Jesse Green recently wrote a smart piece in the New York Times Magazine about Adam Guettel, the composer of the off-Broadway musical Floyd Collins (it’s about the guy who got stuck in the cave) and the pop-song cycle Myths and Hymns. I’ve been interested in Guettel for some time now–I think he’s the most gifted and significant of the post-Sondheim musical-theater composers–and I’m very much looking forward to seeing his latest show, The Light in the Piazza, once it finally makes its way to New York. (It just had its premiere at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre.)
Having said all this, I’m puzzled by one thing. Green, who obviously admires Guettel as much as I do, described The Light in the Piazza as a “serious chamber musical” and emphasizes its musical complexity:
Anyone can whistle a happy tune. But take a look at the score of ”Piazza.” To create its highly chromatic, yearning atmosphere (Guettel calls it faux-Lisztian), the harpist is kept so busy changing pedals that she’s basically doing a clog dance. The other instruments–piano, violin, cello, bass–aren’t spared, either. The vocal lines are compulsively notated down to the last crotchet, specifying the kinds of inflections and back-phrasings that other composers would leave to the singers’ sense of style. It’s not pedantry; it’s how Guettel hears, and in some sense tries to stabilize, his damaged world. Is ”Love to Me”–the romantic climax of the score–less heart-melting because it is set mostly in the compound time signature of 5/8 + 4/8? No, it is more so, thanks to that strangely limping extra eighth-note, which seems to argue that imperfection can be another kind of beauty. But just try learning it without Guettel’s longtime music director, Ted Sperling, hammering out the beats.
What few can learn, few can love. ”I can’t help that,” Guettel says. ”We can finally admit, confidentially, that being a prominent theater composer is like being a prominent manuscript illuminator. So let’s not ask people to think more of this art form than they want to.” Which seems a shame because, with enough tinkering, ”Piazza” could be a classic….
Well, duh, it sounds to me like it wouldn’t take any tinkering whatsoever for Piazza to be…an opera. So why not call it that, and invite an opera company to produce it? I am fascinated by, and have written more than once about, the continuing resistance of “new music theater” composers like Guettel to thinking of their work in operatic terms. Stephen Sondheim is the same way. It’s as though “opera” were the dirtiest world in the language.
Does it matter whether you call a show like The Light in the Piazza or Sweeney Todd a musical or an opera? I think so. As I wrote in the Times a couple of years ago apropos the failed Broadway run of Marie Christine, whose composer, Michael John LaChiusa, similarly insisted on calling it a musical:
“The key word here is ‘elitist.’ Mr. LaChiusa, who admits to having had to pawn his piano after writing ‘Marie Christine,’ clearly longs to be popular. Alas, he longs in vain. Broadway today is about ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Footloose,’ not complex scores that demand your full attention at all times. To call ‘Marie Christine’ a musical is implicitly to claim that it has more in common with these simple-minded shows than ‘Carmen.’ Not only is this untrue, it’s bad marketing, the equivalent of a bait-and-switch scam. Labels are unfashionable these days, even politically incorrect, but sometimes they still matter. Had ‘Marie Christine’ been billed as ‘a new opera’ and produced by, say, Glimmerglass Opera, it would have drawn a different, more adventurous kind of audience, one better prepared to grapple with its challenging blend of pop-flavored rhythms and prickly harmonies.”
Judging by Jesse Green’s piece, I’d say Adam Guettel, for whatever reason, is making the same mistake—and I don’t think it will serve him well in the long run.
But don’t get me wrong—I love Broadway….