because he is, after all, “colored.” And there are gossips everywhere.
The storytelling plan is to subtly build the world with all its expected conventions highlighted and then to deconstruct it with the intrusion of sensibilities as yet unconsidered (and indeed eschewed) in white society America. It’s a story that, as structured for stage by librettist Richard Greenberg, is hugely dependent upon the verisimilitude of a realistic, slice of life approach. Tricky, because in a way his main character is passive. Even when she takes action, it’s in the form of expanding the horizons of her understanding—internal growth—so there’s the risk of focus sprawling; but in keeping tightly to her primary POV, except for a few moments of transition (all of which relate to what she does and does not know, thus keeping her tacitly present), Greenberg manages to stay on track.
The score, by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) has very little in the way of isolated numbers that button for applause, but rather seeks to insinuate. There is much in the way of recitative. But it’s all expertly formed. Korie’s lyris delight in subtle, telling wordplay and variations in repeated motifs. And Frankel’s music is constantly exposing the undercurrent of restlessness beneath the Connecticut calm, with the use of the familiar tropes and styles of dramatic (and sometimes melodramatic) music that, I would wager quite consciously, evokes film scores of the period.
And the problem is in the combination of book and score. Read the above two paragraphs again. You’ll find it.
That’s right…you’ve got a realistic, slice-of-life, verite scenario paired with a score that’s delivered with assiduous construction and conspicuous use of musical association. The two don’t fuse. And subtly contradict.
Yet they co-exist tidily, because this is not one of those object-lesson examples of two departments who, as the saying goes, “aren’t writing the same show.” These are men of enormous talent and taste, absolutely working in tandem, and though I can’t tell you why their stylistic decision was made or how they arrived at it, I can all-but-guarantee you it was thoughtfully realized, thoroughly discussed and deliberate. (I once heard Stephen Sondheim, in casual conversation, coin a memorable term for purposeful creative decisions that have unforeseen antithetical blowback: conscious mistakes.)
And that’s why the show occupies a gray area. That’s why, for some, and I was among them, it’s a worthy and worthwhile evening…but a klik or two shy of clicking. By all means see it, though. For whatever else is true, there this: it’s a lovely experiment in form, one that may well push the envelope in spite of not being entirely successful, whose ripple effect is potentially quite meaningful and yet to be assessed.
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