Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

An Interview with Adam Guettel

When teaching a master class at the Boston Center for the Arts last Saturday afternoon, Adam Guettel described the overlying theme of his musical Floyd Collins in these words: "We have dreams and we fail, and there's something noble in that." Luckily for us, Mr. Guettel has big dreams for the musical theatre and, unlike the character of Floyd Collins, he is succeeding fully in achieving those dreams.

Often categorized in the 'new generation' of musical theatre composers, Mr. Guettel is in a field all his own. His music and lyrics are interesting, insightful, and they reach that soulful place deep inside that not too many composers reach. The grandson of Richard Rodgers, the composing half of the Rodgers & Hammerstein team, and the son of Mary (Once Upon a Mattress) Rodgers, Mr. Guettel comes from a musically-rich family and has succeeded in finding a style all his own, perhaps even exceeding the quality of his family's previous musical pedigree.

This past weekend, Mr. Guettel made a trek up to Boston to witness the area's premiere production of Floyd Collins and to teach master classes at Berklee College of Music and the Boston Center for the Arts. Mr. Guettel, in conjunction with his orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, divulged several lesser-known secrets about Floyd Collins, including the fact that the song "It Moves" was transcribed directly from notes that Guettel took while in Crystal Cave, the location of the real Floyd Collins' first caving expedition. Mr. Guettel also treated us to several renditions of his own work including "Through the Mountain," "Daybreak," and "I Landed on Him." The attendees at the classes were the die-hard fans who either loved the show itself or Mr. Guettel's work in general.

After Saturday afternoon's class, Mr. Guettel and I had the chance to chat a bit over coffee. Here's what he had to say. Enjoy!

Ryan DeFoe:  I'd like to start out by giving you a journalistic blank check; what do you want people to know about you or your work?

Adam Guettel:  I don't think I've ever been asked that before. I wouldn't have anything to say to answer that question. I think I would want to be represented by my music and my work, more than be represented by myself or what I might say to a question like that.

RD:  In the master classes, you pretty much explained the process of how Floyd Collins came to be. Could you explain maybe how Playwright's [Horizons] got involved with it and took it over there?

AG:  American Music Theatre Festival commissioned me to write a piece in 1991 and by 1992 Tina [Landau, co-author of Floyd] and I had teamed up on this idea, which was an idea that we found in a book. It was just one paragraph; it was sort of one of those broad survey compendium books about life in America, and the heading of this little paragraph was "Deathwatch Carnival." The paragraph underneath said "a man trapped in a cave and media circus ensues" or something like that. And that's really all we had to go on. Then we found some other research sources, some primary, some secondary, and found the whole thing sort of fascinating, we couldn't stop.

RD:  What sort of research did you do about the Appalachian culture in that region of America?

AG:  Well, I drove down to that part of Kentucky and was allowed to drive on to the Collins' property, which was still pretty much ... .I don't know what it looks like now, but at that point it was just the house as it had been described, there was even remnants of a little ticket office still there.

RD:  Is it just abandoned? Or ... .

AG:  I think the house was abandoned, I'm not sure. The reason I got to go on there was because I was able to convince the park rangers to let me go into Crystal Cave, which was the first cave that Floyd had discovered, which was on his property. It was quite beautiful and the piece entitled "It Moves" is kind of a direct transcription of the notes that I took while I was in that cave with the park ranger.

RD:  Now whatever happened to the Great Sand Cave? (The Great Sand Cave is the cave that Floyd Collins discovered and eventually became entrapped in.)

AG:  That has been sealed off with an iron gate, I think for many, many years. It's a very unstable and uninviting place to begin with. It's made of sandstone, which is much less stable than limestone caves.

RD:  Is there any kind of marking there?

AG:  Yeah, you walk through the forest for maybe 5 -10 minutes, and you come to this overhang. And having seen pictures I knew that I was sort of in the right area. And underneath that overhang, is where this cave opening was that Floyd discovered, and in front of it is still some of the remnants of the shaft that was dug to try to rescue him, all these boards. You know, it's all drained and sunken in from the rain, at least this is what it was nine years ago when I went and saw it.

RD:  Getting back to the way the piece was developed, did Playwrights come out to Philadelphia or ...

AG:  Dana Williams, who was at that time working at Playwrights Horizons, came down to Philly and saw the show, and she is largely responsible, in a way, for Floyd's success in the world. If she hadn't seen it and recommended it to Playwrights, they wouldn't have done it, and it wouldn't have been recorded, and the recording is really the calling card to the show.

RD:  You come from a very musically famous family, how did your grandfather's and your mother's writing affect your work, if at all?

AG:  It probably prevented it from happening for a while, for those typical rebellious instincts. Writing for musical theatre was not something I ever wanted to do, because it was the family business. I kind of backed into it; I didn't really feel it was for me. So because of the orientation in my family, I wanted to do something very different. I always wanted to do something in music, but I didn't want it to be involved in theatre at all. I played in a lot of rock bands and I played upright bass in a lot of jazz groups and I played out in New York in clubs in stuff. I sang a lot, I wanted for the obligatory period to be an actor, but I'm very glad I passed through that because that would not have been a very good way for me to make a contribution. I went through all that stuff before I ended up realizing that writing for character and telling stories through music was something that I really loved to do, and that allowed me to express love.

RD:  Do you have any memories of your grandfather at all?

AG:  He died when I was fifteen, so I've got lots of memories.

RD:  And what are those like?

AG:  He was very dry and funny. He was funny, but he wasn't very well by the time my consciousness awoke; he was kind of shutting down. He had already had a tracheotomy and a larangectomy. He could speak with esophageal speech, but that did preclude the kind of deep talks I'd like to have with him now.

RD:  What would you say to him?

AG:  I would have so many questions for him. I did once dream about him and I asked him what he thought of my music and he told me that I have something of my own to contribute. He wasn't effusive on the subject. (Laughs.)

RD:  Well you are very different musically than both your mother and your grandfather. So where did that come from? Do you have any other influences?

AG:  Yeah I listen to a ton of pop music and a ton of classical music. I've always been a fan of earlier music; that's something I continue to listen to a lot and I make a point of always learning a new instrument because I think that not knowing how to play something very well can be as inspiring as knowing how to play it.

RD:  Were you affected by Sondheim's work at all? Because his work seems somewhat similar in dissonance and certain chord structures ... .

AG:  Well I take that as a compliment and I certainly listen to Sondheim's work. Growing up, probably more than I listened to my grandfather's work, kind of for the reasons I stated before, it seemed like he was the hipper, newer, younger guy.

RD:  Did you like your grandfather's music?

AG:  Oh yeah, but not until I started trying to do this professionally have I come to understand just how awesome his accomplishments are.

RD:  Last year in the New York Times Sondheim named "The Riddle Song" [from Floyd Collins] as one of the fifty songs he wished he'd written. Do you consider that to be one of your favorite songs that you've written? Or do you have a favorite song that you've written?

AG:  Yeah, sure. I don't have a favorite, I mean I'd hope that my favorite is yet to come. I'm fond of "The Riddle Song" because it expresses character; it expresses that relationship of those brothers in a way that's not over-serious or pretentious. It's just kind of a rollicking good time and it still does what it's supposed to do.

RD:  Terry [Theresa] McCarthy has been involved in a lot of your work. Do you consider her some type of muse? Is there something special that she brings to your work?

AG:  Absolutely. Terry has a personhood that is also a touchstone for me. Her spirituality, how that manifests in her work, her approach to life as an artist. Given that for instance, she's now not living in New York, she's living in Michigan and making a family there. She's coming back to New York to make her record, which I'm producing ... .

RD:  Will that be on Nonesuch?

AG:  Yeah ... .and she will undoubtedly be a future person in my professional future and I'm pretty sure other writers. She has a sort of systemic spirituality┬ů.

RD:  And she brings that to your work?

AG:  She brings it to my work. It's in everything she sings, it's in the sound of her voice, it's in her diction, it's in the way she carries herself on stage. Unfortunately, that's sort of pigeonholed her a little bit into sort of the┬ů.she's always cast in these diaphanous parts. In fact, she's one of the best straight actresses I've ever seen. She needs to be given more opportunities to show that off because her chops are enormous and it all comes out of the same wellspring.

RD:  Your music has been criticized at times for being too dissonant and not appealing to a mass audience. What are your feelings on that? Does it affect your writing at all?

AG:  It doesn't affect my writing at all and I completely approve of critics saying whatever opinions they have. I mean I wish they wouldn't try to convince other people, but the fact that they have their own opinions is perfectly okay. As far as dissonance in my work, to me harmony is a continuum from Gregorian stricture to atonal chaos. And my music obviously lands somewhere in between there and occasionally accesses either pole. To me harmony is just a way of creating emotional syntax in songwriting or in music making, or in storytelling with music. Emotional syntax for me comes through harmony. Harmony as an emotional tool, I think, is predominately a tonal thing, as far as how it effects the listener. And dissonance is another color, it's another thing that is emotionally useful. So when people call my work dissonant I think they're really just describing some section of a piece I've written where I was trying to create a certain kind of emotional syntax and those were the tools I was using.

RD:  You're also known to be quite the singer. How do you feel about performing? Do you enjoy it?

AG:  Well I'm getting less and less freaked out about it. I really do like to sing, I don't like to play the piano in public, that's probably a childhood problem. I'm okay with playing the guitar in public. But the next record that I'm doing from Nonesuch (aside from Terry's piece) is more of a solo project, and I'm going to be performing that stuff more. To get one's sea legs as a performer takes a lot of work. Performers who are exclusively performers have learned those skills over years of hard work; I've been sitting around on my butt writing music, so I'm really behind.

RD:  What is your solo album going to consist of?

AG:  I guess I wouldn't want to say, but it's certainly more propulsive and it'll be my stuff. Floyd Collins is a cast record, Myths & Hymns is a hybrid between a cast record and a solo record, for me this is the next step on that progression.

RD:  You did a lot of teaching while you were here. What is that like for you?

AG:  I love teaching. Teaching is like art without pain.

RD:  What do you want your students to come away with from a class of yours?

AG:  That the future of writing is the universe within. During the '40s and '50s there were certain social issues that had not been addressed in the mainstream popular culture yet. Some of these issues were addressed in Rodgers & Hammerstein's shows. Those issues have been addressed well, not that they can't always be revisited, but they're not as cut and dried now, they're not as black and white. When I can write specifically it comes from my universe within, not looking to see how I might create a socially resonant piece. That's not what I work from.

RD:  A lot of people have asked me to ask you this, so I have to, but what's going on with A Light in the Piazza?

AG:  Alfred [Uhry] and I started together and we didn't get a lot done together on the piece. We got along very well, but we both weren't 'doing the dance' and I think we both knew that. It was an amicable parting and he's been tremendously supportive since then. Then I embarked on a brief collaboration on the same piece with another person and that didn't work out for other reasons. After that, I think that I was truly bewildered and ashamed that so many people knew I was working on something and I hadn't finished it yet and in fact I wasn't even close. I felt like at that point that I was letting everybody down, and I had been sort of over praised, and I hadn't learned to metabolize that yet. I think the experience of putting it away for six months was very good for me. I wrote a score for a John Guare play and took some time for myself, worked in the studio pulling ideas together for my record. Now I'm going off to take another look at "A Light in the Piazza" at a Sundance fellowship. That's where I'm at with that show, and I would like to say to those people who'd like to know what's going on with it, "don't hold your breath," but if it ever does get finished it will certainly be coming from the heart. And they already know that I'm slow! (Laughs.)

Also read Ryan's review of the Boston production of Floyd Collins.

-- Ryan DeFoe

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