David Greenspan: Other Mother's Day

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com June 09 2009 12:00 AM ET

Move over, Teri Hatcher, because there's another Other Mother in town — and this time she's a man! Portraying the same manipulative matron voiced by the desperate housewife in the recent animated film version, out actor David Greenspan inhabits Other Mother in a creepy new apparition of Coraline off-Broadway.

Based on Neil Gaiman's 2002 children's novel, which Greenspan also adapted for the stage, the ambitious musical further challenges expectations with the casting of middle-aged Tony nominee Jayne Houdyshell as precocious 9-year-old protagonist Coraline Jones. Feeling neglected by her preoccupied mother and father, Coraline discovers an enticing parallel world behind a strange door in her new apartment, but she quickly realizes that her Other parents aren't as perfect as they seem.

Helmed by out director Leigh Silverman (Lisa Kron's Well) and featuring music by out singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, Coraline runs through July 5 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. A fixture of New York's downtown performance scene (and an Obie award winner for Terrence McNally's Some Men and a revival of Matt Crowley's The Boys in the Band), Greenspan gives Advocate.com the gender-bending goods on his otherworldly villainess.

CORALINE 02 X390 (JOAN MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

Advocate.com: As the musical's book writer, what were the biggest challenges in bringing Coraline from Gaiman's novel to the stage?
David Greenspan: I wanted to preserve the plot, so it was a matter of compressing the piece without losing the flavor of the novel, which is delightfully macabre. I also needed to find a theatrical vernacular that I was comfortable with, which was one that was not dependent on stage machinery, technical embellishments, or amplified voices. And I wanted to give it a sense of theatrical wit so that the wit of the book translated to the theatrical nature of the event.

When Stephin Merritt asked you to collaborate on this musical, were you always set to star as Other Mother?
That happened after. He first approached me just about adapting it, but we toyed around with the idea of a man playing Other Mother at one point. Then we planned a reading and offered the role to a number of actresses, who all, for one reason or another, couldn't do it that day. I had had it in my mind that it would be fun to read it myself, and I did get a shot. Stephin was delighted by it and was very interested in my continuing in that capacity.

What are the benefits of having a man play Other Mother?
It reinforces the artificiality of the presentation. Leigh, who is such a sensitive and intelligent director, picked up on that right away, and the result is in the untraditional approach to casting. I'm not the only man playing a female character. We've cast without regard to gender, ethnicity, or age, which reinforces a sense of pretend, and that's an intrinsic part of the theatergoing experience to begin with. And in the English pantos it was normal for a man to play an old lady, so it seemed appropriate.

DAVID GREENSPAN X390 (ROB HANN) | ADVOCATE.COM

You've explored subtle elements of drag before in Some Men and in your own plays, such as She Stoops to Comedy and Dead Mother. How do you pull off drag without it feeling gimmicky or campy?
I worked as a waiter for a number of years, and the waiters would always joke, "It's time to get into drag," which basically meant it was time to get into your waiter costume. To me, any kind of costume is a kind of drag because it's a disguise. When you're wearing the costume of the opposite gender, of course there's another element to it, but it's still a costume.

She has the eerie black-button eyes described in the book, but did you have a say in creating Other Mother's look in terms of hair and costume?
In the book she's described as a "gruesome entity," so I wanted to find some kind of artificial and artistic way of suggesting a female entity without full drag. I didn't want makeup, and I didn't want to modify my body in any way, but it was really the job of our costume designer, Anita Yavich, and Leigh to realize that. I'm not really wearing anything that's strictly female except for the wig, and even men wear their hair long. It's always one of my major concerns that the disguise of a character is something made primarily with the voice and body.

Did any actresses or fictional female characters inspire your performance?
There are bits and pieces of English accents that I either recalled or got tapes of to remind myself, but I tried to integrate them so that it's my own. I was actually thinking of Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, because I wanted a sweet voice.

A popular animated film version of Coraline was released in February. How has that impacted your production?
One of the good things about it was that it got people interested in Coraline if they weren't already. But we're so different from the film that it's hard to compare us. The film is so beautifully realized in its animated format, but we stick closer to the original story than the film, and we have an actress in her 50s playing Coraline. I find that people are relieved that we haven't tried to reproduce the film.

Were you at all influenced by Teri Hatcher's vocal performance as Other Mother?
By the time Stephin and I saw the film, we'd already done three workshops, plus readings, so we were well into developing the piece. I'd well established my approach to the role before seeing the film, so it didn't influence us in any way.

Could your Other Mother kick Teri's Other Mother's ass?
[Laughs] No. I wouldn't want any part of that.