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Q&A with Elizabeth Searle

Why Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan makes a perfect rock opera

(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Pagan Kennedy
January 13, 2008

ONE NIGHT IN February 1994, novelist Elizabeth Searle crouched by the radio in her living room in Arlington, scribbling notes. A month before, skater Tonya Harding had conspired with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and a band of pudgy, pimpled men to break Nancy Kerrigan's knee. It was the whack heard round the world; millions of Americans watched endless replays of Kerrigan, resplendent in spangles, hugging her leg and crying, "Why me?" Remarkably, both Tonya and Nancy went on to compete in the Olympics on the US team - practicing under the stewardship of guards. Their "skate off" became the most dramatic female-on-female sports contest of the century. And Searle knew she had to transform the event into a grand opus.

In fact, the novelist would revisit the material for the next 14 years - and not just in her literary fiction. On Easter 2004, Searle learned that her niece planned to compose a one-act opera as part of her graduate work at Tufts. In a flash, Searle grasped that the skating saga had to be an opera, and so she contributed the words and story. When "Tonya and Nancy: The Opera" hit the stage in 2006, it became a news item in the Associated Press, and eventually a joke on "The Daily Show."

Now, Searle has reworked the material again - into a full-length rock opera replete with fist-pumping anthems. Next month, Triangle Productions launches the show in Portland, Ore., the hometown of Tonya.

IDEAS: When did you realize that this material would become such an artistic bonanza for you?

SEARLE: Right from the start. It was such a girl scandal. The ice skating was so ballerina-like and then the clubbing was so brutal.

IDEAS: What is the most operatic moment of the story, aside from the obvious?

SEARLE: My first thought, when I wanted to expand this story into a full-length show, was "hairbrush."

IDEAS: Hairbrush?

SEARLE: It haunted me that Tonya's mother - allegedly - would beat Tonya with a hairbrush if she lost a meet. And Nancy had this beautiful auburn hair, and I pictured her mother brushing her hair lovingly. We now have a scene where Nancy falls on the ice and her mother comforts her by brushing her hair. And that leads into a song called "Three and a Half Minutes," which comes from a quote of Nancy's. She once said that she had three and a half minutes to be perfect in the Olympics.

IDEAS: This rock opera is ripped from the headlines. You used the actual quotes from newspapers to supply most of the lyrics, isn't that right?

SEARLE: It took about a year for me to figure out how to do the libretto. I tried to invent words for Nancy and Tonya; that didn't work. Then I hit on the idea of using their own words. [My niece] Abigail [Al-Doory] e-mailed me a lot of clippings, and I immediately started writing down quotes. Tonya in particular talked vividly. She was always saying things like, "Whip her butt." And then I got hold of an article that reproduced Jeff Gillooly's FBI transcripts of his confession. And I realized that I could take what they said and chop them up like a poem.

IDEAS: You can't improve on the story.

SEARLE: Oh my God, no you can't. For instance, there's the relationship between Tonya and Jeff Gillooly. The week of the Olympics, Gillooly sold an X-rated honeymoon video to Penthouse. And so we follow that subplot in the rock opera. It was the ultimate betrayal.

IDEAS: Most people seem to read this story as a fable about class politics.

SEARLE: Yeah, so many people express anger at Nancy in this irrational way, because of what she represents in their minds: the girl who has it all. And we make it clear in the opera that that's not true. She came from a hard-working family.

IDEAS: And yet, Tonya steals the story. She's like the character of Satan in Milton's "Paradise Lost" who has so much more charisma than everyone else, even God.

SEARLE: Yeah, Tonya is such an interesting combination of toughness and vulnerability. We show her when she first emerged in the skating scene; she got a lot of positive coverage. We have a scene where she's talking to reporters, using her real quotes from that time, and that song is called, "I'm Not Some Kind of Picture-Perfect Girl or Whatever." And of course, after Tonya had been kicked out of figure skating, she turned to boxing, and some of her best quotes are about that. She said the difference between figure skating and boxing is that you have to have the [guts] to get punched in the face.

IDEAS: Did Tonya Harding make any kind of statement when she learned that an opera was in the works?

SEARLE: Yeah, she said she couldn't care less, because she has bigger fish to fry.

IDEAS: Literally? Because I know she's been doing car shows and celebrity boxing matches, so I could see how frying big fish might be her new big thing.

SEARLE: I think she was talking at that point about a reality TV show.

IDEAS: All your main characters are women, but usually rock opera is not a form that's friendly to women.

SEARLE: Actually, Gillooly is a major figure. One day I came across a quote that made me sympathetic to him. He said things are pretty bad when you wake up sleeping in your car in Estacada because your house is surrounded by FBI [agents]. And so I made him a bluesy song that's called, "When You Wake Up Sleeping in Your Car in Estacada."

IDEAS: How did you decide to rework this as a rock opera, as opposed to - say - a Broadway musical?

SEARLE: My niece found this composer for me, Michael Teoli, and rock opera is his passion. He's done music for movies - he was on the team for "The Simpsons Movie" and "Lord of the Rings." He and I clicked right away. He rocked up the music that Abigail had written and wrote 20 new songs. We felt like our magic formula was Tonya plus Nancy plus opera. And when Michael got on board it had to be a rock opera.

IDEAS: Any plans to take the show to Boston?

SEARLE: A lot of theaters around the country have expressed interest in the show. But first we must rock Portland.

Pagan Kennedy is the author of nine books, most recently "The First Man-Made Man." She can be reached through her website, pagankennedy.net.

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