Saturday, February 23, 2013

Adam Guettel at 54 Below: Worshiping in the Church of Guettel

When Steven Pasquale reached for the last note of Il Mondo Era Vuoto from The Light in the Piazza during Adam Guettel's 54 Below concert on Friday night, the entire audience audibly exhaled--as if to give up their own oxygen so that Pasquale could push through for the final thrust of emotion.  The
audience seemed unified in awe.  To stop breathing was a small sacrifice to make to hear something as beautiful and shattering as that.  I was not sure if I blacked out for a moment overwhelmed with what I was feeling or if the lights actually dimmed because Pasquale was pulling the power he needed from them.   Maybe a little of both.  It was the rare moment where you know without a doubt you are experiencing something historic and momentous.  There was a moment of silence between Pasquale's finale and the applause--I know I was too stunned to move.  But the applause came loudly and enthusiastically.  And rightfully so.

Adam Guettel said he had not performed a show live since 1999 (though he occasionally would make bad one off appearances without preparation or rehearsal) so this week's polished and rehearsed cabaret at 54 Below was special. I might have been the rare Guettel virgin in the esteemed crowd which was made up of a musical theater legends--Mary Rodgers Guettel (naturally), Stephen Schwartz, David Yazbek, Jason Robert Brown. The Friday night show was largely structured around each show (Guettel said he had changed the set list order from other nights).  Segments from Floyd Collins, The Light in the Piazza and Myths and Hymns were interspersed with a few songs from his new shows Millions (based on the Danny Boyle film of the same name) and his adaptation of The Days of Wine and Roses.

For those who are curious, this was the set list on Friday for the 8:30pm show:
Daybreak (Floyd Collins) (Guettel, Pasquale)
Baby Moon (Bashor)
Hero and Leander  (Myths and Hymns) (Pasquale)
Find Me (Millions) (Guettel)
Feel for This (Millions) (Guettel)
Saint Who (Millions) (Guettel, Pasquale, Bashor)
Ballad of Floyd Collins (Floyd Collins) (Guettel)
The Riddle Song (Floyd Collins) (Guettel, Pasquale)
Days of Wine and Roses Song
Il Mondo Era Vuoto (Piazza) (Pasquale)
The Light in the Piazza (Piazza) (Bashor)
Say It Somehow (Piazza) (Pasquale, Bashor)
Finale (Millions) (Guettel, Pasquale, Bashor)
How Glory Goes (Floyd Collins) (Guettel)
Encore: Awaiting You (Myths and Hymns) (Guettel)

I had long heard of the cult-like worship of Adam Guettel--a talented but tortured composer and lyricist. But listening to the cast recording of The Light in the Piazza recently I did not feel what I felt listening to the music live. 

It's easy to get lost in Kelli O'Hara making things sound effortless on a cast recording (she makes everything sound effortless damn her perfect perfectness). But seeing the band and singers push, pull, and strive to get hold of the muscular and dynamic Guettel music was what I needed to appreciate what he does.  Unlike Sondheim who seemingly works from the head, and on occasion, his intellectualism can be emotional, Guettel for me was working from that place deep in your guts where you hide your fears and anxiety.   My notes from the concert are all comments of extreme physical violence--feeling like I was being drowned, dragged to the bottom of the ocean. Grabbed deep from within like someone was operating on my organs without my permission.  I mean these things in a good way. 

It's not that music is not beautiful--it is. And it can be lyrically complex--The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins in particular and he even manages to squeeze the word transmogrify into the lyrics of his new show Millions. But I wasn't crying I was filled with butterflies of expectation and tangible anxiety.  The work is elegant, clear, and powerful, but downright scary at times--like maybe we won't all make it through.  I had a moment thinking that Steven Pasquale might burn down the joint with his voice--but what a way to go. 

In his nervous between song chitchat Guettel explained the themes of Floyd Collins--is there nobility in failure--and Piazza--not everyone finds love and what if I don't.  There is certainly darkness in these works but the fearlessness of where to go with it musically is what makes it unique. He does not shy away from pushing the music to challenging and extreme places.  But it was not all seriousness.  Guettel called Steven Pasquale a "chocolate bar of a person" and exclaimed early on "God he's a good singer."  He joked that they don't make musical theater for the money or for the "incredible respect we get from the hip-hop community."  He also called Floyd Collins, the show about a miner trapped underground, "a perfect family show...and it sold like one." 

Pasquale was a charming and effervescent Homer in the scenes from Floyd Collins and did a gorgeous rendition of Hero and Leander.  Having seen him in Far from Heaven this past summer at Williamstown (that show is scheduled to come to Playwrights Horizons this spring with Pasquale in it) I knew he had a rich and beautiful voice. But his convincing and committed performances really sold the Guettel songs.  I am sorry to hear that Pasquale's new TV was cancelled but I hope this means we'll get to see more of him singing on stage in New York (If you need more convincing to fall for Steven Pasquale check out this funny interview with him).  Whitney Bashor had the challenge of singing the song Guettel wrote for Audra McDonald, Baby Moon and the title song from Piazza but she did a lovely job.  Guettel might not have Pasquale's voice but his intense performance of Find Me and How Glory Goes made me glad I got to see him exploring the depths of his own work.

I went in not knowing what I was to experience at an Adam Guettel show.  I walked out an acolyte in the Church of Guettel.

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