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Guettel, Adam

Guettel, Adam

Composer

Adam Guettel is considered "the most provocative and promising of post-[Stephen] Sondheim theatrical songwriters," according to Terry Teachout in Time. Although he has written relatively few musicals, he has received widespread critical acclaim for his originality and lyricism. In Talkin Broadway, Ryan DeFoe wrote, "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."

Guettel comes from a family that is famous in the world of musical theater. When he was still a toddler, he was taken to see the musicals written by his mother, Mary Rodgers, and his grandfather Richard Rodgers. He first saw his grandfather's Oklahoma when he was two years old; he told David Savran in American Theatre that he kept asking his parents when it would be over. His mother initially asked him, "You don't like this?," and he replied, "No, I love it, I don't want it to be over." Later in his childhood, he sang as a boy soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, the City Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera.

Despite coming from a musical family, Guettel's house was often silent, because his mother found other music too distracting when she was working on her own. And as he grew older he became leery of musical theater, because he sensed that it was "marginalized culturally," he told Savran. As a teenager he thought, "I'm not going to have anything to do with that lame, fairy-tale, unsophisticated, boring, clunky old art form." He also felt burdened by the weight of family expectations, and wanted to do something different, though he did not know what that might be.

Guettel returned to music and theater while studying at Yale, where he wrote a few songs, as well as a one-act opera based on a Dr. Seuss book; he also played upright bass and sang. He played in bands throughout his teens and early twenties, but eventually decided that doing so and adopting the rock-n-roller's typically defiant attitude was pretending to be someone he was not; as he told Savran, "Those were not the cards I was dealt. I was dealt lovely, luxurious, moneyed, educated, elitist cards and I felt insincere trying to put on airs."

In 1991 a version of The Christmas Carol that Guettel had written with his friend Tina Landau was performed at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island. Marjorie Sarnoff, producing director for the American Theater Festival, attended the performance and was so impressed that she commissioned Guettel and Landau to write Floyd Collins, a musical based on a true story from 1925. Floyd Collins, a Kentucky man who dreamed of finding a cave that would become a famous tourist attraction, became trapped in a cave and died, after 15 days underground. Guettel explored this man's suffering as well as the media circus that resulted from it.

The musical received critical acclaim. In TCI, David Barbour wrote that Guettel and Landau's presentation of Collins's plight "takes on a spiritual quality" and has "lyrical beauty," but it also "probes deeper, becoming an exploration of love and friendship, the bonds of family, and the search for meaning even in the face of untimely death."

During his late twenties, Guettel lost some focus in his life; he had been suffering from addictions to drugs and alcohol since his college years, and was also filled with self-doubt. In addition, he was daunted by the fact that by the time his grandfather Richard Rodgers was 29, he had become one of the most popular songwriters in the world: this was a difficult legacy to live up to.

When Guettel himself turned 29, he became interested in the astrological notion that people's lives can change every 29 years. At the same time, he found a Protestant hymnal from 1886 in a used bookstore and became fascinated with the hymns and with the faith of the people who wrote and sang them. These experiences inspired him to begin working on Myths and Hymns, a song cycle that he described to Steve Cohen in Playbill as "a flight from and return to the self." The compositions examined his life, in music and in words, as well as what he had accomplished until then, using the imagery of both Christian and Classical myths. In Time, Teachout noted that Guettel mingles these world views "to complex, unsettling effect."

Guettel received wide acclaim for his next work, The Light in the Piazza. In this musical, a young American woman spends the summer of 1958 in Florence, Italy, with her rich and protective mother. Although her mother cautions her to beware of charming Italian men, she falls in love with a handsome Italian stranger and, after various tribulations, marries him. Guettel and his cowriter, the playwright Craig Lucas, described the musical as "old-fashioned," according to Savran, who noted, however, that the show is not simplistic; the writers "use the fairy-tale plot to focus on the deeply ambivalent emotions" aroused in the mother, Margaret, when her daughter falls in love with the handsome Italian. Margaret knows a painful secret: that her daughter's mental development ended when she suffered a head injury in an accident at age 12. Thus, Margaret must deal with her own sense of guilt, anxiety, and disappointment over her daughter's life. Savran commented that the writers "dramatize the emotional and moral complexities of this story with startling richness and subtlety," and noted, "Even the happy ending remains slightly off-kilter, posing as many questions as it answers." In Entertainment Weekly, Scott Brown wrote that the musical has "sublime emotional honesty." Guettel won the 2005 Drama Desk awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration for The Light in the Piazza.

Guettel enjoys collaborating with other writers and musicians. He told Savran, "I would not want to be in this field if I had to do it myself. I would love to open my life up even more to collaborators." He also noted that his creative life goes through ups and downs: "Three of four times, after a period of high exposure and accolade, I have had a period of anguished paralysis and fear. And only by feeling forgotten do I find myself again and start to really focus and work."

For the Record . . .

Born Adam Guettel in 1965 in New York City; son of Mary Rodgers (a composer) and Henry Guettel (a film executive). Education: Graduated from Yale Univer sity, 1987.

Studied music and theater at Yale University; wrote mu sical version of The Christmas Carol, which was per formed in Providence, RI, 1991; wrote musical Floyd Collins, 1996; wrote Myths and Hymns, 1998; wrote The Light in the Piazza, 2005.

Awards: Obie Award for Floyd Collins, 1996; Lucille Lortel Award, 1996; ASCAP New Horizons Award, 1997; Ucross Foundation Residency, 2000; Drama Desk Awards for Best Orchestration and Best Original Score, 2005.

Addresses: Agent—William Morris Agency, 1325 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.

Selected discography

Floyd Collins (1996 Original Off-Broadway Cast), Nonesuch, 1997.

Myths and Hymns (1998 Off-Broadway Cast), Nonesuch, 1999.

The Light in the Piazza (2005 Original Broadway Cast), Nonesuch, 2005

Sources

Periodicals

American Theatre, February 2000, p. 18; January 2004, p. 26.

Back Stage, December 15, 2000, p. 39.

Entertainment Weekly, May 20, 2005, p. 83.

New York Times, June 6, 2005, p. E7.

TCI, May 1996, p. 62.

Time, May 17, 1999, p. 90.

Variety, July 9, 1999, p. 35; May 2, 2005, p. 79.

Online

"An Interview with Adam Guettel," Talkin Broadway,http://www.talkinbroadway.com/regional/boston/boston5.html (June 23, 2005).

"From Floyd to Florence, with Saturn in Between: Adam Guettel Keeps Changing Chords," Playbill,http://www.playbill.com/features/article/64898.html (June 23, 2005).

—Kelly Winters

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