The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: From Music Man to ‘Meerkat Manor’

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Initially, Stephin Merritt’s somber basso profundo is unsettling. And although he’s not the kind to mince words, everything he says is so well-considered that extended moments of silence make you wonder whether something you’ve just said is heretic, or worse, stupid. But then you realize that The Magnetic Fields/The 6ths/The Gothic Archies/Future Bible Heroes frontman is, even in mid-conversation, is verging on his next stroke of brilliance. His latest such display — an off-Broadway adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline — began at the West Village’s Lucille Lortel Theatre last week. And so, Merritt carved out a little time to discuss the three-dimensional triumphs of the stage and men in gorilla suits.

How are you doing? I’m exhausted and working too much. It’s going very well. Today is my day off theoretically. Unfortunately I don’t have a prepared piano at home. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to do anything useful.

How did this project come about? I asked other people to come on board. I got the rights from Neil Gaiman. I was already friends with Neil when Coraline was written. He asked me to do the music for the audiobook. So I wrote the song “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home.” The instrumental versions and the full song, at the end of the audiobook. I hired the writer and the director Leigh Silverman.

What was it about the story that appealed to you? It has an “anything goes” quality to it, with lots of magic and inexplicable phenomena. So your belief is already suspended if people burst into song. I negatively identify with Coraline. My upbringing was strange. I was on the outside looking in. Coraline has the opposite trajectory. The overly normal to the overly strange. We moved around all the time and we never stayed in the same place for more than a year or two, and we didn’t have kitchen utensils and that sort of thing. The symbols of domesticity were absent from my childhood. Whereas they grow on trees in Coraline. I used the symbol of middle class living with the piano. When Coraline sings, she’s accompanied by a toy piano.

What’s the trickiest thing about composing the music for the play? Working with a prepared piano in a theatrical context is very difficult. A prepared piano is a piano in which you’ve put rubber, screws, playing cards in between the strings, apart from the normal noise. It’s all about notes, sounds. Different form each other. You can’t actually transpose. You can’t write for a prepared piano on a normal piano. You don’t know what the notes are going to sound like.

Did you feel any expectations to uphold from the success of Coraline‘s film adaptation? We like to think to say that our 3D is more realistic, is absolutely perfect. And our actors move effortlessly. Aesthetically, the differences between doing off-Broadway musicals with prepared piano score and a stop-motion animation movie in Hollywood are so far apart. I saw the movie. I think it’s my favorite 3D movie ever. It has basically nothing to do with my job.

Did you find that working with the music steered you away from the plot? I think atmosphere is a big part of Coraline. It’s not so much the specifics of the plot. The demented potential horror of this other mother and the mysterious quality of her world. You really have no idea what she’s capable of. She turns out to be a serial killer among other things.

What was the easiest thing? Neil Gaiman has the ability to be a crossover artist. I read the graphic novel that came out last year. This makes a perfectly good graphic novel! When I read the graphic novel, I realized. These are all different completely different audiences. I probably know all the people who are going to see the musical and have read the graphic novel. A few hundred and I’d probably know them all. We just need a few thousand people to come. With a graphic novel, we need a few thousand people to buy that. The book was a runaway best-seller.

What else would you like to turn into a musical? But all of these audiences are tiny compared to one television show. I don’t see any trouble with that. If I were adapting a TV show into a musical, I’d be intimidated by the howling mass of the audience. I discussed doing Ingmar Berman’s Scenes From a Marriage. Five hours long. But I think that would be more opera-style. It’s unrelentingly tragic. But that’s my kind of television. I watch TV if it’s on DVD. I have seen several seasons of Meerkat Manor. I wonder if there have been any theatrical rights for Meerkat Manor. There could be the original footage of Meerkat sung along to. Or people dressed as meerkats singing.

Wouldn’t that be a whole lot like Cats? Not if I did it.