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In late January of 1925, in Barren County, Kentucky, a young man named Floyd Collins, not for the first time in his life, went exploring in a cave to seek his fortune. This cave narrowed until it was little more than a passageway through the earth, barely enough width for a man to fit into. When Floyd was well and truly deep into it, part of the cave wall collapsed on him. Also not the first time in his life this had happened.
But it was, however, the first time in his life that he felt well and truly trapped.
Two days went by before the outside world figured out what had happened to Floyd, the newshounds got hold of the story, and the ensuing rescue attempts fueled a media circus of hitherto unknown proportions. Which only died down when the rescue attempts seemed doomed--and Floyd was no longer good copy.
This is the subject for the stirring new musical, "Floyd Collins" at Playwrights Horizons. And there is sad irony in the fact that it comes in the wake of another (albeit minor) media circus, the one that has insisted upon lionizing Jonathan Larson, the composer-lyricist of "Rent", in the wake of his death the night before that show's first public preview. Whatever one thinks about "Rent" and its authorship, good or bad, one thing is clear: it ain't the second coming the hype would have you believe. But it gave the press their darling; a genuinely tragic darling to boot. Inevitable, I suppose. Though in and of itself, harmless.
But what's flabbergasting is that it seems to have happened at the expense of any other daring new voice that may emerge this season. The press has picked their cookie of the year and none other may contend for--or worse, share--his title. Because whatever the advance industry buzz was about Larson, there was just as fervent a buzz about Adam Guettel. And a more interesting one to boot. My fellow musical dramatists had any number of things to say about Larson's work, good and bad, but there was a universal consensus that "Rent", though intriguing, was problem-ridden. But Guettel was pressing a whole different button. We're generally supportive of each other, we who write musicals, but we're also, secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) competitive. And Guettel was making my crowd nervous. Guettel was making my crowd jealous.
(No, I don't believe there's a critical conspiracy, any more than I believe in crackpot ethnic conspiracies--but I do think there's a palpable gestalt at work. Sort of a tabloid journalism fever that you can sense in the air. In fact, I overheard a striking number of industry conversations that even anticipated this possibility, before "Floyd Collins" had its official opening; people in the musical theatre saying things like: "You don't think the critics will dismiss Guettel just because Larson's a better story, do you?" And guess what...?)
Now, before I go too far overboard, let me add: "Floyd Collins" has its problems too. Here are a few of them:
First of all, despite flashes of stunning originality in the lyrics (some of which were provided, or augmented by librettist-director Tina Landau), they tend to have shaky construction, in fact, to ramble around a point in a manner that (on first hearing) approaches stream of consciousness, rather than doing what the best theatre lyrics do, which is boil down a dramatic issue to its essence, and explore its development with laser-sharp economy.
Second: Though of course, a country idiom pervades "Floyd Collins"' music, the score has something much more serious in mind: the bluegrass and western motifs are merely punctuation or stylistic springboards for more complex musical forms and techniques that have their antecedents in the likes of Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky. Nothing wrong there...
...but because the lyrics tend to sprawl, the music tends to sprawl with it. Furthermore, though there are, again, flashes that tell a listener, on first hearing, that parts of the score are intensely melodic, Guettel does an awful lot to camouflage that, with deliberately perverse harmonies and accompaniment figures that are relentlessly uncompromising in their intricacy. Guettel's music demands that the listener rise to its level...but it doesn't allow time for a learning curve. You're with it or you're not. (I'll get back to the music in a bit.)
Sound like serious problems? Interestingly, they're not. In a recent interview, Tina Landau admitted that she and Guettel thought seriously about bringing in another lyricist-librettist, to tighten the screws and help create a more polished package--but they decided against, having concluded that their vision for "Floyd Collins" was so specific that a third writer would be in the unfortunate position of having to write by-the-numbers, to fulfill their vision at the expense of his/her own. Rather than risk distillation of their intent (and/or an abjectly unhappy additional collaborator), they forged ahead on their own.
And, for my money, it was a wise decision. For whatever "Floyd Collins" may lack in refinement, it more than compensates in a clarity of purpose, passion and overall impact. Remember, this is a story in which the hero spends most of his time immobile in an underground fissure; in which a media circus is essentially created by three actors out of the remaining twelve (the rest play members of Floyd's family or members of the rescue team); in which a sense of epic grandeur is created by an orchestra of eight--half of whom are string players (the others are a percussionist, a guitar-banjoist, a harmonica player and a keyboardist.) (And, while we're on the subject, let's add additional kudos to musical director Ted Sperling and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin.)
How Guettel and Landau pull off this magic trick--and there is a good deal of magic in "Floyd Collins"--is the what's so exciting about the show. Exciting too is the fact that it never hits a false note. By holding to their vision, the authors, unlike their benighted hero, have tapped into a pure, rich vein. One that is suspenseful, horrifying, funny, and, on more than one occasion profoundly moving. Because the vein they've tapped into is the indomitability of the human spirit.
And though some of that is built into the story, the story by itself is not a theatrical gimme. The authors didn't accomplish their goals by accident or lucky theatrical naïveté. None of the choices seem random, or misplaced.
That, especially, is why Adam Guettel is so noteworthy a new voice. Unlike two or three over-praised composers of his generation (nameless here), you don't get any feeling of haphazardness from Guettel's work, nor the feeling that you're listening to the white heat of a first draft, or to a score that wasn't fully conceived. The inherent problems in the score are overshadowed by the fact that, in most other regards, it is truly thrilling.
After all, the notion of combining Bartok with bluegrass is pretty audacious. And there hasn't been vocal writing like this since "Sweeney Todd". Not only does Guettel create unusual and layered choral textures, he also delves into the vocabulary of the story for sounds that exist independent of words.
Here's one that happens at the top of the show. Floyd (Christopher Innvar) is entering the cave, lowering himself on a rope (via Tina Landau's remarkable symbolic-rather-than-literal staging), singing exuberantly about his hopes and dreams, and decides to test the depth of the place by listening to the echo of his voice. He starts to yodel. The yodel comes back. He smiles. He begins singing faster than the yodel can return now, creating a fugue with the yodel, adding more riffs, harmonies and layers--not just notes and musical phrases, but yips and whoops too--until the cave (and the theatre) is filled with the sound of many Floyds in glorious counterpoint. (We've come a long way since the days when a lovesick "Pajama Game" executive crooned "Hey There" into a Dictaphone and then sang with himself on playback. And as a point of trivia: in "Hey There", the playback vocal is, to the alert ear, distractingly different than the one we heard our hero "record." In "Floyd Collins", however, the echo is meticulously accurate.) This is but one of the astonishing--nay, jealous-making--vocal effects in the show. There are others. (Yeah, I'll admit it: Guettel made me a little jealous too...)
The cast of the show is not entirely unknown, but many are receiving featured "original cast" New York prominence for the first time, including the aforementioned Mr. Innvar as Floyd; Jason Danieley as his dauntless brother Homer; Teresa McCarty as his plaintive, hopeful sister Nellie; and Martin Moran as Skeets Miller, the reporter who came for a story, and wound up a principal player on the rescue team. Also in the cast are veterans Don Chastain and the usually glamorous Cass Morgan as Floyd's decidedly unglamorous not-so-simple-country-folk parents. They, and the rest of the company, could not have been better cast, or in finer voice for the task.
The bad news is--you may never get to see them if you don't hurry. The critics were not kind and "Floyd Collins" is not extending. Once it plays out its limited run, this splendid production is gone.
The good news is--within the last few days of this writing, a major recording label (I don't think I'm at liberty to divulge which; you'll find out soon enough) has come to rescue the score, at least. "Floyd Collins" will have its Original Cast Album.
And then you'll get to hear why, more than LaChuisa, Finn, Pen or Larson, it is Adam Guettel who'll be sticking around for the long haul, and contributing in a way that will last beyond his career.
You may or may not agree that "Floyd Collins" constitutes something new under the sun. But there's nothing like it under the ground...
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