When Stephin Merritt takes my call, he doesn’t say hello; he coughs into the phone. After setting the mood, the owner of pop music’s deepest singing voice – you may know him from The Magnetic Fields, or the Lemony Snicket-inspired kids’ album The Tragic Treasury – continues in his famously maudlin tone: he tells us that his favorite childhood author was Edgar Allen Poe, and that the first song he wrote for his musical adaptation of the book Coraline was entitled “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home.” But he bristles at the suggestion that his off-Broadway show, being promoted by MCC Theater for ages eight and up, might actually be seen by children. Below, that portion of the conversation. (When re-reading it, we like to picture Stephin Merritt as Oscar the Grouch.) Coraline will play in New York through June 20th, and we’re looking forward to seeing it – even if we have to leave the little ones at home. – Gwynne Watkins
How was it writing a show for children?
It’s definitely not a musical for children. In fact, we use swear words twice. But they’re British swear words that no American would recognize as swear words. I say “bugger all” for one, and “shite,” although I think we just cut the “shite” actually. I wish I could just put it in somewhere else, though.
I haven’t actually talked to him about whether he thinks of it as a children’s book. I know he dedicates it to his daughters. He started it for Holly and finished it for Maddy. So on some level he was thinking of it as a children’s book. But he also says that he thought Coraline was fourteen. And I said, “Neil Gaiman, you are insane. She can’t possibly be fourteen. If she were, she would be on the phone all the time, she’d be trolling around on the Internet.”
I definitely pictured her younger than that.
We have her being nine. Even that may be a little outdated by now. Nine-year-olds are probably famous on their Twitter accounts. Realistically, I’m really worried that there’s going to be lots of children and teenagers in the audience who are going to say, “That girl is so ’90s. What does she have to do with my life?”
In the book, she’s living in a really rural place in England.
Right, but it’s become unrealistic that she herself has no computer or cell phone.
Then again, this is a show with singing mice, right?
Yes. We have that suspension of disbelief. But maybe it’s actually the ’80s. I guess in the ’80s they wouldn’t be telecommuting. I remember reading about telecommuting as a possibility of things that people would do in the future in 1987: “Ooooh! And there will be flying cars!”
Did you see that Tiger Lilies show, Shockheaded Peter, a couple years ago?
I did. I loved that.
That was a very dark scary show, but for kids -
I don’t think it was especially for kids.
Well, I saw it with an audience full of kids, and they were loving it. Every story ended with a kid dying, and there was a chorus of “And now he’s dead,” and all the kids would go, “Dead, dead, dead!”
[Laughs.] Did you see it at a children’s showing?
Yes, it was a matinee.
We’re doing some matinees too. I wonder if we’re going to have a lot of kids in the audience for the matinee. I don’t particularly like to sit in audiences of children. They don’t close their mouths when they sneeze. Cesspools of disease. I think in this day and age we should be able to do without them entirely. We should come up with alternative breeding methods.
And yet Coraline is a story about a child.
I hadn’t written the story-about-a-child part. I’ve written more of the story-from-the-child’s-point-of-view part. I don’t think she sees herself necessarily as a child, and it’s so much from her point of view, that I don’t think we particularly need to see her as a child either. I don’t think of her being a child. Of course, it helps that the actress is in her fifties.
I don’t think a lot of children see themselves as little children. I think the viewpoint in the book Coraline is very realistic for kids. They think of themselves as these self-possessed adventurers, so I think your show might actually resonate with kids more than you think.
Right. If they can just turn off their telecommunication devices long enough to watch.
For more information about Coraline, visit the MCC Theater website.