Music and lyrics: Stephin Merritt
Producer: MCC Theatre
Reviewer: Ruth Jepson
Coraline is a short story from Neil Gaiman, about a little girl who, bored at her new house, goes exploring and finds an alternative world behind a door in the living room. There, she meets her Other Parents, who want to love her, treat her, feed her, and generally smother her with their affection. It’s a story about growing up and being careful what you wish for.
The musical is made up of short, snappy little numbers that reflect the creepiness of Gaiman’s mind and the worlds he creates. The songs tell the story very well, and you get a good sense of Coraline’s plucky difference, and her parents’ absorbsion in their own theatrical lives. The creepy characters of the Other world are reflected beautifully in the off key music and disjointed music box theme which runs through most, if not all of the songs. Unfortunately, due to this repeated theme, most of the music sounds very samey. Composer Stephin Merritt seems to be trying to recreate a sense of childishness by using discordant notes and unexpected crashes, but more often than not just sounds out of tune. Luckily the singing is good and the clever lyrics prove that he must know what he’s doing, so you’re more open to making allowances for this.
Francis Jue and January LaVoy play Coraline’s parents and a particular joy to listen to. When We Were Young and Trod the Boards, sung in perfectly pretentiously accents, speaks to anyone who’s ever been on stage. It presents a sense of pathos and is genuinely celebratory of ‘cardboard swords’ and other tropes of amateur theatre. You can almost see why they forget about their daughter…
Speaking of Coraline, why is she played by a middle age woman? Jayne Houndyshell is very good, and her joy as she sings clearly comes through to the listener, but most of her songs would be more effective if they were sung by someone the correct age – Flourescent Green Gloves particularly is a lovely song about being happy about who you are, even if who you are is a little weird, but it just doesn’t have the same effect when sung by a grown up.
A clear stand out for the song you have to listen to is Song of the Rats. Repeated and built up on four times throughout the soundtrack, it is atmospheric and creepy, the music alone reaching right down to shake the base of your spine, making these 40 odd second long ditties by far the best tracks on the CD. Here the music actually sounds like it’s been written rather than just happened upon by someone improvising with the keyboard and a music box.
If you value your ear drums, skip Falling…Falling… the last ten seconds of which is just screaming. Even the rats can’t save this one.
In conclusion, Coraline is a soundtrack for the fans. It’s easy to see how the show would be presented, and how the music and lyrics would enhance some clever lighting and a twisted set populated by larger than life characters, but as a standalone CD it’s just a little bit too experimental to sit and listen to for fun.