Thursday, June 02, 2005

. . . And on Broadway

As the relatively high number of musical theater songs that have made their way into each Friday's Friday Shuffle would indicate, I am something of a musical theater buff, albeit one who rarely, these days, actually gets to see new musical theater productions. So it is that I am a huge fan of composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, even without having seen any of his plays. Through the cast albums of Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns I have fallen in love with Guettel's voice as a composer. His is a distinctive voice, less overtly theatrical than some of his peers', and yet still, at times rhapsodic and melodic. Listen to "How Glory Goes," from Floyd Collins, or "Migratory V," from Myths and Hymns for examples of some of the most gorgeous melodic writing of the last ten years.

Guettel's new score, for The Light in the Piazza is being heard on Broadway now, although it is unlikely that I'll get to see it. But I do have the original cast album, and have since it was released a little over a week ago. I've been listening to it pretty much nonstop since then and can now heartily recommend it. In the odd place one can hear distinct echoes of favored guitar-based rhythmic impulses or intervals from Guettel's two earlier scores, but on the whole this score is very much of itself. Intensely romantic in places, with strings dominating throughout, Guettel has composed a beautiful theater piece here, full of melody.

The rap agains the "new generation" of theater composers, writers like Micheael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jeanine Tesori, and Jason Robert Brown, is that they don't write melodies like the grand composers of old (or in Guettel's case, like his grandfather, Richard Rodgers). While it's true that they don't typically write "songs" in the classic sense, the notion that they have abandoned melody is largely nonsense. Listen to the title track here. Or the remarkable melancholy of "Dividing Day." Or the giddy romance of "Say It Somehow." There's melody to spare.

A careful examination of the liner notes reveals that Guettel himself plays guitar on two of the tracks. This, upon refelection, is not surprising--one can hear distinct clues throughout this and his other scores that Guettel thinks in guitar terms, much as it's clear form his work that Jason Robert Brown thinks in piano terms. The mode works for this show, lending a sprightly, plucky feeling to some of the more upbeat numbers and a quiet calm to the more downbeat numbers. And yet when in full-on romantic mode, the writing is appropriately lush and smooth, making full use of the strings and harp. No matter what mood each piece is going for, though, all work very well as a piece--this is a very well-unified score, and I've no doubt that more musically savvy commentators will find evidence of repeated motifs, intervals and chord progressions that tie the whiole thing together.

Now, as much as I like Guettel, I do find his lyrics to be a little lacking. Guettel, maybe more than his peers, seems to compose sometimes almost in a pop, if a strikingly sophisticated pop, mode (witness much of Myths and Hymns and the copious guitar work in Floyd Collins). And his lyrics sometimes echo this form--less specific andc concrete than lyrical and poetic. While I do believe that musical theater can accommodate slightly more esoteric musical modes, as this new crop of writers has, to my mind, ably shown, lyrically I feel that there does need to be a literalness that pop most certainly doesn't need. As a result, a lot of the lyrics here feel mushy, and don't seem to carry the weight they should in terms of telling the story.

It's a little ironic, actually; as "modern" as Guettel can be, this mode of writing lyrics that are far less specific to the story and more general is actually old. The classic songwriters--Gershwin, Porter, Berlin--wrote many songs that could easily be pulled from the shows they originated in and performed just as a stand-alone song, and, indeed, that's how much of the American songbook of standards came about. It was with Rodgers and Hammerstein and those that followed them that we saw lyrics typically much more specific and story-based. In any event, this stylistic choice of Guettel's does make the story hard to follow on disc. And Nonesuch hasn't helped matters any by neglecting to include a plot synopsis in the booklet that comes with the CD, instead directing the curious listener to their website.

But these are minor quibbles. By and large, this is a beautiful score, wonderfully performed, and a happy addition to the slight Guettel canon. Considering that Myths and Hymns, his previous score, is over six years old, let's hope that the next addition to that canon comes soon.

Until Whenever

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