Eccentric tuner set to open big Off Broadway

Once upon a time, there was a writer named Neil Gaiman who really wanted to see his children’s book “Coraline” become a musical. Then along came Gaiman’s indie rocker friend Stephin Merritt and writer-performer David Greenspan to grant his wish.

Staged in a nest of pianos with Jayne Houdyshell as the eponymous 9-year-old protag and Greenspan in drag as the otherworldly villain who turns Coraline’s family life into a waking nightmare, the unconventional new Off Broadway musical is already selling out the Lucille Lortel theater prior to its June 1 opening.

For that bit of magic, producer MCC Theater has Gaiman and Magnetic Fields frontman Merritt’s sizable fan bases to thank. That’s not to mention those of Greenspan and Houdyshell, the fiftysomething thesp who has emerged in a string of raved-about New York perfs during recent years in offbeat shows such as “Well,” “The Receptionist,” “The Pain and the Itch” and “The New Century.”

“I’m a little worried that the same people who will see absolutely anything Jayne does are the same people who will see anything David is in,” frets Merritt. “But they may not be the same who will see anything I do.”

The show will be the third major stage adaptation of cult author Gaiman’s work, following “Mr. Punch” at Los Angeles’ Rogue Artists Ensemble and National Theater of Scotland’s “Wolves in the Walls.” The musical of “Coraline” follows not just Gaiman’s 2002 novel, but also a 2008 graphic novel by Gaiman and P. Craig Russell, and the Focus Features film, released earlier this year. That 3-D toon cumed $75 million domestically and $19 million in an overseas haul that is not yet done.

This latest incarnation of “Coraline” almost didn’t happen: Gaiman knew he wanted Merritt on the job, but he had already sold musical theater rights in a package to producer Bill Mechanic and helmer Henry Selick — Gaiman’s team of choice for the movie version. When the filmmakers’ option was due to expire while their deal on the project was still coming together, Gaiman used the delay to negotiate back the stage rights and bring Merritt on board.

Directed by Leigh Silverman, the show follows a bored, precocious little girl who finds a door into a parallel world ruled by her Other Mother (Greenspan), an initially beguiling figure who wants to replace Coraline’s eyes with buttons. Unsurprisingly, the novel earned a reputation for kid-terrorizing creepiness, but tykes clearly love being frightened: Both the book and the pic outperformed expectations for their distributors and drew accolades from Gaiman-ites and newcomers.

MCC co-a.d. Bernard Telsey anticipated three auds for the show: the Off Broadway crowd, Gaiman’s fans and Merritt’s fans.

“Now I think there’s a fourth audience: people who’ve seen the movie,” he says.

“We were never going to open the same quarter as the movie – that was in our contract and we weren’t allowed to. So we didn’t know how it would affect us, because we didn’t know if it would be a hit or a flop. I think it’s added to the recognizability of the brand.”

Still, the stage show is a different experience from “Coraline” onscreen. “There were people who grumbled about how faithful or otherwise the film was,” Gaiman says. “Now, I can point to the stage play and say, this is completely faithful to the book. On the other hand, you have to come to terms with a world in which Coraline is played by a 50-year-old lady.”

The unorthodox casting was one of the show’s biggest question marks — it’s probably the first time Houdyshell and Dakota Fanning have played the same character. But Silverman says she thinks skeptics will be surprised.

“It’s not that she’s parodying a child, but that in a way she’s not playing it as a child,” says the helmer, who directed Houdyshell to a Tony nomination in “Well.” “She’s just sort of playing a character who happens to be 9.”

The creators say Houdyshell’s perf is a perfect tonal fit with the rest of the production, which is both consistently odd and oddly consistent.

Merritt, who’s probably best-known via the Magnetic Fields but has a half-dozen side projects, is not entirely a newcomer to theater. He and Greenspan collaborated on “The Orphan of Zhao,” a traditional Chinese piece they turned into a bloody, dance-centric folk opera, performed as part of Lincoln Center Festival in 2003.

With “Coraline,” the composer has taken another nontraditional approach: he’s written the show’s music for different types of pianos. For Coraline herself, Merritt composed for toy piano. For the “real world” characters, the music is played on a very real-sounding upright piano from the 1880s. And for the world of Coraline’s Other Mother, Merritt wrote for something called a prepared piano.

“Prepared piano was done by John Cage in the ’40s and ’50s,” says the composer. “It consists of putting erasers and screws and playing cards in between the strings of the piano, and it converts the piano into an 88–key percussion orchestra. No two notes sound alike.”

“We decided the answer to everything was ‘piano,’ ” Silverman adds.

That idea became the production’s golden rule, while Greenspan’s anti-FX dictum, written on page one of the script — “no stage magic” — became the silver. Set designer Christine Jones decorated the stage with dozens of pianos, to be played by toy piano expert Phyllis Chen.

The instruments — uprights, grands, baby grands, toys — are all things to all performers. Chen plays them, Coraline’s nameless cat friend (Julian Fleisher) perches sarcastically on them, and when the actors need noises like creaking doors or scurrying rats, they use everything from the scraped strings to drumsticks on the keys as Foley. The resulting atmosphere is so scary that reactions from kids in the audience range from thrilled to worried.

“I’ve run into a number of colleagues who have kids and want to know if they should bring them,” says Greenspan. “First off, I ask how old they are, and how sensitive are they to scary things. But the best answer is ‘come first and see.’”

Gaiman is more than happy to defend creepy kids’ stories. “You don’t paint visions of an impossibly hospitable world for children,” he declares. “You tell them that there are monsters out there, that there are scary things, and that those scary things can be defeated.”

“If you give most kids the story of Coraline, they aren’t going to be looking around for mysterious magical doors to avoid,” Gaiman says. “They’re going to be looking for mysterious magical doors to go through.”

The next threshold for Gaiman to cross is getting in on the musical act himself by collaborating with Merritt on another tuner, this time as writer. (His only previous experience in the field is contributing lyrics to “Wolves in the Walls.”)

“The prospect of writing for live theater completely terrifies me,” Gaiman confesses. “It’s so wonderful to be terrified as a writer — to not feel like you’re doing something you’ve already done.”

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