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Light in the Piazza Premiers in Seattle

Marcie Sillman
06/13/2003

Most Broadway musicals are not created on Broadway. They’re the products of off-Broadway theaters, and regional nonprofit companies. In fact, it costs so much to develop a commercial theatrical production that most aspiring musical theater composers don’t even think about Broadway. This weekend in Seattle, two New York-based artists are premiering their new musical, The Light in the Piazza. Marcie Sillman reports.

“THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” IS ABOUT AN AMERICAN WOMAN AND HER DAUGHTER WHO TRAVEL TO FLORENCE, ITALY IN THE SUMMER OF 1953: ***MUSIC: STATUES AND STORIES*** LIKE MANY YOUNG AMERICAN TOURISTS, THE DAUGHTER, CLARA, FALLS IN LOVE WITH A ROMANTIC ITALIAN MAN. AND HE FALLS IN LOVE WITH HER: ****THIS IS LOVE TO ME*** IN SOME WAYS, “THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” IS LIKE SOME OF THE AMERICAN MUSICALS OF THE MID 20TH CENTURY. IT’S NOT CYNICAL OR IRONIC. COMPOSER AND LYRICIST ADAM GUETTEL SAYS HE WANTED TO TELL AN OLD FASHIONED STORY: “I wanted to make a musical theater piece that was a love story. And I had this song which I knew was a love song. I felt those sounds piling up in me, and I wanted to get them out, before they disappeared.” WHAT GUETTEL DIDN’T HAVE WAS A SCRIPT, OR EVEN A STORY. HIS MOTHER SUGGESTED HE READ ELIZABETH SPENCER’S 1960 NOVELLA “THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA”. GUETTEL WAS SMITTEN WITH THE BOOK, BUT HE ADMITS HIS FORTE IS COMPOSITION, NOT ADAPTING BOOKS INTO PLAYS. “I just felt discouraged and I thought I would just end up making a dance suite out of the music I’d written and it was in a drawer.” THEN ONE DAY, GUETTEL WAS TALKING ON THE PHONE TO HIS OLD FRIEND, THE PLAYWRIGHT CRAIG LUCAS. HE HAPPENED TO MENTION THIS SONG IN THE DRAWER. LUCAS CAME OVER TO GUETTEL’S APARTMENT, LISTENED TO IT, AND FELL IN LOVE WITH GUETTEL’S WORK: “He was thinking of abandoning the project, because he couldn’t find the right tone. And I suggested that he not do that. And I think I helped him to recognize that the material was very funny. I think he’d lost sight of the humor.” LUCAS, WHO IS BEST KNOWN FOR SUCH NON-MUSICAL WORKS AS “PRELUDE TO A KISS”, AND “LONGTIME COMPANION”, AGREED TO TRY HIS HAND AT ADAPTING SPENCER’S NOVELLA. HIS MAIN TASK WAS TO TRANSFORM THE THOUGHTS OF THE FICTIONAL CHARACTERS INTO DIALOGUE: PLAY: WHAT PLAYWRIGHT CRAIG LUCAS AND COMPOSER ADAM GUETTEL HAVE CREATED TOGETHER IS NOT A BIG MUSICAL IN THE TRADITION OF “GYPSY”, OR “HAIRSPRAY”. THERE’S NO CHORUS, NO PYROTECHNICS, NO HELICOPTERS. INSTEAD OF AN ORCHESTRA IN A PIT, FOUR CHAMBER MUSICIANS PLAY ON A RAISED PLATFORM ONSTAGE, ALONGSIDE A CAST OF EIGHT. LUCAS CALLS IT AN INTIMATE EVENING OF THEATER: “It’s an odd and unique animal. It’s a play, in some ways. It’s not a dance musical, it’s not a raucous raise-the-roof musical. There’s a hothouse aspect to it.” ***MUSIC: THE BEAUTY IS*** COMPOSER ADAM GUETTEL HAS BEEN LABORING OVER THE SCORE FOR “THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA”FOR ALMOST FOUR YEARS. BUT YOU COULD SAY THAT IN SOME WAY, HE’S BEEN INCUBATING THIS KIND OF PROJECT ALL HIS LIFE. GUETTEL LITERALLY GREW UP WITH MUSICAL THEATER. HIS GRANDFATHER IS RICHARD RODGERS. HIS MOTHER, MARY, IS ALSO A COMPOSER. BUT GUETTEL DOESN’T LEAN ON HIS PEDIGREE, AND IS QUICK TO POINT OUT HIS FAMILY WASN’T THE KIND TO GATHER AROUND THE PIANO SINGING GRANDPA’S SHOW TUNES: “There wasn’t ever any musical theater sort of blaring out of the loudspeakers in my house. It wasn’t like the Von Trapps or anything.” GUETTEL SAYS IF ANYTHING, HE SHIED AWAY FROM THE FAMILY BUSINESS: “Writing for the theater is the last thing I wanted to do. In the great tradition of adolescent defiance, and doing whatever you can not to satisfy your parents’ aspirations, I wanted to be, you know, a rock singer or a movie star…” DIDN’T HAPPEN. BY THE TIME HE WAS 18, ADAM GUETTEL HAD WRITTEN HIS FIRST MUSICAL. IN 1996, GUETTEL’S SHOW “FLOYD COLLINS” EARNED HIM NATIONAL ATTENTION. NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST, AND FORMER THEATER CRITIC, FRANK RICH, SAYS GUETTEL’S SCORE FOR THAT SHOW HAD THE KIND OF ROMANTIC LYRICISM ASSOCIATED WITH HIS GRANDFATHER’S MUSIC: “In that rush of melody, and the kind of ‘make the hair rise at the back of your neck quality, that to me Rodgers has, I’m a big big Rodgers fan, Adam has that. But I think you’d be hard pressed to say any of his songs sound remotely like Rodgers and Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. You know, if you put one of his songs in a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, it wouldn’t make any sense, because it’s so much his own voice. But in that sort of underlying thing, this huge emotion that’s expressed through music, the sort of soaring passion, they both have that.” DESPITE GUETTEL’S REPUTATION AS A RISING STAR, HE AND COLLABORATOR CRAIG LUCAS ARE HAPPY TO WORK ON “THE LIGHT IN PIAZZA” IN THE RELATIVE OBSCURITY OF SEATTLE. DAYS BEFORE THE SHOW’S PREMIER, THE PAIR WAS STILL TINKERING WITH SONG LYRICS: ***AMBIENCE*** THE OUT OF TOWN TRYOUT IS A TIME HONORED TRADITION FOR AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATER, BUT PLAYWRIGHT CRAIG LUCAS SAYS THAT’S NOT THE REASON HE AND GUETTEL WANTED TO WORK IN A SMALL SEATTLE NONPROFIT THEATER: “It isn’t that we couldn’t find a commercial producer for this piece, because we’ve had several offers. But it didn’t seem to want that kind of encumbrance, at least at this point. It wanted an audience that would be generous to
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