In Search of a Lost Love: Making a Musical Out of Proust
MARCEL PROUST'S "Remembrance of Things Past" can be neither tossed aside lightly nor thrown with great force. Spanning 7 volumes and 4,300 pages, it is difficult to lift, let alone hurl. Fortunately, the novel (today often called "In Search of Lost Time") has graces commensurate with its size. Just ask the playwright Richard Nelson and the composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who have written a musical that tries to capture Proust's great themes: the elusive power of memory, the inscrutability of other people, the awful joys of love.
In "My Life With Albertine," Mr. Nelson and Mr. Gordon focus on a single strand of the narrator's story: his obsession with the mysterious Albertine. They avoid the need to cram the entire novel into two hours, but have to do justice to what Edmund Wilson called "one of the most important love affairs in fiction."
If that's not daunting enough, when the show opens on Thursday night, it will inaugurate the $27 million new home of Playwrights Horizons on Theater Row on West 42nd Street. Tim Sanford, the company's artistic director, said, "Unlikely ideas make the most brilliant musicals." If Mr. Nelson and Mr. Gordon's Proust show succeeds, it will be a striking endorsement of that view.
Mr. Sanford knew "the second" he heard the show's songs that he wanted to open his theater with "My Life With Albertine." That was in January 2002 – only yesterday, as the development of new musicals goes. Mr. Nelson won a Tony Award in 2000 for best book of a musical for another unusual adaptation, "James Joyce's `The Dead,' " also produced by Playwrights, that moved to Broadway. When the show's musical director, Charles Prince, asked Mr. Nelson if he had any other ideas, Mr. Nelson said Proust. Mr. Prince then introduced him to Mr. Gordon, who was immediately enthusiastic.
From the beginning, Mr. Nelson, 52, took a different approach from other Proust adapters, including Harold Pinter and Di Trevis, whose condensation of the novel was staged by the Royal National Theater in London in 2000. Though Mr. Pinter dispensed with the narrator, Mr. Nelson was keen to have him.
In "My Life With Albertine," the reflective, middle-aged Marcel is played by Brent Carver, last seen in New York in the musical "Parade." It is 1919, and the older Marcel stands before a stage erected in his Paris apartment – a salle du théâtre – and narrates the story of his teenage self (portrayed by Chad Kimball) and Albertine (Kelli O'Hara). As the tortured romance shifts from the fictional resort of Balbec to Paris and back, it enmeshes a chanteuse (Emily Skinner) and Marcel's disapproving servant (Donna Lynne Champlin), among others.
Mr. Nelson said he was honored when Mr. Sanford asked them to open the new theater, but felt anxious: would the new theater be ready for them?
"The set got here at the same time the building got here," joked the scenic designer, Thomas Lynch. Aside from occasional fire alarms, a temperamental heating system and a light dimmer that went haywire just before the show's first preview, "My Life With Albertine" has apparently slipped into the new building with ease. Mr. Lynch's dark wood walls and golden false proscenium blend into the space so well that the 198-seat mainstage theater seems to be part of the narrator's apartment.
Mr. Lynch said he felt some pressure about rendering in three dimensions scenery that Proust described so beautifully. The exactness of the descriptions in the story reminded him of early photography, with its sharp centers and softer edges. For inspiration he consulted images of Proust's apartment in Paris and the photographs that Jacques-Henri Lartigue took of the city during Proust's lifetime (1871-1922).
Mr. Nelson, who is directing the production, encouraged the actors to seek their own inspiration in Proust's novel, which began appearing in 1913 and reached full publication only posthumously, in 1927. During rehearsals, copies of the novel and recent Proust biographies by Edmund White and William C. Carter were available for perusal. The actors didn't rush to read them. Mr. Carver said he had been reading the novel on his own; Ms. O'Hara said she had read some passages. "If someone really needs to read it, it's Brent," said Mr. Kimball, a Boston Conservatory graduate who played the dancing cow in last year's Broadway revival of "Into the Woods." "I have everything I need in this play," he added. By Valentine's Day, the little library had been relegated to the stage manager's office, where it is book-ended by a wall and a nearly drained bottle of Stolichnaya.
For Mr. Sanford, deciding to produce Proust meant figuring out how to sell Proust. The show's posters and many of its advertisements omit his name. "It's not necessarily a selling point," Mr. Sanford said, noting that the show is "very much a Richard Nelson, Ricky Ian Gordon piece." Mr. Nelson disagrees. "It's important for people to know the primary source and the inspiration for the work," he said. "It's maybe the greatest piece of prose ever written."
Mr. Nelson estimated that 80 percent of the dialogue derives from Proust, though some changes were necessary to bring the story to the stage. He has tried to convey Proust's distinctive irony by having the younger Marcel, who is struggling to figure out Albertine, interact with the older Marcel, who knows her all too well.
Asked during a rehearsal break if it seemed bittersweet for the narrator to watch a re-enactment of his lost love, Mr. Carver said "Yes!" and straightened in his chair. He balled his fists and pulled them, one at a time, to his chest: "Bitter. Sweet. It's an actual . . . taste. It's the experience of carrying all those we love in our hearts. It's visceral, it's not just an idea."
Subjectivity is an important theme of the Albertine episode, in which point of view determines what is perceived. "Every time I look, I see a different Albertine," reads one of the narrator's lyrics. In the novel, Marcel can't decide whether his fiery paramour is lying to him and carrying on lesbian affairs behind his back. Though Proust supplies evidence to think ill of Albertine (her aunt calls her "a little minx"), Mr. Nelson wanted to keep the focus on Marcel's paranoia – onstage she is more kitten than alley cat. "Albertine is a normal 17-year-old girl," said Ms. O'Hara, who played John Lithgow's sister in the musical "Sweet Smell of Success" last year. "It's Marcel's craziness that makes her seem otherwise."
The greatest liberty taken by the adapters was changing Marcel from a writer to a composer; the novel that Albertine originally inspired has become a sonata. It's a major change but, in a story suffused with music, not a reach. Edmund Wilson argued that the novel has a symphonic structure rather than "a narrative."
That Marcel is a composer yielded Mr. Gordon, 46, his own Proustian experience. Seeking a French influence to give the score the right sound, he seized upon Poulenc. Mr. Gordon, who studied at Juilliard, said he retained "the finger memory" of having played Poulenc's music as a boy. "This is a perfect piece for me," he added.
Like Stephen Sondheim (another major influence), Mr. Gordon has been criticized for writing lovely songs that are not sufficiently dramatic. "Dream True," his 1999 musical with Tina Landau, drew variations on that complaint. He is sensitive to the charge, calling it "a bitter agony," but he remains steadfast. "I hear what I hear," he said. "What on earth am I supposed to do, write someone else's music?"
The comparison to Mr. Sondheim is instructive. Unlike Mr. Sondheim, Mr. Gordon did not grow up steeped in musical theater. A self-described "musical trash can," he absorbed everything he heard – from Shostakovich to Joni Mitchell – but didn't take musical theater seriously until he saw Mr. Sondheim's "Company" at 15, the sophistication of which, he said, turned his world around. "It put 20th-century music into a vernacular I'd never heard before," he said. "I thought Sondheim was where theater was going."
Mr. Gordon said his approach to song writing is the same, whether he is setting poems to music, as in his 2001 CD "Bright-Eyed Joy," or writing for the stage. "I don't try to make it simpler for musical theater," he said. Ms. O'Hara, who is operatically trained, said she welcomed the score's challenge: "I don't feel like I've had a moment of singing the way I like to sing, the way I'm proud to sing, until now."
Capturing Proust's ideas about time and memory was the ultimate challenge for Mr. Gordon's music, and for the production. "I was always aware of, `How can I jog the audience's memory?' " he said. "It's creating a world, a life, in two and a half hours."
The challenge is unmistakably Proustian, yet it's as old as theater. If a theatergoer collects some vivid impression of a show – a musical phrase, an actor's gesture – even a transitory play can exist indefinitely, in what Proust called "the vast structure of recollection."
- Jeremy McCarter, The New York Sun, 9 March 2003