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Chicago by John Olson

Adam Guettel Talks About
Today's Musical Theater

If Adam Guettel was at all nervous about bringing his new musical in for a tryout at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, he didn't reveal it in an hour-long public "conversation" at the theatre on January 5th. The Goodman has not been lucky lately for musical theater writers. The likes of Sondheim, Kander, and Ebb have left Chicago in disappointment after the critical failures of Bounce, and The Visit, but Guettel appeared optimistic and relaxed five days before the first previews of The Light in the Piazza, written with Craig Lucas. It can't hurt that the show was well received in its world premiere Seattle production last summer, and Guettel has to feel good about opening his first complete musical since Floyd Collins.

After Floyd Collins was produced in 1994, Guettel was hailed as "the next Sondheim." The son of Stephen Sondheim's longtime pal Mary Rodgers (Once Upon a Mattress) and the grandson of composer Richard Rodgers, Guettel seemed to have the appropriate lineage for that claim as well as substantial critical enthusiasm for his music and lyrics. He hasn't lost that mantle, as evidenced by the Goodman's decision to ask him to discuss "Musical Theater in the 21st Century" before a paid audience of about fifty on a wintry Chicago weeknight.

Guettel and moderator Sheldon Patinkin (founder of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, professor of musical theater, and yes, a relative of Mandy) spent relatively little time specifically on the announced topic. They agreed, though, that musicals today may have little resonance with a public that seems to be increasingly emotionally remote. The traditional premise of musical theater - "that it builds emotion initially through spoken dialogue, then shifts into song when words become insufficient to express the characters' feelings" - is out of sync with today's "cooled-out generation," as Patinkin put it. Guettel agreed with just a touch of sarcasm: "God forbid you should care about anything so much that you'd sing about it." He looks at song in the musical theater as "compressed life," a heightened state of expression that is apparently not as acceptable to audiences today as it was in the 20th century.

Guettel told the audience they would find no lack of strong emotion in Piazza, however. "The characters have strong emotional ambitions ... they're all out there reaching for the real thing. I promise you, you'll cry at the show, no matter how healthy or happy you are."

Guettel and Patinkin noted that the popular new musicals of today, specifically The Producers and Hairspray, are reflexive and self-referential. They get away with following the conventions of musical theater by poking fun at them. Yet Guettel said that the best piece of musical theater he's ever seen was Trevor Nunn's 1998 London production of Oklahoma!. He praised Hugh Jackman's ability in the role of Curly to transition naturally between dialogue and song, helping the audience to believe a person can legitimately express themselves through music as well as speech.

Guettel believes that opera may be easier to write than musicals because it doesn't require those transitions. He's interested in writing more opera and said that some of the music cut from The Light in the Piazza may find its way into one. It seems his musical influences come more from the classics than Broadway. "I listen to everyone," he said, listing Stravinsky, early music and the operas of Benjamin Britten as examples. When Patinkin told Guettel his music for Piazza had been compared to Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, his face literally beamed.

Asked if he was bothered by the fact that few entirely new musicals are opening on Broadway, he said he wasn't. "Broadway's a commercial venture. If we can't write stuff that's fabulous enough to sell tickets, that's our fault. " And how about audience expectations that show music be memorable on the first hearing? "I think audiences deserve something they can take home, and I strive for that. To write something that's compressed, and catchy ... that's a life's work."

A sampling of Guettel's work was performed by popular Chicago actress McKinley Carter and Piazza cast member Glenn Seven Allen. Ms. Carter soloed on Piazza's title song and "How Can I Lose You?" from Myths and Hymns. The two did a duet of "Heart an' Hand" from Floyd Collins. Allen closed the program with that show's signature song, "How Glory Goes."

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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