ADAM GUETTEL DOES not fit the stereotype of your traditional theater composer/lyricist. He isn’t some nutty eccentric, and neither does he appear interested in the role of the cosmopolitan dinner guest who can’t wait to entertain the rest of a Manhattan gathering with his latest musical bons mots. If anything, his measured passion, scruffy handsomeness, and complete lack of I’m-an-artist b.s. make him seem the ideal frontman for some ambitious rock band. This also helps to explain why he’s been a significant member of musical theater’s new breed ever since he made an impression back in ’94 with Floyd Collins, based on the true story of the media circus surrounding a spelunker trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925a show that successfully toured regional theaters across the country despite never landing on the Great White Way. Guettel is ready to ride the waves of an art form in transition, a risky art form whose many failures far outnumber the pop successes of The Producers or Hairspray.
His newest work is The Light in the Piazza (now in previews at the Intiman Theatre, 206-269-1900, and opening Wednesday, June 11), a world premiere based on Elizabeth Spencer’s acclaimed 1960 novella set in ’50s Florence and Rome that originally appeared in The New Yorker. The direction and adaptation is by Intiman’s associate artistic director Craig Lucas (the playwright behind Prelude to a Kiss and other lushly imaginative leaps). Piazza has been a work-in-progress for the team for about four years, and attached to Intiman since the theater hired Lucas and managing director Laura Penn caught its workshop in Sundance last summer. Intiman has never done a musical in its entire history, and artistic director Bartlett Sher is aware that, though the piece is relatively small in scope (four musicians, nine actors), producing it is taking a chance at a time when almost every local company is hurting financially.
“I’m not minimizing the fact that we’re all scared out of our minds,” Sher admits. “But it’s the kind of risk I’m guessing is worth taking. It isn’t about doing a musical. These two artists [Guettel and Lucas] are extraordinary. Adam is an amazing composer. It’s beautiful music. He’s the real thingit doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that out.”
In an interview, Guettel talked about the daunting process of creating a new musical and why it’s his fault if the genre never reaches its former glory.
Seattle Weekly: What’s this story about?
Adam Guettel: A young, beautiful girl and a young, beautiful boy from different countries fall in love, and the language barrier between them serves as a kind of metaphor for the barriers that two strangers face when they fall in love. That central relationship is a catalyst for all the other people in the casther mother, her father, his brother, his brother’s wife, his parents. Everybody is on a continuum: at one end, having had love and lost it; at the other end, in that first ecstatic bloom of fusing with another human being. Our hunch is that everyone in the audience will be somewhere on that continuum, too, and will place themselves on it in their own minds as they watch this story.
So what are you hoping people take away from it?
I’m sort of hoping that people will either get divorced after they see this or want even more deeply to fall in love or to stay with who they’re with.
How did the project develop?
I was looking for a love storyI just felt like writing one and had never tried to write one. I was told about Piazza, actually, by my mother. She said she remembered something from The New Yorker and I should look it up and see if it was in print. So I read it, and I really fell in love with it right awaywhich doesn’t always translate into wanting to stick with an idea. But the bells kept ringing.
What was it about the story that made you think it would be a good musical?
There was a quality of emotional ambitionof reaching for the real thing. It seemed to beautifully depict that the ecstasy of first love and the agony of loss are the same feeling, by a different name.
As a lyricist, how much do you take from the source material, and how much is you creating language based on what you’ve read?
The language is born of the source materialit’s born of the feelings, the emotional vocabulary that comes out of the storytelling. One of the great things about Elizabeth Spencer’s work is what she doesn’t sayto not say the same stuff in a different medium is a very complicated, delicate process. I mean, what is withheld in love is always the most captivating thing.
Is creating the songs a matter of Craig Lucas saying, “Here’s Scene 1, and I want a song as introduction . . . ?”
No, we do all that stuff together. We talk more in terms of the characters and what they need and what they want. And the so-called “spotting” of the songswhere they go and what they docomes out of those conversations. The divvying up of what gets expressed through music and lyrics and what gets expressed through the book also happens in those meetings.
Is it hard to throw a song out?
I love throwing things outit means you’re speaking the language of the piece to the extent that you can make those adjustments. If I hadn’t [cut], I wouldn’t know it was better.
What’s the benefit of telling a story musically?
The physics of sound. Musical sound has physical properties that act on the body, and therefore the heart. The core of a person is, I think, accessed at a finer resolution by music. The combination of music and words can be an exquisitely physical experience for the listener. So if a story is told that way, a story can sink in pretty deep.
Do you think the musical form is dying or just in some long transitional phase?
People generally try to assign blame right after that questionwhy isn’t it working? And I would like to take blame for it. It’s not the producers, it’s not the actors, it’s not the audience’s fault, it’s not the culture’s faultit’s the writers. If the writers figure out how to reinterpret this form so that it is resonant . . .
Do you mean it’s your fault for not taking risks . . . ?
[For] not creating work that works for our times. It’s our fault. Either we’ll pull it off, or we won’t. It is a very different time than when the musical came into its own, and forms change and they reflect their times. To be more specific, I think that we as writers have made a mistake by [not] leveraging what makes us different from other forms. [Musical theater is] by definition either surreal or unrealwe represent rather than depict literally. And that is something that we need to celebrate and explore rather than shy away from. It’s a heightened form, and it’s very beautiful, and that requires compression and metaphor and more than one thing going on at oncewhich is what theater is especially good at, and movies are especially bad at. We have advantages that we should be exploring, and not be ashamed of not being the movies. I mean, who gives a shit?
What’s the next step with the show once you’re done here?
We’ll make any changes we need before we get to Chicagothat could be to rewrite the entire thing, and that could be just to kind of nip and tuck. It’s a brand-new thing, and a workshop audience doesn’t really tell you much. They’re your devoted friends and allies. They’ll let you know if you’ve got a complete turkey. If you have anything better [than that], they give you energy to keep going and keep working. But a paying audiencethey tell you the truth.
How do you decide how far you should push the show?
I want the piece to be in the world to the extent that the material earns it. I don’t see the point ofbased on whomever’s short-lived reputationextorting $5 million from unsuspecting backers and flushing it down the toilet if we don’t have a strong sense that our show really will work for paying audiences in New York. I think that’s a waste of money and further erodes the general public’s confidence that musical theater is a hip, cool thing to spend their money on. I want them to know that it is.
But how important is it to make it in New York?
Well, Floyd Collins has been a great comfort to me. It began its life not succeeding in New York. It sold out at Playwright’s [Horizons, the prestigious center for developing new plays in N.Y.C], but it did not get moved to Broadway or anything like that. And since then, it’s been done all over the country and in Europe. And it continues to live and breathe, and that is just a wonderful part of my life that it happened. And it taught me that New York is not the be-all and end-all of working in this field. Working in this field is about being with wonderful actors and wonderful collaborators, and laughing and scratchingand accepting that we now, culturally speaking, are holding a candle in the dark, and there’s nothing wrong with that.