Birds of a feather

Michael Mayer on Nico Muhly, remembering the past, and a Hamlet scene not shot for The Seagull

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Zegen, and Jon Tenney in the sublime costumes designed by Ann Roth for Michael Mayer's lush and layered take on The Seagull
Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Zegen, and Jon Tenney in the sublime costumes designed by Ann Roth for Michael Mayer's lush and layered take on The Seagull

In the second instalment of my conversation with The Seagull director, who is currently working on an upcoming Broadway production of Head Over Heels, based on the song catalogue of The Go-Go's and Belinda Carlisle with costumes by Arianne Phillips (Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, A Single Man and Madonna's stylist), Michael Mayer spoke about collaborating with screenwriter Stephen Karam (Tony Award winner for The Humans) and composer Nico Muhly (John Cameron Mitchell's How To Talk To Girls At Parties, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me And Earl And The Dying Girl).

Michael Mayer on ‪Nico Muhly‬'s music for Billy Howle's role in The Seagull: "[It] goes with the spirit of Konstantin who is young and trying to make new forms and is passionate about that."
Michael Mayer on ‪Nico Muhly‬'s music for Billy Howle's role in The Seagull: "[It] goes with the spirit of Konstantin who is young and trying to make new forms and is passionate about that."

Michael Mayer is a very busy creator. He has a Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's Burn This with Adam Driver on board for next year and at The Metropolitan Opera this fall he is directing Nico Muhly's Marnie, based on Winston Graham’s novel, which had been adapted by Jay Presson Allen for Alfred Hitchcock's film, starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren.

Also on tap for the Tony Award-winning director (of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's musical Spring Awakening, based on the play by Frank Wedekind), is a new production of La Traviata conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin at The Metropolitan Opera.

Starting out with the score for The Seagull, we continue with the connection between Michael Mayer, producer Scott Rudin and Nico Muhly and move on to remembering the past, cherishing moments, and a Hamlet scene not shot.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Right at the beginning I felt the music to be babbling-brook-ish. To my surprise at the end I saw the music was by Nico Muhly. He composed the ballet at the Paris Opera for Benjamin Millepied. I saw him in the documentary Relève [Reset, directed by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai].

Michael Mayer on Irina (Annette Bening): "And then she says at one point 'Do you remember how it was 15, maybe even 10 years ago? When there'd be music every night and dancing and love affairs?' And she looks at the doctor [Jon Tenney]."
Michael Mayer on Irina (Annette Bening): "And then she says at one point 'Do you remember how it was 15, maybe even 10 years ago? When there'd be music every night and dancing and love affairs?' And she looks at the doctor [Jon Tenney]."

Michael Mayer: With Nico, this is our third collaboration. I love him. He's got a very particular sensibility and an encyclopedic understanding of music and how it works. And he has done a few movies too. He's worked with Scott Rudin a lot. On Scott Rudin movies.

It just so happens that he and Stephen Karam had also collaborated before. So there was this terrific connection between three friends to do this together.

AKT: What were your discussions like about the music?

MM: I had asked Nico to do it. Because one of the things I love about Nico's music is it's never just one thing. He doesn't deliver big, one solid emotional statement that would underline the action and sort of dictate to you how you're supposed to feel about something. He's not manipulative that way.

The top notes might be consonant with the image you're seeing, but underneath there's sometimes a little engine going that has a different, completely different thing going. Or vice versa. It really is foreground - background; it's very cinematic to my way of thinking.

We ended up temping the entire movie with existing music of his and ended up with a lot of his stuff that was not used in movies before in addition to him writing original composition for us. So it got quite a range of his styles and different times in his very prodigious young career.

Annette Bening is the most nuanced, strong, highly aware and casually silly Irina I have ever seen.
Annette Bening is the most nuanced, strong, highly aware and casually silly Irina I have ever seen.

Which I think goes with the spirit of Konstantin [Billy Howle] who is young and trying to make new forms and is passionate about that. Sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong.

AKT: "Remember how good it was before?" The idea of nostalgia is so broken in The Seagull. It's on the one hand the longing for nostalgia but by the structure you have - starting with applause - we don't even know where the past ends and the future begins. That shows us something about nostalgia.

MM: I agree. It's throughout the play as well and the screenplay. I wanted it to feel like she [Irina, played by Annette Bening] is … There was a scene we didn't have the money to actually do. It was going to be one scene from Hamlet. And we would kind of reveal that the theatre that she is performing in is maybe not quite what it was.

We just didn't have that kind of budget to do that and it doesn't really matter. Because you can tell by her desperation to hang on to the glory that you know that she is nostalgic for, that she's on the other side of her great successes.

The Seagull poster at The Paris Theatre
The Seagull poster at The Paris Theatre Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It's a bit like that toy lottery game.

MM: Yes!

AKT: A beloved toy from her mother that looks as if it had seen better days in the lottery.

MM: Exactly. And then she [Irina] says at one point "Do you remember how it was 15, maybe even 10 years ago? When there'd be music every night and dancing and love affairs?" And she looks at the doctor [Jon Tenney].

And Shamrayev [Glenn Fleshler] is always talking about these great performances from the past that he had seen. All of his stories are from the past. So there's a lot of people saying throughout: "Do you remember?" "Remember when?"

So then it's Nina's [Saoirse Ronan] time and she is the youngest. Then she is already at a point in her life where she can say something like "Remember how good it was?" And we'd now seen it. And it wasn't, I mean, it was very fraught.

We see that the little moment where it was good, innocent and pure was shattered so quickly back then. But in our minds we cherish those moments and I think we kind of endow them with more time and space than they actually took up.

AKT: The seagull, although it is dead, in our memory it's up there, floating in the blue sky.

MM: Yeah.

Michael Mayer on Nina (Saoirse Ronan) with Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll): "We see that the little moment where it was good, innocent and pure was shattered so quickly back then."
Michael Mayer on Nina (Saoirse Ronan) with Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll): "We see that the little moment where it was good, innocent and pure was shattered so quickly back then."

Read what Michael Mayer had to say on Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy and Ann Roth's costumes for The Seagull.

The Seagull is in cinemas in the US.

Head Over Heels will be in previews starting on June 23 and open on July 26 at the Hudson Theatre in New York.

The English National Opera had the world premiere of Nico Muhly's Marnie at the Coliseum in London in 2017. Marnie at The Metropolitan Opera in New York will run from October 19 through November 10.

La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera will open on December 4 and run through April 27, 2018.

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