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Building a Better Mousetrap

By: Isaac Butler
Date: Jun 08, 2009


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by Isaac Butler

"Alright everyone, gather round the piano."  It's the final day of major rehearsals during previews for the new musical Coraline, and there are a few rejiggered bars of music to integrate. Director Leigh Silverman (whom I'm observing courtesy of a fellowship with the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation) is working swiftly through minor adjustments throughout the show, and now it's the music department's turn. Music director Kimberly Grigsby needs to familiarize the actors with a new ending to one of the full company numbers. 

It is only natural that we would be making changes at this point; the entire rehearsal process has been one of never ceasing discovery. Like the recent film of the same name, Coraline is based on the young adult novel by Neil Gaiman. In the book, a bored suburban girl named Corlaine goes through a door in her parent's apartment into an alternate universe ruled over by her Other Mother.  Although it seems quite fascinating and seductive at first, it becomes gradually clear that the Other Mother's world is a trap that Coraline must escape from. Unlike the movie, which more freely adapts the story while remaining fairly traditional in its presentation, the stage version obeys the book's story while embracing consistently left-field production choices. Very few moments are rendered literally.  The character of Coraline is played by Jayne Houdyshell, while the villainous Other Mother is portrayed by experimental mainstay David Greenspan, who also wrote the stage adaptation. 

Composer-lyricst Stephin Merritt's music for the show combines somewhat traditional song structure and melody with innovative instrumentation. The unamplified score is played on upright, toy and prepared piano with a kind of bionic arthropodlian precision by concert pianist Phyllis Chen. Pioneered by John Cage, the prepared piano is a piano with erasers, screws, paper, pipe-cleaners and other objects placed within its strings. The piano's sound is thus altered without changing its pitch. The end result is both melodic and other worldly. Sixty-nine of the notes in our piano are prepared, making sounds reminiscent of everything from a bongo drum to an electric organ. Each instrument creates its own little world. The upright piano is played for the songs sung by adults in the real world, Coraline's songs are played on the toy piano and all of the music in the Other Mother's world comes from the prepared piano.

The creative team decided early on that the rule governing Coraline was that although the show was quite complex, it would be rendered in as simple and actor-driven a way as possible. Even though the show has roughly twelve locations, for example, it takes place on one unit set and most of the actors play multiple parts and create sound effects. As it turns out, making something look simple without resorting to technological solutions requires large amounts of hidden complexity. Rehearsals for Coraline centered on inventing a storytelling vocabulary from scratch, using experimentation to answer the very long list of questions posed by the text.  What do singing rats sound like? How does an actor portray a cat on stage without resorting to doing an impression of feline physicality? What should the ghosts of three dead children trapped behind a mirror look like?

From the start, it became very clear that meticulousness was the order of the day. Leigh wanted to look at as many variations on each moment as she could in order to make sure everything was as carefully articulated as possible. "Let me see the version where…" was the phrase I heard most often in rehearsal. Roughly a third of the show is underscored, and many moments have little sound effects created by playing the inside of the prepared piano. Figuring out the exact right sound for each moment necessitated quite a bit of trial-and-error on Stephin's part.  The prepared piano has been played by tweezers, cutlery, a violin string, magnets, a ruler, fingers, safety pins, a knitting needle, yarn mallets and (for one day) a "marital aide" purchased by yours truly from a smirking shopkeep on Christopher Street.

At the end of this week, previews will end, Coraline will be "frozen" and no more changes will be allowed.  That moment will mark the end of a four-year-long journey for the creative team. Stephin and David set out to adapt a story they enjoyed for the stage while Leigh worked to portray that story by taking maximum advantage of the imaginative nature of theatre. Along the way, they have created one of the stranger and more innovative Off Broadway shows in some time.

For more information about Coraline go here.
Isaac Butler